It’s entirely possible that the November 2 killing of Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old black woman, in Dearborn Heights, Mich., was racially motivated. It’s possible she was racially profiled by Theodore Wafer, a 54-year-old white man who has admitted to shooting McBride in the head with a shotgun as she stood on his front porch about 3 a.m. But we don’t know and probably never will.
Observers across the nation have compared this tragedy to the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, where George Zimmerman shot the teenager and claimed innocence based on that state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.
Michigan has a similar law. However, the McBride case stands out as good old American reliance on a gun to resolve an issue—any issue.
"If we are going to talk about the diminished significance of black life, human life, we have to look at the overall pervasive violence in our communities."
Race plays a part in this, but it’s just a piece of a bigger gun violence puzzle in the United States. Americans, more than any other people, resolve conflicts with a gun. According to numbers published in the Washington Post, there are 270 million civilian guns owned in the United States—far more than in any other country.
"When people get these weapons, they want to use them," said Ron Scott, who works with the Detroit Peace Zones for Life program defusing conflicts in neighborhoods before they escalate to violence.
The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence tells us that on average, 32 people are murdered with guns each day in the United States and 140 more are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room; 51 people kill themselves with a gun and 45 are shot or killed in a gun accident. That’s every day.
On the day McBride was killed, Nov. 2, she had been out drinking and hit a parked car about 1 a.m. She was in Detroit but near the Dearborn Heights border. Witnesses said she appeared “disoriented.” A few hours later she ended up on Wafer’s porch not far from the accident scene. Her family has said she was probably seeking help but no one knows for sure.
"I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun, banging on my door," says Wafer’s 911 call transcript. Police found McBride’s body on the front porch.
Apparently you shoot people for banging at your door in the middle of the night. Wafer didn’t say he was threatened. He didn’t say she was trying to break in. There were early reports that he said the shotgun went off "accidentally."
The case has caught the attention of civil rights watchers across the nation. Among those who have commented are MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton and Detroit Rep. John Conyers, who consider the killing as another damning indictment of stand-your-ground laws condoning the use of lethal force in cases where people perceive danger. That was a factor in police initially not arresting George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin—sparking national protests. However, Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor Kym Worthy doesn’t see it that way.
"We do not believe he acted in lawful self-defense," Worthy said during a Nov. 14 news conference where she announced that she would file charges against Wafer.
Worthy, who said there was no evidence of forced entry, charged Wafer with second-degree murder, manslaughter, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and she did so within two weeks of the killing. In the Martin case authorities did not charge Zimmerman until six weeks later, after public activism and media outcry forced the action. In the case of McBride, any delay in charging Wafer came because Worthy was doing a thorough investigation before making charges.
Worthy, who is black, has a reputation for doing things right. She first came to public prominence in the 1980s when she successfully prosecuted two white police officers in the beating death of a black Detroiter. In 2008 she charged black mayor Kwame Kilpatrick with nine felony counts. Race doesn't seem to be an issue in Worthy’s office. However, public perception will make race a part of this case. The racial makeup of the jury will be scrutinized from all corners, and regardless of the decision there will be racial finger-pointing from the losing side.
To Detroiters race is also highlighted in this case because Dearborn, which borders Detroit, is a historically racist city. Orville Hubbard, who was mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1978, was known nationally for his racist policies. "I favor segregation" he once told a reporter.
Dearborn Heights, a neighbor of Detroit and Dearborn, justly or unjustly carries a stigma for carrying the same name. People in Detroit are quick to claim racism because the name Dearborn and racism have been repeatedly connected over the years. Scott’s is a voice of caution for that kind of thinking.
"It’s not racial profiling; it’s human profiling," he said. "He decided to shoot a human being. We may see that there was a racial element to it when all the evidence comes out. This resonates with the black community because there are similarities with the Trayvon Martin case and some others. This person who killed Renisha was predatory. I think that’s a better way to put it."
It’s interesting to note that four days after McBride’s killing there was a shooting outside a Detroit barbershop where three people were killed and seven more injured. The barbershop was known for hosting craps games. There is no national reporting on that massacre. Maybe it’s because it happened in Detroit between groups of black ghetto residents. Maybe McBride is more sympathetic because she was young, female, and killed by a white man in the suburbs. In each case seemingly innocent people are dead because someone decided to use a gun.
"We have to look at those two shootings as part of the same problem," Scott said. "If we are going to talk about the diminished significance of black life, human life, we have to look at the overall pervasive violence in our communities. I am really tired of people not putting the effort into dealing with the killings, almost daily, in the black community. There is a tremendous sense of loss for Renisha. We should feel equally incensed to do something for these 10 people at the barbershop. We as human beings will only grow when we see these as two parts of the same puzzle."
It’s interesting to see that Zimmerman, recently arraigned on domestic violence charges that included pointing a gun at his girlfriend, was ordered by the Florida judge not to carry a gun while free on bail. More and more people see him as a man out of control with a gun. The judge, finally, took it away.
Gun violence, whether it is black on black, white on black, or of any other color combination, is killing people and tearing families apart across the country. Race is a part of this, but so is gun violence. Shooting black people is another layer of the American titillation with shooting people.
Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and a host of others are telling us that it is time to stop.