It may be hard to acknowledge, but according to a 2018 investigation by Professors Brian Levin, James J. Nolan and John David Reitzel, racially motivated violence is on the rise in America’s biggest cities. And the tragic case of Nia Wilson – who was killed in July 2018 – may have highlighted how the issue remains under-recognized. But when Wilson’s name became a trending topic, Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway argued that this wasn’t in itself enough. And the star’s impassioned statement would itself go on to gain a lot of attention.
Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson had big aspirations. A budding rapper, the young woman had a talent and charm that apparently won others over instantly. “She wouldn’t go anywhere without looking presentable,” her big sister Malika told The New York Times in July 2018. “She was really passionate about the way she looked and carried herself.”
Then, after attending a party at their aunt’s apartment, Wilson and two of her sisters took a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train back toward their Oakland, California home. And Wilson – a recent high school graduate – had plenty to look forward to, including a job interview later in the week. Heartbreakingly, however, the teen wouldn’t live to see her ambitions realized.
While changing to a connecting train at MacArthur station, the trio were approached by a fellow passenger. Then, without saying a word, the individual pulled out a knife and swung at Wilson’s throat, cutting it. “He didn’t know us, we didn’t know him,” sister Letifah told KGO-TV in July 2018. “But he just stood there, like it was nothing.”
Within moments, Wilson would be dead, and the assailant – who also stabbed Letifah in the neck – would be long gone. One day later, however, police arrested John Cowell – a multiple offender released on parole – for the attack. And in the aftermath of Cowell’s apprehension, his relatives issued a statement claiming that the suspect suffered from both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
However, this message was not accepted by Wilson’s family. Some of the African American teen’s loved ones have accused Cowell – a white man – of committing a hate crime, and they are demanding that Cowell be tried on such terms. “[Cowell’s relatives] are trying to say that he was sick and crazy,” Malika told The New York Times. “[Instead,] it was an act of racism.”
And the Wilson family accusations of racism were seemingly echoed by many high-profile observers. Actress Viola Davis, for instance, tweeted that she was “tired of needing to organize rallies to convince people that [black people’s] lives matter.” Meanwhile, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf said on Facebook that her city has “no room for hate or white supremacy.”
It wasn’t just Davis and Schaaf who voiced their anguish and anger over the event, though. In fact, Wilson’s murder provoked an outpouring of emotions from figures as diverse as Rose McGowan, rapper Common and Reese Witherspoon. Soon, Wilson became a trending topic on Twitter, with the hashtag #SayHerName quickly gaining steam.
But perhaps the strongest statement of all came from one of Hollywood’s most outspoken stars. Taking to Instagram, actress Anne Hathaway – a vocal critic of issues such as sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination – made her sorrow over Wilson’s tragic death clearly known. And her words initially followed a similar pattern to those of other commenters.
“The murder of Nia Wilson – may she rest in the power and peace she was denied – is unspeakable and must not be met with silence,” the Ocean’s 8 star began. However, her post quickly evolved into a condemnation of not only the act itself, but also the way in which activists were tackling the issue of racially motivated violence.
In particular, Hathaway argued that social media posts were doing very little to commemorate Wilson’s memory. “She is not a hashtag,” the actress wrote. “She was a black woman, and she was murdered in cold blood by a white man.”
But the teen’s treatment on social media was just one part of Hathaway’s grievance with the issue. By reducing Wilson’s name to a hashtag – as the actress suggested – Twitter users weren’t engaging with the real problem at hand. And that was the experience that millions of African Americans face in the United States today.
Hathaway continued, “White people… must take into the marrow of our privileged bones the truth that all black people fear for their lives daily in America and have done so for generations.” She added, “White people do not have equivalence for this fear of violence.”
As an active member of the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment, Hathaway may be aware of how much silence can hurt. And in a similar manner, she appeared to be arguing that the same mistakes were being made in regard to racial violence. In this case, nevertheless, the actress asserted that such apathy should prompt change on everyone’s behalf – including her own.
But Hathaway held no punches in confronting the ugly truth about modern race relations. Moreover, the star expressed her opinion with a fervent rage uncommon to stars of her stature. “Given those givens,” she concluded, “we must ask our (white)selves – how ‘decent’ are we really? Not in our intent, but in our actions? In our lack of action?”
And perhaps in a move to counter racist comments, Hathaway disabled comments on her post. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop people on Twitter from praising the star’s words. One individual tweeted, for instance, that the star was “determined to make [them] start rocking with Anne Hathaway on a permanent basis.” Another person branded the actress “an ally of Black Lives Matter.”
Even three days after her initial post, though, Hathaway was still affected by Wilson’s death. She even deleted and replaced a new update with another image of Wilson. “It feels wrong to post something else so soon,” the star wrote. “I want to hold the space for Nia for longer.”
And in the weeks since Wilson’s tragic death, other celebrities have come forth in support. Most notably, NBA star Stephen Curry raised $21,000 through a Facebook live stream for the teen’s family – who are in the process of suing Bay Area Rapid Transport. “All the support from giants like Stephen Curry and abroad, that’s what’s keeping us strong,” Wilson’s father Ansar El Muhammad told NBC Bay Area in August 2018.
But Wilson and her family are also being supported by members of the public. Two days after the teen’s death, for example, thousands of protesters held a vigil at the site of the murder in a strong show of solidarity. Angry supporters also led Fox affiliate KUTV to issue an apology after the station published a picture of the victim holding a gun-shaped phone case.
As of September 2018, murder suspect Cowell is yet to go on trial. Yet while Oakland police have not yet confirmed racism as a motive behind Cowell’s alleged attack, the fallout from Wilson’s murder has highlighted just how much this kind of discrimination still exists in American society. And according to Hathaway herself, apathy and ignorance will only make the situation worse.