Say Nia’s name — and stand up to racist hate

July 25, 2018

Nicole Colson reports on the eruption of grief and protest after the murder of a teen in Oakland, with reporting from Ann Coleman, Ragina Johnson and Alex Schmaus.

“I WANT justice for my daughter. Please help me get justice for my daughter.”

That was the tearful message of Ansar Mohammed, the father of Nia Wilson, who was slashed to death by a racist killer in an Oakland public transit station.

“I work at Highland Hospital,” Mohammed said. “I see this every single day, but I never imagined myself going through nothing like this. That’s my baby girl up there,” he added, referring to the hospital room where a second daughter, Letifah Wilson, was recovering from injuries.

Eighteen-year-old Nia had her throat cut on her way home from a family gathering after a man — later arrested and identified as John Cowell — followed her and her two sisters off a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train and into the MacArthur station in Oakland. Nia’s 26-year-old sister Letifah was severely injured, but survived what BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas called “an unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious attack.”

“We’re gonna get through this, I got you,” Letifah said she told her little sister as she lay dying in the MacArthur station.

Protesters demand justice for Nia Wilson in Oakland, California
Protesters demand justice for Nia Wilson in Oakland, California (Rasheed Shabazz |

Nia had just graduated Oakland High School. She wanted to be a “lawyer or do something in criminal justice,” according to her family.

Nia’s high school friends and other members of the Oakland community were in shock. But in addition to the grief, there was anger — at a brutal assault on three sisters and at the larger climate of racism and violence that most everyone believes contributed to it.

On July 23, more than 1,000 protesters took to the streets of Oakland to #SayHerName — repurposing the slogan used to draw attention to the Black female victims of racist police violence — and stand up to racist hate.

Whether or not Cowell is discovered to have definite ties to the right wing or white supremacists, his attack on the Wilson sisters can’t be separated from the vile rhetoric of right-wing politicians, not least the president of the United States.

And it comes just a few weeks before far-right organizations — which are attempting to regroup and rebuild their ranks a year after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was murdered — plan to strut through the streets of Berkeley, California, on August 5.

The need to organize the largest possible opposition to challenge the racists couldn’t be more urgent.

“BAY AREA Stands Against Hate and White Supremacy for Solidarity, Justice and Dignity” read a large red banner at a protest for Nia Wilson held outside of Make Westing, an Oakland bar at 18th Street and Telegraph Avenue.

Activists had discovered that the “Proud Boys,” a violent, far-right group, planned to meet at the Make Westing on the evening of July 23 and were determined not to let them go unopposed.

Nia’s murder and the increased confidence of the Proud Boys shouldn’t be separated from the rise in hate crimes documented by the California Attorney General’s office for a third straight year — a 44 percent increase since 2014. More than a quarter of the hate crimes in California in 2017 were directed against African Americans.

Before the past three years, there were six years of steady declines in reported hate crimes. Latinos have been particular targets lately, according to the California Attorney General, with a more than 50 percent rise from 2016 to 2017 — not at all surprising given the scapegoating of immigrants by Trump and other politicians.

“I think people, particularly with bigots, they are now more emboldened, and we are seeing this across a spectrum of data points,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, told the Los Angeles Times.

The same statistical trends — and deadly consequences — are clear nationally.

In Florida on July 19, an African American man was killed in a dispute over parking in a handicapped space. Markeis McGlockton was shot and killed in front of his girlfriend and three young children. But his killer won’t face any charges, because authorities consider it justified under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

And on July 21, Chad Merrill, who is white, was murdered outside a bar in Lower Windsor Township, Pennsylvania, after he defended a Black man who was being subjected to racist slurs by another patron.

For many people, the murder of Nia Wilson was reminiscent of the May 2017 knife attack in Portland, Oregon, by white nationalist Jeremy Joseph Christian, who fatally stabbed Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and badly wounded Micah David-Cole Fletcher, after the three men stood up to Christian’s racist, anti-Muslim abuse of two teenage women on a commuter train.

As the International Socialist Organization wrote in a statement, such attacks:

are not random events. They are political acts. This is terrorism, committed by those who feel confident to act on their racist and reactionary views...At a time when the president of the United States calls for banning Muslims from entering the U.S., while gutting civil rights protections and deporting immigrants en masse, it’s little wonder that the far right feels emboldened — and that some white supremacists act on their threats...

THE BEST defense against this horrific violence — especially the far-right thugs who organize and inflict it — is to unite in solidarity.

In Oakland, residents sprang into action to make connection between the climate of racist bigotry and its real-world consequences — and to underline the necessity of opposing the far right.

When it found out that the Proud Boys planned to meet, the Make Westing bar joined others in a call for a “pro-Oakland movement” to raise funds for causes including Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and the Transgender Law Center.

“Those of us at Make Westing stand united with our community to say: Racists, Fascists, and the Alt-Right are NOT welcome in our establishment,” a Facebook post from the bar read.

The crowd that gathered outside Make Westing on July 23 included anti-racist and anti-fascist activists, members of left organizations and even members of the East Bay Rats motorcycle club. But many were unaffiliated. They wanted to express their horror at Nia Wilson’s murder and the racists who would attempt to exploit such a tragedy.

Evan, a bar manager at Make Westing, told that he felt that he had three options when it was discovered that the Proud Boys had chosen to meet at the bar.

He could have let them in, he said, but he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he served a Nazi. He could have closed the bar, but that would have felt like a win for the far right. Or, he said, could keep the bar open, invite the community in, and post himself at the door, prepared to enforce a declared ban on racists and fascists.

Evan chose the third option, despite receiving a death threat over the phone that morning.

That same night, 1,000 people — mainly African American — gathered at the MacArthur BART station for a demonstration initiated by the Anti-Police Terror Project. “We demand that our city officials take a loud and public stand against white supremacy,” read the call for the rally. “Hate Speech is NOT Free Speech."

Long before the vigil was scheduled to begin, a crowd began to grow around the makeshift memorial at the station. After an hour, the call was made to march. “We are taking the streets,” said an organizer, “because there is no one in the city of Oakland who should not be talking about Nia Wilson.”

Mayoral candidate Cat Brooks spoke, along with City Council members Desley Brooks and Rebecca Kaplan. A large portion of the crowd then marched two miles down Telegraph Avenue, led by a sound truck and Nia Wilson’s godfather Daryle Allums, to eventually merge with the several hundred people gathered at Make Westing.

As the solemn and angry crowd swelled, a short speak-out was led by Brooks and Tur-Ha Ak of the Anti-Police Terror Project.

Soon afterward, a group of far-right goons, possibly members of the “Proud Boys,” walked through the edge of the crowd, attempting to provoke physical confrontations. Dozens of anti-racist protesters chased them out — they were only saved by police intervention.

In response, the police reportedly attacked several anti-racist activists. As Forrest Schmidt, a member of Community Ready Core Allies and Accomplices, wrote on social media, the police “came in hard and dangerous. They made it easy to get hurt. They rescued Nazis then unleashed payback. The look of fury and joy at the prospect of getting to hurt unruly Black bodies was palpable.”

AS JOURNALIST Shaun King wrote, the violence perpetrated against the Wilson sisters can’t be separated from the wider racism in society — and the media’s coverage was a case in point.

Some in the press chose to illustrate stories about Nia’s death with a picture of her holding a cell phone case with a handle in the shape of a gun. “Even in death,” King pointed out, “local news media finds a way to demean us.”

Noting the group of Proud Boys who turned out in Oakland after Nia’s murder, King added, “How cruel, how evil, how heartless, how crass, how foul do you have to be, how rotten must you be from the inside out, how dry and dead must your soul be — to have the idea that you want to interrupt grieving people and demean them the day after their loved one was murdered?”

The racist attack on Nia Wilson and her sisters could be a watershed moment — like after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, when the left united to organize protests and vigils around the country, including large mobilizations in Boston and the Bay Area that stopped the far right from continuing their reign of terror with more rallies.

The attempt of the Proud Boys to meet in Oakland is a precursor to a planned rally — called “No to Marxism in America 2“ — being organized for August 5 in Berkeley by a collection of far-right groups.

The white supremacists are mobilizing from across the Western U.S. to descend on Berkeley — and to attend a “Freedom March” in Portland, Oregon, on August 4 initiated by Patriot Prayer, a far-right group that attacked counterdemonstrators in a coordinated assault just weeks ago.

Both events are being promoted by the right-wing media. Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson claims his storm troopers will bring two buses down to Berkeley from Portland. The Proud Boys claim to be mobilizing activists from as far away as British Columbia. Out-of-state goon squads from American Guard and Patriot Movement AZ also claim to be mobilizing.

The West Coast mobilization is planned for one week prior to the “White Civil Rights Rally” organized for August 12 in Washington, D.C. Jason Kessler, a main organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville one year ago says the August 12 demonstration will be an “anniversary” march.

We can’t be complacent or hope these sickening bigots will just go away. History has proven time and again that ignoring fascists and their ilk only allows them to grow stronger.

Our job must be to build the largest possible counterprotests — in Portland, in Berkeley, in Washington and around the country — to prevent more racist violence. We will say Nia’s name while we confront their violence.

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