The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As stakes rise in Nia Wilson case, simmering racial tensions intensify in Oakland

Jasmine Malone, 23, holds a sign at a July 23, 2018, vigil for 18-year-old Nia Wilson, who was stabbed to death the night before at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland, Calif. (Lorin Eleni Gill/AP)

OAKLAND, Calif. — It has been a hard, confusing summer for this city on the far side of the bay, a season defined by racial conflict, provocation and the brazen slaying of a young black woman in a most public place.

Nia Wilson was 18 years old on the Sunday evening in late July when, returning home, she was stabbed in the neck on the platform of a Bay Area Rapid Transit train. Her 26-year-old sister, Lahtifa, was badly wounded in the attack.

The suspect, John Lee Cowell, is a felon who has been in and out of California’s prisons for much of his life. He is 27 and, his family says, a diagnosed schizophrenic. But the most salient fact for many here, especially Oakland’s African American minority, is that Cowell is white and the Wilson sisters are black.

The case has bundled together the sparking ends of several strands of Oakland’s civic life, a historic cradle of black political power that has been steadily losing its black population to the spiking cost of living in this rapidly gentrifying city.

Nia Wilson, 18, was brutally stabbed to death on the MacArthur BART Station platform in Oakland on July 22. It's the third death in one week on the BART train. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Bay Area Rapid Transit police in Oakland have found no tangible evidence of racial motivation behind Wilson’s death. But a dismayed African American community is demanding that the case be treated as a hate crime. In the absence of that evidence, the Alameda County district attorney enhanced the charges against Cowell this week, forming a case that could subject him to the death penalty if convicted, according to local news reports.

The movement to have the case tried as a hate crime has brought election-year pressure to the city’s political class. Oakland’s white elected leaders are considering changing the legal definition of a racially motivated killing, lowering the threshold of evidence needed to bring such charges.

“It raises the question about our legal system and how we apply the rules of evidence,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf (D), who is white and was born in the city. “It may be time to recognize that if there is no explicit racial bias, but there is implicit racial bias, then maybe the burden of proof should shift to the defense.”

The stakes around the case have been mounting. Wilson’s family recently filed a claim against Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for not protecting the Wilson sisters. And on Wednesday, prosecutors said they added a special circumstance of “lying in wait” to Cowell’s murder charge, an allegation used when a suspect watches a victim for a period of time immediately before killing the person. Prosecutors did not explain why they enhanced the charge or whether they would seek the death penalty if Cowell is convicted.

No city in the country has a richer legacy of modern resistance than this one, whose activist roots predate those of its more glamorous cross-Bay cousin, San Francisco.

Oakland’s African American community has been the traditional source of the city’s activism. The Black Panther Party emerged here in the early 1960s in response to police violence, still a primary concern today. Social justice activist Ron Dellums, who died last month, ran the city after representing Oakland in Congress for nearly three decades.

But Oakland’s black population is being squeezed by the same economic forces that have propelled an African American exodus from much of the Bay Area. A community that once made up nearly half of Oakland’s population now accounts for barely a third — and its political power has diminished accordingly.

“The torch has been passed on to us,” said Pamela Price, a black civil rights lawyer who recently ran unsuccessfully for Alameda County district attorney. “But the forces that want to blow out the torch are more powerful than ever.”

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In May, a white woman confronted two African American men on a sunny afternoon as they barbecued along the shores of Lake Merritt, a public place known as Oakland’s collective backyard. Calling it “my park,” she complained that the men were outside the designated areas where charcoal grills were permitted.

She called the police — and the phrase “barbecuing while black” was born.

The incident, captured by cellphone video, brought hundreds of people to Lake Merritt a little more than a week later for a “barbecue-in” against racism. There were T-shirts featuring “BBQ Becky,” as the woman became known.

And there were others reading simply “Gentrification,” a phrase that has come to signal both the ongoing renovation of Oakland neighborhoods and the accompanying cost-of-living increase that has made the city a difficult place to remain for many raised here.

Demographic projections forecast that the quickening black exodus — mirroring a similar pattern in San Francisco — could result in African Americans making up only 16 percent of Oakland’s population a decade from now.

“We’re in a moment of unprecedented awareness and outrage, made worse by the pronouncements of our president,” said Schaaf, who is seeking a second term in November.

The word Schaaf most often uses to describe her government’s approach to social issues is “vanguard.”

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“What you see as racial tension, I see as honesty,” said Schaaf, who has begun issuing regular reports on the “equity” imbalance between the city’s races in education, economic opportunity, health-care access and contact with the criminal justice system.

Alameda County, which includes Oakland, had an opportunity in June to choose a more liberal district attorney — Pamela Price — who was backed by $1 million from billionaire George Soros.

Price, who has practiced law here for three decades, ran for the office on a platform that pledged to no longer prosecute “minor” property crimes. She lost by 20 points to incumbent Nancy O’Malley, who was backed by public safety unions from around the state. The returns showed that white, gentrifying Oakland supported O’Malley, while black and Latino communities voted for Price.

“There was a concerted effort to frighten people about my candidacy,” said Price, who is now challenging Schaaf for mayor. “And that can be seen in this stark racial divide of the vote.”

Price said more attention should be paid to economic disparity that has been exacerbated by the high-end development remaking west Oakland and its downtown. Many African Americans are now living farther from where they want to be.

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BART, which has an inconsistent record of protecting riders, is often the only option for young women like Wilson who cannot afford cars or Uber rides to get around, making them particularly vulnerable to violence. Her death was the third connected to violence on the BART system in less than a week, all of them unrelated.

“The growing economic inequality is really a worrying overlay on what I also believe are worsening racial tensions,” Price said. “Oakland was once far more diverse, the economic opportunity was greater for young local business owners. With the changes underway, Oakland is going the same way the country is going.”

Heading south from downtown, past the industrial scrubland of Fruitvale, then up 66th Avenue with the Raiders and Warriors arenas alongside, you eventually reach Acts Full Gospel Church.

It is a vast building, white with blue trim. The architecture more closely resembles a warehouse than a cathedral, but it is full of song on a recent Friday morning as friends and family members filed past a white casket holding the body of a once-curious, selfie-taking, poetry-writing young woman who wanted to join the Navy after finishing her high school coursework at Dewey Academy.

“We stand with you in remembering the life of a brilliant and beautiful young black woman,” Rep. Barbara Lee, the Democrat who represents this city, told the hundreds of mourners gathered for Wilson’s memorial service. “We also stand with you in demanding justice. . . . Enough is enough — in her memory and in her honor.”

Young women wore jackets and T-shirts displaying the soft airbrushed image of Wilson’s face. Homemade signs called for justice.

Young men wore shirts that demanded “Stop BART Violence,” an echo from the past. In 2009, a white police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant at BART’s Fruitvale Station, four stops from where Wilson was killed last month.

Princess Zulu, 20, knew Wilson at Oakland High School, where the two were on the same cheer squad. A sign hung from a white yarn loop around her neck. On it were pasted pictures of the two girls leaping side by side in cheer uniforms, waving pompoms.

Zulu is a student at Merritt College, a two-year school where Black Panther co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale met more than half a century earlier. She, like the hundreds of others gathered to mourn Wilson, believes race was behind the killing.

“I want the dude who did this taken care of — I don’t want him alive,” Zulu said. “I loved her, and I’ll never see her again.”

Cowell jumped the fare gate that night and, for several stops, tracked the Wilsons before attacking them with a knife, police said.

“It was racism,” said Angela Smith, Nia’s godmother, crying quietly after the service. “I want justice, and not just for Nia, but for both Wilson sisters. And if they don’t bring it, then we are going to get it.”

Mourners gathered to say a final farewell to Nia Wilson, the 18-year-old woman who was fatally stabbed to death on a BART Station platform in Oakland July 22. (Video: Reuters)

In the aftermath of the killing, Schaaf gathered Wilson’s family, black clergy, police investigators and prosecutors for meetings that included discussions of what would be needed to charge Cowell with a hate crime.

There is no record of Cowell belonging to a white supremacist group. But the mayor and others have told police to examine his time in prison for connections to prominent gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood.

As mourners remembered Wilson in the city’s south, vendors set up a weekly farmers market along Ninth Street in Old Oakland, about half a dozen miles north of the church.

The historic downtown has been made in recent years into a mix of farm-to-table restaurants, locally owned boutiques and wine bars that are standing room only after work. “Oakland — The University of Resistance,” read the T-shirts for sale in one radical-chic shop window.

An acoustic guitar and flute duo played as the crowd, predominantly white, shopped for fresh mushrooms, mountain blueberries, bee honey and sweet corn. This was new Oakland, far from Fruitvale and 66th Avenue.

But there are similar concerns.

“Black women are not protected enough, and do not have the same economic opportunities, and that’s why she was on BART and I’m not,” said Amy Fourrier, 27, a white social-sector consultant strolling through the market with a friend.

She said social media has brought more recent racial conflicts to public attention. But she added that “people have been unhappy for a long time.” And when white progressives in Oakland had a chance to vote for Price, she said, they did not.

“People may say they care a little more now because of Trump,” Fourrier said. “I don’t know. Not much seems to be changing.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to specify that Bay Area Rapid Transit police in Oakland are investigating Nia Wilson’s death.