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Defending Oakland, Remembering Nia Wilson

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There was nothing ordinary about Monday in Oakland, where anger and sadness, unity and violence converged. It was the senseless death of a young black woman. It was a community feeling threatened. It was different renditions of the same tired story the city is forced to tell, over and over again.

This is the story of tragedy and tension, peace and love – all swirling around in the same thick air on a hot summer afternoon.

Say Her Name

Her name was Nia Wilson.

Man holds sign during July 23, 2018 vigil that reads “Nia Wilson,” the name of the 18-year-old killed the night before, MacArthur BART station, Oakland, Calif. Photo by Nik Wojcik

She was doing nothing wrong while she and her sisters exited the BART train at MacArthur station Sunday night when she was suddenly attacked. The surveillance video depicts a gruesome scene where a man, believed to be John Lee Cowell, went after 18-year-old Nia Wilson and her 26-year-old sister Lahtifa Wilson with a knife. He slashed both sisters in the neck in what BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas told KTVU was a “prison-style attack.” Lahtifa was injured but survived, Nia did not. The suspect ran and changed clothes in the parking lot while Nia died on the platform despite attempts to save her.

By Monday morning, the shock of what happened was equal to the fear and anger caused by the suspect’s escape. A vigil was held at MacArthur BART station late Monday afternoon and in the background, the manhunt for her killer continued. About a thousand people showed up to hear speakers from the Anti Police-Terror Project and Community READY Corps. Daryle Allums, Nia Wilson’s godfather, encouraged the group of mourners and other supporters to “walk the walk,” to “stand up and fight back” and to organize in order to protect people of the community.

The vigil turned to unpermitted march as the emotional group took to Telegraph Avenue, traffic held at bay by lines of Oakland police officers. The vibe was resistant but peaceful, paced in speed and emotion by the likes of Cat Brooks and Ashley Yates. Yates urged protesters to look away from her at the mic and to each other, to get to know the people they stood with in that moment. Strangers introduced themselves, shook hands, gave hugs, shared smiles and some tears. Brooks, Yates and others pushed their vocal chords to breaking points with poorly functioning sound equipment, pleading with the crowd to remember why they were there: to “say her name!”

And the people responded. “Who are we fighting for? Nia Wilson! Who are we riding for? Nia Wilson!” Her name was spoken and heard through the duration of the nearly two-mile walk. Every house and business along the way heard her name. Every bystander who was encouraged to join the march heard her name. The chant reached a fever pitch as the group arrived at 18th Street and Telegraph Avenue. By then, her name was more like a war song – emotional catharsis. It was during that last stop that news spread about John Cowell’s arrest, who was caught and cuffed without incident at Pleasant Hill BART and booked into Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail.

At 7:30 p.m. things seemed to winding down peacefully, but that sense of calm was disturbed by the second part of Monday’s story.

Proud Boys and rumors

It was Friday when Make Westing called for a “Pro Oakland Movement” event to be held Monday in response to suggestions that Proud Boys were planning a meeting at the Uptown Oakland bar located at 18th Street and Telegraph Avenue, the same location where the Nia Wilson march ended. In their post, they referred to the organization as a “group of white racist nationalists notorious for violent confrontations across the country.” Several businesses along Telegraph were shuttered in fear of what might happen if the group actually showed up and many refused to serve them if they did. The row of locked doors and steel gates was an odd sight in the bright daylight. However, several that remained open joined forces with Make Westing and took donations to be given to charities such as “Black Lives Matter, The Transgender Law Center, ACLU, Planned Parenthood and others,” according to the Facebook post.

Charity donation sign at Make Westing in Oakland, Calif. July 23, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

Make Westing told us they caught wind of the meeting through a reddit thread; however, representatives for Bay Area Proud Boys adamantly denied any such plan and took offense to the suggestion they would hold a meeting the same day of Nia Wilson’s vigil.

In a direct Twitter message, the organization told us they “had no plans to attend any bars” Monday, that they only meet on Saturdays and don’t publicize details of their gatherings out of fear for their own safety and concern for backlash on bar owners.

They ended their message with the following statement:

“The notion that we would show up in Oakland to celebrate the tragic passing of a young lady, would not only be disgusting and not at all representative of our group’s values, it would be insane(.)”

The organization has been called a group of “white nationalists” by many, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Although the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified them as a hate group, organization members and founder Gavin McInness describe themselves as a multiracial group of male “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” Among other things, they vehemently oppose feminism and “racial guilt.” 

Their presence at rallies-turned-brawls over the past two years has earned them a reputation for violence, although they are quick to claim they only engage in altercations as self-defense. They may not have planned to meet in Oakland but the mere suggestion put community members on edge and the murder of Nia Wilson only intensified those feelings.

One woman, who declined to give her name, stood alone across the street from the bar’s entrance early in the day. She said she doesn’t frequent protests and rallies but was pulled to spend her day off standing in solidarity because of Nia, and because she was concerned that “white supremacists are supposedly here in the city.”

“I’ve been concerned but now it’s just a little more blatant and in your face,” the woman said. “It’s disturbing.”

Another tall white man dressed in black, who also chose not to provide his name, stood court on the sidewalk directly in front of Make Westing. His presence was a direct response to the rumors of a Proud Boys meeting. “I’m here to show the innocent people they’re targeting that they have support from other people,” the man said. “Because those assholes might look like me, but not everybody that looks like me is an asshole.”

A diverse crowd of approximately 1,000 marched to honor Nia Wilson in Oakland, Calif. July 23, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

That was the sentiment on the street and the backdrop for what happened next.

Shortly before 8 p.m., some of the people gathered in protest thought they spotted a group of Proud Boys and chased them down. A fight ensued until OPD broke it up and NBC Bay Area reports that police detained two men in connection with the altercation. At least one man assaulted was wearing an American flag shirt and camouflage shorts, but was left without shoes, although it’s difficult to determine from spotty cell phone video whether he was with the group chased. The Proud Boys have publicly refuted that any of their members were present.

Protesters and police clashed as the crowd shouted to “let them go,” referring to the two men in custody. Some reports on social media indicate police used tear gas while others suggest the explosions heard were caused by M80s thrown by protesters. Police backed off eventually and protesters dispersed.

Back at Make Westing, the fundraiser facilitated by a sliding-scale donation at the door raised approximately $10,000, although they were still tallying final numbers at the time they responded to our questions Tuesday.

The end and the beginning

What happened at the end of the day should in no way detract from the message and the love poured out in the hours before. The passionate pleas from Nia Wilson’s godfather should not be overshadowed by events he begged residents not to engage in. The Proud Boys may not have shown up or even started the reddit rumor but the perceived threat of their presence brought members of the community out in droves to defend their city, and the vast majority did so peacefully. Nia Wilson was taken too soon but if organizers have their way, her death will not be in vain and her name will never be forgotten.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.