In Melbourne on Saturday night a young woman lost her life after being stabbed during an altercation at a teenage party. The next day in Oakland, California, a man took out a knife on the train and stabbed two sisters, killing one. Laa Chol, 19, and Nia Wilson, 18, did have one thing in common, aside from being teens with their whole lives ahead of them: the colour of their skin.
Two dead women an ocean apart, but their deaths, these horrific tragedies, are linked by the times that we live in. This is 2018. Ugly, hyper-partisan, violent and opportunistic.
Posthumously, these two women have become political targets. Although we would be naïve to assume their bodies never felt political to them before. Chol, born in Kenya, but raised for the majority of her short life in Australia, was immediately linked in the media to the ‘African gangs crisis’ the Coalition claims is crippling Victoria. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton wasted no time tying the tragedy to his fearmongering.
‘We don’t have these problems with Sudanese gangs in NSW or Queensland,’ he said in a statement. Never mind that Chol isn’t Sudanese, and Victoria Police haven’t linked the brawl at the party to gang activity. Anything to fuel that fear, anything to stoke that fire.
Meanwhile, in California, a white man killed Nia Wilson without any provocation (not that provocation would excuse it). Police are still determining whether the murder was a hate crime. In their quest to cover the murder, media trawled Wilson’s Instagram account and produced a picture of her mugging for the camera with an iPhone case that looked like a gun. It wasn’t a real gun. But amongst the selfies and smiling poses with friends, the picture that was selected was the one with the ‘edge’. The implication of that act was that Wilson courted violence, that maybe she was complicit.
How long after Wilson’s death do you think Donald Trump would have tweeted his outrage had she been white and her assailant from South or Central America? How long before he raised the spectre of MS-13? The lack of scaremongering here is telling.
On the day after her death, Wilson’s family and community held a vigil in her honour at the train station where she died. Members of the ‘Proud Boys’, a group with some truly vile views on race but who deny they are white supremacists, ended up in an altercation with those mourning after gathering at a nearby bar. Writer Shaun King posted on Facebook about it.
White supremacists from the group Proud Boys, wearing red Make American Great Again hats, literally showed up to interrupt the vigil…. Never—in the entire history of this country—will you find an example of white people coming together to grieve the brutal murder of their loved one—the day after it happened—only to have their grief physically interrupted by belligerent Black folk telling them that they are worthless. It’s never happened. It never will happen.
How cruel, how evil, how heartless, how crass, how foul do you have to be, how rotten must you be from the inside out, how dry and dead must your soul be—to have the idea that you want to interrupt grieving people and demean them the day after their loved one was murdered?
As a cadet journalist I covered the murder of a Sudanese-born teen at the hands of two white teens in Melbourne’s outer south-east. It was 2007. One of the attackers, gaoled for 20 years for the crime, said ‘I am going to take my town back, I’m looking to kill the blacks’ before grabbing a metal pole and heading out into the night, where he came across 17-year-old Australian citizen Liep Gony in Noble Park and bashed him to death.
I wish I could say politicians approached the situation better then, but no. Before anyone was arrested, then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews responded with this: ‘I have been concerned that some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope and therefore it makes sense to put the extra money in to provide extra resources, but also to slow down the rate of intake from countries such as Sudan.’ As if the fact that white Australians act with violence towards these new Australians is somehow their fault.
I went to Liep Gony’s house. I spoke with his mother and his cousins and his community. I attended his funeral. It was unspeakably sad. His mother pleaded in the church for the opportunity to take her dead son’s place. Her grief infused the entire room, and the surrounding grounds. She, like any mother, only wanted life and happiness for her son. It was taken from him by people who chose to see him as the colour of his skin. 11 years later I still think of Liep regularly, and wonder how his mother is doing. The current debate in Melbourne can’t be easy to take.
Nia Wilson’s alleged killer was arrested by police on Monday. He was taken into custody without incident, raising questions in the African American community about the double standards of police when dealing with white and black suspects. A man with a significant history of violence, he was arrested without the kind of confrontation that has led to the deaths of numerous black Americans killed for far less serious crimes, and sometimes, for doing things like using a mobile phone in their own backyard.
Race debates in America and Australia feel fraught, tense and ugly at the best of times. When someone’s life has been taken from them, it is never the time to rally your white supremacist mates or call for a crackdown on the community of the person who is dead.
Laa Chol and Nia Wilson had their whole lives ahead of them. They deserve to be mourned by their communities and their countries. The colour of their skin does not lessen their deaths and should not be used to minimise these tragedies.
When politicians are willing to wade right in with their agenda, like Dutton did, or ignore a serious and disturbing crime that they would otherwise jump on because it does not fit their narrative, like Trump did, we know that something is very wrong. It’s that kind of hyper-partisan environment that has fueled groups like the ‘Proud Boys’ in America and ‘Reclaim Australia’ here.
It is not just rhetoric. It’s a dangerous dismissal of the humanity of entire groups of people. It is a sign of these divisive times and a serious problem. Laa Chol and Nia Wilson deserve better. They deserve to be mourned and remembered and laid to rest with dignity and for their killers to be punished to the full extent of the law.
This is 2018, but it doesn’t have to be.
Sarah-Jane Collins is a Brisbane-bred writer and editor who recently completed an MFA at Columbia University. She currently lives in New York City, after stints in Sydney and Melbourne.