Killing of Oakland woman fuels already rising racial tension in city

The death of the 18-year-old who was riding public transportation with her sister, who was also injured, has highlighted a delicate racial line being tread


The gruesome slaying of Nia Wilson, 18, has made race relations even more strained as tensions continues to rise in the troubled Oakland community.

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She was stabbed fatally by a white man on a BART platform last month, and her death has put into question the fragile relationship of blacks in the surrounding community who have spent the last few months defending their livelihood against white people, the Washington Post reports.  

From Jennifer Schulte, the white woman known pejoratively as “Barbecue Becky” causing a ruckus and disturbing a black family trying to grill in an Oakland park, to the threat of gentrification due to investors pricing blacks out of their neighborhoods, African-Americans. in Oakland say they feel like they are under fire and fighting an uphill battle.

“The growing economic inequality is really a worrying overlay on what I also believe are worsening racial tensions,” said Pamela Price, a black civil rights lawyer.

“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.”

Oakland activists have also been persistent about making their voices heard. They’ve demanded that the suspect in Wilson’s death, John Lee Cowell, 27, be charged with a hate crime for the murder of Wilson and the brutal attack on her sister Lahtifa. Wilson was stabbed in the neck and died.

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While prosecutors say there has been no direct evidence to prove that Cowell committed a hate crime, the pressure from community members did propel the Alameda County district attorney to add special charges against Cowell, who could now face the death penalty if convicted, according to news reports.

The special “lying in wait” charge means that a suspect waiting and anticipating for a period of time before attacking a victim.

Moreover, in an election year, Oakland politicians are promising to change the legal definition of a racially motivated killing and rewriting the requirements needed to bring charges and prove it’s a hate crime.

“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.”

Wilson’s family is also at odds with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and is suing the transit system saying it should have done more to prevent the stabbing suspect from coming into the Oakland station and attacking the two sisters.

The Washington Post reports that BART, has an inconsistent record of protecting riders. The Wilson sisters attack was the third violent incident reported that particular week, according to reports.