clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The protests over Nia Wilson’s murder, explained

The murder was quickly swept up in a national discussion about race.

Nia Wilson, 18, was stabbed to death in an attack at a BART station in Oakland, California.
Nia Wilson, 18, was stabbed to death in an attack at a BART station in Oakland, California.

Nia Wilson, 18, and her sister, 26-year-old Lahtifa, were simply changing trains at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, California, on Sunday when it happened: A man suddenly approached them, stabbed Nia, and wounded Lahtifa. Nia was pronounced dead at the scene.

On Monday, John Lee Cowell, 27, was arrested for the attack, ending a one-day manhunt.

But the attack has remained in the news throughout the week as the public conversation has shifted to whether the attack — and the authorities’ purportedly slow response to it — was racially motivated.

To many people, the circumstances are obvious: Based on the reporting so far, Nia Wilson and her sister did nothing to provoke their attacker. Yet Cowell allegedly approached them and attacked anyway before running off. And since Cowell is white and Wilson is black, race has become the obvious motive in many people’s minds.

The situation was further inflamed because it took a day for police to catch the suspect, leading to protests in Oakland and other parts of California on Monday calling for justice.

Singer and Oakland native Kehlani captured much of the public sentiment in a tweet: “#BART manages to catch riders who haven’t paid ticket fair, young graffiti artists, you can catch a murderer. give her family some peace and get a murderous white supremecist off of oakland streets.”

The police, for their part, have said that they do not have any evidence that Cowell was racially motivated. “We don’t take anything off the table,” BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas said at a press conference. “While we don’t have any facts that suggest he is connected with any white supremacist group, we are going to explore all types of possibilities and options.”

A BART spokesperson also separately acknowledged some of the criticisms to the New York Times: “People are saying, ‘Why weren’t there officers there?’ There were two officers at that station, but it happened so quick. It all took 20 seconds.”

According to Rojas, officers were present at the train station platform in “maybe a minute,” but the attacker had fled by then.

Cowell’s family, meanwhile, released a statement on Tuesday claiming Cowell “was diagnosed with being bi-polar & schizophrenia” and “was living on the streets without the proper treatment.” Cowell also has a criminal record, including drugs, assault, and robbery, and was on parole for robbery at the time of Wilson’s murder.

There’s a reason, though, that this tragedy drew so much attention — there really is a solid amount of evidence that police are slower to respond to and solve murders in which black people are the victims. That racial disparity, along with other evidence of racial bias across America, lies in the background of the conversation over Wilson’s death, fueling distrust in authorities’ willingness and ability to respond to these kinds of killings.

As Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement, “Although investigators currently have no evidence to conclude that this tragedy was racially motivated or that the suspect was affiliated with any hate groups, the fact that his victims were both young African-American women stirs deep pain and palpable fear in all of us who acknowledge the reality that our country still suffers from a tragic and deeply racist history.”

There was a lot of concern police would neglect this murder

One of the key concerns here is that killers of black people are often treated differently — meaning, more leniently — than killers of white people. This was at the front of protesters’ minds as they called for justice, due to a real worry that the killer here would not be caught without more public attention going to the incident.

The statistics bear out the concern. Wesley Lowery, Kimbriell Kelly, and Steven Rich recently reported for the Washington Post, based on an analysis of killings over the past decade in 52 of the US’s largest cities: “Black victims, who accounted for the majority of homicides, were the least likely of any racial group to have their killings result in an arrest, The Post found. While police arrested someone in 63 percent of the killings of white victims, they did so in just 47 percent of those with black victims.”

As journalist Jill Leovy explained in her award-winning book Ghettoside, the racial disparity reflects a lack of resources going to solving murders, particularly in minority communities. Community distrust can also play a role, since it makes it harder for police to get cooperating witnesses needed to solve murders; in this way, community distrust and poor murder solve rates feed into each other — people are less likely to cooperate with police when they feel unprotected by the law, and police are less able to protect people without cooperation. All of this together leads to fewer arrests when black people are the victims.

The result is less trust in the police. This is on top of the distrust fostered by what many minority communities see as a mix of abuse and harassment — the police shootings in which black people are disproportionately the victim, the police stops over petty crimes and drugs, the US Department of Justice reports showing that police officers often see people in minority communities as “subhuman,” and so on.

Leovy explained: “Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”

So when police come in, it’s often in an abusive, abrasive manner that can lead to outright discrimination and excessive use of force. Meanwhile, police don’t appear to come in when they’re actually needed to solve the worst crimes. Black communities are both overpoliced and underpoliced, leading to greater distrust in law enforcement.

In the case of Nia Wilson’s death, the distrust led to protests. But this distrust has other, bigger consequences — helping explain the higher rates of violence in black communities, with, for example, black victims making up more than half of murders in the US in 2016 even as black people generally made up roughly 13 percent of the US population.

This is a reflection of a concept known as “legal cynicism”: When people don’t trust the law, they’re more likely to take the law into their own hands — and that can lead to violence. If someone thinks his family is under imminent threat, but doesn’t trust the police to protect them, then maybe he’ll take preemptive, perhaps deadly action on his own.

“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, previously told me. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”

Or, as Leovy put it in Ghettoside, “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”

This is part of the context through which a lot of people were skeptical that Nia Wilson’s killer would be caught if protests didn’t draw more public attention to the case.

Black victims are often treated as guilty

Shortly after Nia Wilson’s murder, local media outlet KTVU inflamed racial tensions further by showing a picture of Wilson holding what looked like a gun but was, reportedly, a gun-shaped cell phone case.

KTVU apologized for the incident. But it quickly drew a backlash because it seemed to portray the victim as guilty in some way — suggesting that she was somehow involved in violence. For black victims of killings, this is a portrayal that has popped up again and again.

We saw this, for example, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, when people circulated fake pictures of a man flashing gang signs and claiming it was Martin. And we saw it with the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, when the New York Times described Brown as “no angel.”

It’s a trend demonstrated in the research on race: The public and police are generally more likely to see black people as criminals and, therefore, perhaps more deserving of whatever happens to them.

A 2014 study, for example, found that people generally view black boys as older and less innocent starting at the age of 10. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, an author of the 2014 study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” Another study produced similar findings for black girls.

One series of studies, released last year, used various visual tests to see how people perceive the bodies of white and black men. The findings were consistent: When participants believed the man in the images was black, they generally saw the man as larger, more threatening, and potentially more harmful in an altercation than a white person. And they were more likely to say use of force was justified against the black men than against the white men.

And another study published in 2015 found people tend to associate what the authors call “black-sounding names,” like DeShawn and Jamal, with larger, more violent people than they do “white-sounding names,” like Connor and Garrett.

“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression, and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”

This is just a small sampling of the research, which has consistently found evidence of racial bias.

This is, again, part of the context behind the outrage over Nia Wilson’s death: There was a real concern that, without pressure from the public, the media and police may see Wilson as a deserving victim and sweep her murder under the rug.

It’s very difficult to prove a hate crime

Now that police have arrested a suspect, the next question is whether police will charge him with a hate crime. So far, Cowell has been charged with first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and theft, according to the New York Times. But not a hate crime.

For law enforcement, this gets to a particularly tricky part of the law: It’s hard to prosecute a hate crime.

A crime, like murder, can be elevated to a hate crime when law enforcement demonstrate that racism or some other act of hate motivated the act.

“It could be an act of trespassing or vandalism. It could be a violent crime, like rape or murder,” Jack Levin, an expert on hate crimes at Northeastern University, previously told me. “But when the motive involves targeting someone because of a difference, then it becomes a hate crime.”

An example: A man walks into a lesbian bar and attacks one of the women there. This attack would be considered assault and battery, maybe even attempted murder, under the law.

But would it be a hate crime? For prosecutors and police officers, there would be several factors to consider before pursuing hate crime charges: Did the attacker yell anti-gay or sexist slurs, or otherwise say anything explicitly anti-gay or sexist? Does the attacker have a history, perhaps on social media or in other writings, of homophobia or sexism? Did the attacker purposely target a lesbian bar, or was the location irrelevant to his actions?

Investigators would piece all of this together, building up evidence to decide if there’s enough to meet standards of proof for a hate crime charge and conviction. There’s no hard rule here, and whether something is deemed a hate crime can vary from officer to officer, prosecutor to prosecutor, judge to judge, or jury to jury. But generally, once there’s a certain threshold of evidence that the attack was motivated by hate, an otherwise run-of-the-mill crime can become a hate crime.

Targeting someone’s motive makes it difficult to actually prosecute hate crimes. After all, many criminals are not going to be dumb enough to blurt out their exact motives in the course of committing a crime.

“The problem is not all hate-mongers are stupid,” Levin said. “They may not let you know that they hate the members of a particular group. They may realize that they’re better off not voicing a racial slur or [putting] racist graffiti on a sidewalk or wall of a building.”

For investigators, this is always going to make it difficult to definitively prove that an act is a hate crime. So while they might be able to land a conviction for, say, assault in the example of a man attacking a lesbian bar, they may not be able to get convictions for a hate crime.

So far, police have said in Cowell’s case that they have not found proof that the attack is linked to racism. But the investigation is still early.

If police and prosecutors find proof the murder was motivated by race, it could validate what protesters are saying. But if they can’t uncover any evidence, that may leave a lot of people unsatisfied with the outcome of a trial — and may lead to more tensions over Nia Wilson’s death.