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Against Innocence

In the wake of Nia Wilson’s murder, it’s critical that calls for justice in response to anti-Black violence are not contingent upon appeals to white-approved notions of innocence and respectability.

Nia WilsonNia Wilson/Facebook

On the evening of Sunday, July 22, 18-year-old Nia Wilson was murdered by John Lee Cowell in a brutal knife attack at the MacArthur BART Station in Oakland, California. Her older sister, Lahtifa, was also injured in the attack but has since been released from the hospital. After the incident, Oakland musician Kehlani tweeted “#BART manages to catch riders who haven’t paid ticket fair [sic], young graffiti artists, you can catch a murderer. give her family some peace and get a murderous white supremecist [sic] off of oakland streets.” But because no formal white supremacist affiliation on Cowell’s part could be confirmed, law enforcement offered a narrative of the murder that was then parroted by much of the media—it was a tragic but ultimately “random” attack. After waiting over 17 hours, BART Police released the name and photograph of  Wilson’s killer; he was eventually peacefully apprehended at the Pleasant Hill BART Station because of multiple anonymous tips to law enforcement.

Members of Oakland’s Black community held a vigil commemorating her life on the Monday evening after Wilson’s murder. Friends and family celebrated her caring nature and generosity, her sense of humor, and her career aspirations in the field of criminal justice. By all accounts, Wilson was a beloved and ambitious young woman. A part of that same crowd walked 1.5 miles to Make Westing in downtown Oakland, a bar where white supremacists were planning to assemble that evening but never showed up.

But in a story about Wilson’s death, KTVU, an Oakland TV station, showed a photograph that in which she appeared to be holding a gun. It was actually a phone case, and after pressure from the National Association of Black Journalists, the Bay Area Black Journalists Association, and the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, station anchor Frank Somerville apologized for the “insensitive” mistake. 

Patterns of posthumous anti-Black character assassinations are as much about the image of the deceased as they are about continual media implications that murder befits the “crime” of noncapital criminal behavior (or Black existence itself). After the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, New York Times reporter John Eligon wrote that Brown “was no angel,” and that he struggled with drugs and alcohol and crime, listened to and wrote rap music, and “produc[ed] lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar.” (Nia Wilson, too, was a rapperEligon later apologized for his characterization of Brown.) So, our anti-racist organizing cannot consist of mobilizations around deaths that appeal to white imaginations, but rather a politic that unequivocally upholds the value of Black life.

Regardless of whether Nia was actually holding a gun, calls for justice in response to anti-Black violence cannot be contingent upon appeals to white-approved notions of innocence and respectability. Central to anti-capitalist and anti-racist struggles for justice are competing narratives about legitimate victimhood and deservingness. After 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was murdered by a police officer in April 2017, a parent of one of his teammates remarked: “He was not a thug. This shouldn’t happen to him.” The statement, of course, implies that it should happen to someone else.

In her essay “Against Innocence,” Jackie Wang, author of Carceral Capitalism, describes spatial organizations of the white imagination, and how “bodies that arouse feelings of fear, disgust, rage, guilt, or even discomfort must be made disposable and targeted for removal in order to secure a sense of safety for whites.” Certain spaces are constructed as existing outside of what is thinkable and knowable: “The media construction of urban ghettoes and prisons as ‘alternate universes’ marks them as zones of unintelligibility, faraway places that are removed from the everyday white experience.” Violence that occurs in those spaces is unintelligible, and even necessary for the maintenance of white safety and order. Like Oscar Grant, who was also murdered at a BART station (but by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle), Nia Wilson’s murder occurred in a space frequented by white people.

Prisons, however, serve as spaces where poor, racialized, queer and transgender, houseless, disabled, and other people considered undesirable can be “contained, controlled, and removed” and prevented from “contaminating white space.” The violence that occurs in prisons and other carceral spaces is multifaceted. It is, first and foremost, a physical violence that includes active violence and torture enacted by prison guards, violence through neglectful action and policy, and violence through withholding of resources (e.g. denying incarcerated people proper medication and medical treatment or forcing them to pay for care they may not be able to afford, the state’s substitution of mental health care for incarceration, the practice of shackling female prisoners during childbirth, the use of mentally torturous administrative segregation/solitary confinement, and so on). This violence all culminates into a social death that makes their mistreatment simultaneously invisible, acceptable, and necessary.

There is a complementary epistemic violence in the state’s monopolization of the legitimacy of narratives around imprisonment: that all people who are incarcerated deserve to be in prison, that carceral order and the suppression of incarcerated people must be maintained by any means necessary because it keeps us all safe. It makes sense, of course, that marginalized communities’ narratives of legitimate rejections of racial capitalist order must be suppressed and efforts quashed so the state can maintain its monopoly on legitimate uses of force. It is this anti-Black abjection—Black people, after all, are incarcerated at higher rates than whites—that leads white civilians to self-deputize and regulate Black use of public space by calling the police, as we have seen with #PermitPatty, #BBQBecky, and so many others.

Without fetishizing the communities most affected by this violence, marginalized frontline communities tend to best understand how to survive and resist state violence because of their intimate psychosocial and material relationship with these systems and institutions. Organized Black resistance and collective self-defense has posed a historical opposition to white supremacy—it is no wonder that the only gun control legislation enacted in the United States (and supported by the National Rifle Association), the 1967 Mulford Act, was passed by then California Governor Ronald Reagan in response to the Black Panther Party’s exercise of the Second Amendment.

Similarly, our abolitionist politics must be informed and led by the individuals most familiar with carceral structures: presently and formerly incarcerated people. Following January’s Operation PUSH, there has been a call for a nationwide prison strike from Aug. 21-Sept. 9 in response to the deadly violence at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina on April 15. The strike is bookended by momentous anniversaries, with George Jackson’s murder by San Quentin Prison guards on Aug. 21, 1971, and the reactive Attica Prison rebellion two weeks later on Sept. 9. Strike demands—which include improvements to living conditions, “an immediate end to prison slavery,” improvement of mechanisms for incarcerated people to redress rights violations, an end to “racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans”—are a bid for rehumanization. The organizing around this prison strike and others, too, is momentous and symbolic. They are self-organizing, self-defending, and self-politicizing across political, racial, gang, and other affiliative differences in service of this goal of abolition. The response to their strikes, including to Operation PUSH’s labor boycott, has been retaliation by the state, including Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s allegations of torture by the Florida Department of Corrections for his organizing.

Despite the criticality of prison actions, there have been relatively muted responses of solidarity. This is attributable to a number of forces, including the significant fact that prison officials obscure information around actions, and the organizers and participants themselves are isolated. Siddique Hassan of the Free Ohio Movement was placed into isolation and his phone was taken away for nearly one month before the Sept. 9 labor strike in 2016, a deliberate move to cut off his communication with organizing support outside prison. These falsified narratives by the state are compounded by mainstream media blackouts of the actions, only further strengthening the functioning of prisons as black site-like spaces.

As prison conditions worsen, as the state and ordinary white people become increasingly violent—and claim victims from Nia Wilson to Tamir Rice to Aiyana Stanley-Jones to future “Black Identity Extremists” to all the casualties of past COINTELPRO assassinations—and as our calls for racial justice and abolition become more urgent and interconnected, we must be sure to offer the same energy and solidarity to incarcerated people as we do activist energies like the Women’s March. (Not to mention how mass incarceration is a feminist issue!) If we do not reject demands that only “innocent” and uncomplicated victims deserve justice and safety, then our politics come to mirror reformist politics that are overly invested in ensuring innocent people are not wrongfully convicted and imprisoned rather than disrupting the logics that define identities and behaviors as “criminal.” Within a carceral state where everything from homelessness to having a miscarriage is criminalized, very few people are actually innocent. White supremacy—both from a hostile Republican-dominated state and from constraining defanged white liberal calls for “civility”—counts on our allowance for the brutalization and disappearance of particular people in the name of safety and order, and we must collectively refuse.