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An Oral History of Nizah Morris

I spoke with Asa Khalif, a Philadelphia based activist, and longtime friend of Nizah Morris.

Asa and Nizah met in 1991 in a chance encounter, when Asa was only fifteen. A student at Roman Catholic at the time, Asa and his friends were headed to a comic book store after school, and stopped at a pizza store on the way. Nizah happened to be in the same store, eating a piece of pizza she had just purchased. Asa recalls Nizah being harassed by the police, who were asking for her id- they implied that she was causing a "scene" and creating a disturbance.

A precocious teenager, Asa intervened and vouched for her, notifying the police and the owner that he and his friends had seen her buy the pizza. Asa recalls Nizah being so rattled by the whole incident that "she looked like she was actually starting to doubt herself about her having bought the pizza." Asa was struck by how vulnerable she seemed during this whole incident, and remembers feeling compelled to defend her.

Asa and Nizah had some mutual friends, so they continued to run into each other after that first meeting at the pizza shop. Asa notes that she seemed fascinated by him, because he was so outspoken. Over time, they become close friends.

Her Life

When asked how he would describe Nizah, Asa notes that she was a loving and kind person, who was the life of the party. "She was upbeat whenever you saw her," he noted, "and you could always get a wisecrack out of her." I inquired about Nizah's performances at Bob and Barbara's. Asa had only seen her perform twice, but both times she was "electrifying." "She was always in a good place when she was performing, and she knew how to get the crowd going," he said.

According to Asa, Nizah was "at her peak" when she died. He recalled that, toward the end of her life, she had become more political, more conscious. "She was more at peace," he noted, "her whole mentality changed...At one point in her life, she hadn't been able to have a good time because of the demons she was battling." Asa attributes a lot of this to her becoming a Buddhist later in her life. "She was comfortable in her own skin... Eventually she was able to live in the moment more," he reflected.

When asked about her relationship history, Asa responded that he never knew her to be in any relationships. He does recall that toward the end of her life, she wanted the traditional American life- the house with the white picket fence, the husband, the dog. She used to joke about it, but she seemed to think it was unattainable for her. Eventually, however, it started to seem like something that could really happen for her. "I think at one point in her life she may have felt like many other transwomen felt- that she was unlovable," he said, "But I think she learned how to love herself first. In the period before she died, she was having a love affair with herself for the first time."

Asa recalls little about Nizah's family. He never knew much about them, as she didn't speak about them very often, at least to him. Asa heard more about her mother once Nizah started working with her at the daycare that she owned. "Whenever she talked about her work there, it brought a smile to her face," he remembered. He sensed there was some tension in her family, but wasn't sure about the details. "I imagine it was hard for her," he noted, "especially if you come from the hood, and you start wearing wigs, you're in for some real heartache. You gotten deal with your family, the church, the neighbors... it's hard."

Her Death

Inevitably, our conversation turned to Nizah's tragic and untimely death. Many of Nizah's friends and supporters question the official story about how Nizah died on the night of December 22nd, 2002. Asa outlined his theory of how she passed. Asa believes that from the time Nizah was picked up by the police for a "courtesy ride" home outside of Key West, their intentions were to arrest her, charge her with public intoxication and take her to jail. Asa said he knew Nizah had had run ins with the police before, and that she knew to stay away from them. "I don't think they set out to kill her, but I believe things escalated," he said. Nizah was visibly drunk, and probably said some "choice words." He believes that something escalated when they were driving around, which resulted in them putting her in the street a few minutes later. "As the homophobic, racist brutes that (the cops) were, I think they could have punched her," he said, "I think it's possible that she tried to get out, and that they got aggressive. It seems like they picked up a club and knocked her in the head."

I asked Asa if he thought there was any possibility that someone else killed her. "Not at all," he replied. He notes that she had nothing taken from her. He pointed out, "When someone is that drunk, they're an easy target. If she had been robbed, the person would have been in and out." "The gash on her head," he added, "was done very intentionally; it was done out of rage. That's not from a robbery...her murder was violent, intentional, and brutal."

Asa noted that the police report was very sloppy, which made it clear from the beginning that there was more to the story. "It's clear that they were trying to get their story together once we started asking questions," he said, "which is how the "courtesy ride" story came about." He continued, "The bottom line is that courtesy rides are against protocol. If someone is drunk, the official protocol is to take them to the hospital or jail, or to have their friends take them off the street." Asa feels certain that Nizah knew she was in trouble when she got into the police car; "She didn't want to get in that car- she pleaded not to be put in the car."

He added that the "courtesy ride" story was "a slap in the face to all of us." He explained, "the cops may give you a courtesy ride to the Round House, but not to your house, and they certainly don't give any courtesy rides to black people. This is a district full of men with a history of beating and robbing trans prostitutes. They have a deep-seated hatred of trans people, and people of color." Asa also echoed concerns that many share about the infeasibility of there being no camera footage available in such a busy area. "There are cameras everywhere," he said. Asa noted that the police had a "rude awakening" when so many allies started questioning the official story from the police. "We were telling the police that Nizah did matter, and that she was loved," he said. "In any other circumstance," he argued, "if you were the last person to see someone before they died, you would be considered a murder suspect until you could prove otherwise." He and many community activists feel that the officers should be charged with murder. He said, "To the police who took her on that ride of death, I say "you are murderers, and you should be punished.""

I asked Asa about Tim Cwiek, the journalist from the Philadelphia Gay News, who has been covering Nizah's case since the very beginning. In 2014, Cwiek won the Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting award for his reporting on Nizah's murder. "A good dude, with a good heart," as Asa described him, they became unlikely friends following Nizah's passing. "We came from very different circles," he added, "and we probably wouldn't have been friends if it weren't for Nizah." Asa referred to Tim's "relentless" pursuit of answers for Nizah's murder. He noted, "once (Tim) gets started, he can't shut off. He really knows his shit." As Asa mentioned, the story took so many twist and turns, that it started to take on a life of its own. "The answers we were getting from the police were so outrageous that they had to keep pushing. It was as though the cops took everyone for fools." Asa feels that everyone should have been asking the questions that Tim was in the aftermath of her death. "People turned their back on her. The people in charge should have spoken up, but they didn't. You didn't see the church ministers speaking up about this, or any other community members."

Her Legacy

Asa continues to push for answers to this day, along with hundreds of other supporters. "Nizah's spirit is crying out for justice," he said, "We have to keep pushing, and keeping her and other victims visible. We haven't stopped asking and demanding answers."

But, as Asa rightly asserts, as a community, we must remember that there's more to Nizah's life than just her murder. He noted, "her murder defined who she was, and that's unfair. She was more than just someone who was murdered." Asa expressed some hope about the Anthology of Existences exhibit, because now, when people Google Nizah, that will come up too, rather than just the sordid details of her murder. "I choose to think of the good times," he noted, "not just the way she died."

I asked what Asa thought was most important for people to know about Nizah and her life. Asa responded; "that her life mattered... she was loved, and she mattered to people. That will be her legacy."


Asa Khalif, interviewed by Katherine Scholle (April 7, 2016)

Associated Project

An Anthology of Existences