This past week, I was afraid to ride BART for the first time in my life.
I am currently teaching a 4-week class for First Pres Hayward, exploring immigrant justice from a Christian perspective, and I end my class after 9pm on Monday nights in Castro Valley.
Because Michael and I share a car, I usually have to take BART home. But after hearing about the senseless and tragic murder of Nia Wilson, a young black woman who was traveling on BART with her sister before being stabbed repeatedly and killed this past Sunday evening, I was terrified.
Nia Wilson was 18 years old. She was a young, black woman. She was killed by John lee Cowell, a 27-year old white male with a criminal record, who got away from the scene and wasn’t arrested until more than a day later. She was murdered in cold blood, on a BART platform. This violence happened in a public place- a place that should be safe and accessible for everyone.
But Nia Wilson was more than just a victim. She was the youngest of six sisters and two brothers. A recent high school graduate. Interested in becoming a paramedic or joining the military. A rapper and musician who made her own rap videos. Somebody who loved makeup and fashion. She was supposed to have a job interview this week, an interview she was so excited for that she kept it a surprise from her family.
Nia Wilson. Say her name. Remember her for her. Nia Wilson.
As we remember Nia Wilson, may we not forget that we still live in a world driven by white supremacy. Events like this are a reminder to me that the reality that white people experience day-to-day is vastly different from the reality that people of color, and particularly black folks, experience day-to-day.
For many white folks, this event is seen as an unfortunate and tragic act of violence. But it isn’t seen as a hate crime or even racially motivated without irrefutable evidence. Additionally, because Cowell is a white male, he is seen as an individual. Men like John Lee Cowell are not viewed as terrorists, or thugs, or even as criminals. Their names aren’t dragged through the mud. Their most incriminating photos aren’t plastered across every news station. Instead, they are seen as individuals struggling with with mental illness. While I don’t discount the very tangible effects of mental illness, the lens of whiteness frames perpetrators like Cowell as individual and irrational, not part of something more systemic and intentional.
On the other hand, for the Black community, as well as other communities of color, the murder of Nia Wilson is deeply triggering. With her murder coming alongside claims of the “Proud Boys” being in Oakland, her killing reminds us of the unrelenting violence towards bodies of color in our country, especially black and brown bodies. For black women more specifically, Nia Wilson’s death is a reminder of the vulnerability and peril that black women throughout history have faced, particularly at the hands of white men. As Malcom X prophetically noted: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
The events surrounding Nia Wilson’s death also bring up fear and distrust towards the police, who have historically been slower to respond to and solve murders in which black people are the victims. It makes us wonder, why did it take so long to find McCowell, who eventually was found in a BART station, just miles away, when BART police so easily and quickly catch black youth for not paying their fare or for tagging a station? Will there be true justice in this case?
Moreover, many have called out the actions of KTVU news, who broadcast a photo of Nia with something that looked like a gun (but was actually a cell phone case) after her murder. For many people of color, this type of character witch hunting goes hand in hand with the angering recognition that a white victim’s innocence will always be defended while a black victim’s innocence will always be questioned.
Ultimately, the death of Nia Wilson reminds us that white supremacy not only is an attack on the dignity, safety, and lives of people of color, but also an attack on the validity of their own experience.
So today, I mourn.
As someone who is now the mother of a daughter who is both fully Black and Korean, I mourn the loss of Nia Wilson. She had a name. She was somebody’s baby. She belonged to a family. She had a hope and a future. She had dreams and dignity. She was a gift to many, and that gift was stolen.
I also mourn the world that we live in. I mourn the impacts of white supremacy. I mourn a world that has created and used racial categories that continue wreaking violence and devastation on communities of color. I mourn the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational toll that the legacy of white supremacy has- both on white people and people of color. I mourn the loss of safe space, human connection, and even hope that comes when acts of violence like this occur.
And for all those I know who are living under the fear, anxiety, confusion, anger, frustration, and outrage caused by the weight of white supremacy in our world, I offer up this prayer:
FOR THE PROTECTION OF THE BODY (by Kenji Kuramitsu)
Holy God, Architect of Creation,
you breathed out the galaxies and the seas,
and every inch of the universe
from the webbing behind our ears
to the neuronsin our minds is ours.
In calling our world “very good”
you have called our bodies to be
living sacraments for you,
bringing justice to bear truth, in life and in death.
Teach us not to fear the unknown,
but to celebrate your life in our skin and bones
Guard our flesh from rubber bullets, tear gas
and piercing metal,
and protect us from being separated from our bodies
our temples of life,
that Jesus’ resurrected flesh may be alive in our midst.