Faces, lowered and startled, gazed upon the photos, candles and flowers decorating the cold, cement floor outside MacArthur BART station Monday evening.
Items comprising the makeshift memorial were placed there to commemorate 18-year-old Nia Wilson, fatally stabbed at the station Sunday night by a stranger.
Wilson’s family, friends and community members gathered for a vigil, which, in turn, quickly morphed into a demonstration, as organizers chanted:
“No justice, no peace.”
At the time of the vigil, BART police had not yet captured 27-year-old suspect John Lee Cowell. News of Cowell’s arrest was announced by BART officials while the event was taking place, but took time to circulate through the hundreds gathered.
Ansar Muhammad, Nia Wilson’s father, told SFBay:
“This is tearing my family apart. Nia was my youngest … It’s nothing imaginable seeing your child on the BART platform with a yellow tarp over her body; that’s an image I will never forget for the rest of my life. I just want justice.”
Frustrations mounted over what many attendees felt had been a lack of urgency by BART police in handling the crime case.
Daryle Allums of the group “Stop Killing Our Kids” and the godfather of Nia Wilson, initiated a prayer circle, calling for peace and justice at the BART station.
As more people congregated outside the MacArthur station, community members handed out self-made “Wanted” signs depicting Cowell, and sporadically broke into more unified chants.
Beilal Chatila, an Oakland-based lawyer, said he was disappointed how some media outlets portrayed Wilson, referring to an image showing her posing with a gun-shaped phone case instead of all the other pictures “they could have chosen from.”
Chatila believes it was an attempt to demonize the victim because she was black, a criticism not rarely hailed on news media. Chatila said:
“I would say that there is a general feeling of this community being let down again.”
Cat Brooks, Oakland mayoral hopeful, echoed Chatila’s sentiment:
“If a black man had stabbed a white, little girl, he’d be in custody right now. We have to demand the same urgency when it comes to our children and our babies — and we have to keep the pressure on, but this energy cannot dissipate until there is justice for our baby.”
“I know we don’t know what the motivation was but I can’t ignore the fact … and I won’t not talk about the fact, that a black child was murdered by a white man. I will not stop talking about what happens to black female bodies in this city; we gotta talk about black girls and black women and black babies.”
Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland City Councilmember, also addressed the crowd:
“We know from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland and beyond that this is an ongoing injustice, and we must uplift those who have been subjected to violence — and we must uplift the voices for justice, [and] we will not tolerate black people being targeted and black lives being treated as less valuable.”
“We are fighting for the lives of this community, and we acknowledge, and know and must admit, so that we can fix it, black lives are not protected as much as white lives in this society.”
Soon after, Brooks encouraged attendees to join a march to downtown Oakland:
“There shouldn’t be anyone in the city [who] shouldn’t know Nia’s name, so we’ll march.”
Cowell allegedly stabbed Nia Wilson and her older sister, Lahtifa Wilson, 26, with a knife at the MacArthur BART station platform Sunday about 9:45 p.m., BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas said at a news conference Monday afternoon. Lahtifa Wilson survived the attack.
Rojas had no details on a potential motive for the crime upon the arrest of Cowell, but said, despite Cowell being white, there’s no indication at this time of this being racially motivated.
As demonstrators marched down Telegraph Avenue, some pierced their fists upward toward the twilight-kissed clouds. Brooks and other community members perched atop the back of a rented U-Haul pickup truck as a portable stereo led the marchers to Telegraph Avenue and 18th street.
Farah Amezcua, who joined the march in its latter stage, said it was important for her to show up:
“I wanted to … support people of color who are constantly targeted. I just wanted to be here and support and commemorate [Nia’s] life because it’s unfair what happened. They’re just bringing together the community, congregating … and realizing [that] we are here and we are taking charge of our space and we’re gonna keep each other safe.”
The march concluded with a moment of silence for Nia Wilson, followed by the last chant of the day:
“Say her name — Nia!”
Back at the MacArthur station, a dark sky replaced the nightfall. An eerie feeling of sadness, pain and suffering were palpable as incense fragranced the air. A mostly younger crowd remained. People lit candles and placed flowers on the pavement. Nia’s name stood illuminated in arranged tea lights.
Jewell Bachelor, a Bay Area educator, said:
“I just felt like I would be remiss if I didn’t honor this life because I work so much with black girls, and you do so much prevention work and there’s still so much evil out. It just really hurt to know that it could have been me. The difference between me and her is I wasn’t on BART, and that’s our only difference.”
“I was just thinking that it is so beautiful to see so many young people out here, honoring their mourning process in the most unapologetic, honest way. I know from how media portrays black and brown people … but I think it’s actually beautiful to see our people out here mourning in the ways that they know how to mourn … I’m just really grateful to see a lot of young people that just feel like my students coming out for their peer.”
Malika Harris, 25, an older sister of Nia Wilson, who had been at the MacArthur station earlier, returned to place a candle at one of the memorials and gazed at the other, newly added remembrances:
“It’s comforting that people care, and people want awareness and people want justice … it’s appreciated … but it’s not going to bring her back.”