There’s a lot of great stuff happening in Oakland right now. Just this week, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, two critically acclaimed movies set in Oakland by Oakland artists, were released. They are must-see. But there’s also bad things happening too, and the worst thing that happened this week is that two young Black women were attacked by a knife-wielding criminal at the MacArthur BART station. Nia Wilson died from injuries on the scene; here sister is in critical care, struggling to recover.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Nia Wilson’s killer, and there’s a lot of speculation about his motives. Two things we do know: He’s a white male, and it happened in public, on the BART platform. People have speculated that it was a hate crime. A racist group had called for a rally on that day in downtown Oakland, and some thought he might be connected. So far, there isn’t evidence that he’s participated in white supremacist activities, but whatever he is, he is definitely a violent misogynist, and his peaceful arrest are a reminder that white men are treated very differently than black men in the town. For context, a Black man was shit in the back by BART Police at another station just a couple of month’s ago, supposedly for resisting arrest.
I want to talk about another set of assumptions people might draw about this attack: that people with mental illnesses, particularly those who look poor or unsheltered, are violent, and that they should be excluded from the public sphere. Here’s why people might draw that conclusion. This attacker is assumed to be “crazy” because he attacked a stranger with a knife, and by appearances, he looked unwashed and grungy, at least in his many mug shots. There are a lot of unwashed, grungy people in Oakland. We have a huge homeless population, and we see them in public places like bus stops and BART stations. A conclusion people might draw is that if we can’t hide the people who are homeless, than we should avoid the public places where we see them.
I bring this up because I let my kids take public transportation quite a bit. I’e written about it HERE and HERE. My older son, who is only 14, rides BART, and I need him to take BART today. When I was considering this trip, I thought, more than I usually do, “Is it safe?”
I stopped myself and asked, “Why am I asking myself this now more than I usually do?” My son is white, and male, and not like Nia Wilson in any other way, except that he is someone’s child, and we worry about our children when they are out in the world without us. I decided that keeping my son off BART means giving in to fears about the other people who inhabit our public spaces, and that I needed to think critically about my assumptions.
For all I know, Nia Wilson’s killer is no more mentally ill than I am. He reportedly lives in Concord, CA, with his aunt. Applying stereotypes to him (homeless, mentally ill) as motive for his evil actions, has the effect of reinforcing the idea that people who are homeless and/or mentally ill commit more crimes, when there’s no evidence this is true. My children are no less (or more) safe today than they were two weeks ago.
The broader trends of crime on BART are actually much more troubling. There were two other murders on BART in the days preceding Nia Wilson’s death that went unreported. Today, I read that, despite a spate of robberies at Fruitvale station, BART police had not increased patrols or assigned an officer to the station full-time. So it may be the case that my children are less safe than I assumed they were, but it’s not because of one isolated incident about which we know very little. It’s because BART as a system needs to address crime better.
I worry that people will draw the wrong conclusions and stop taking public transportation. In fact, we need to do the opposite. We need to be present in the public spaces that we share in order to make them safer for the young women and men who need a way to navigate a larger world. Nia Wilson was scared of BART, according her mother. I hate that we live in a world where a young woman cannot feel safe using a community resource that we should all feel safe sharing. I’ll let my son ride BART today, and I will ride too. We all need to be looking out for one another, so that we don’t lose another person or this valuable public resource.