The racist killing of Renisha McBride

November 18, 2013

The Wayne County prosecutor in Detroit has finally filed charges in a case that many are comparing to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Joel Reinstein goes through the facts.

A 19-year-old African American woman is dead for the "crime" of asking for help after a car accident in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit.

Renisha McBride was shot in the face with a shotgun in the early morning hours of November 2. She had been in a car crash and--with her cell phone dead and bleeding from a wound on her head--was seeking help from residents.

According to reports, 54-year-old Theodore Wafer shot Renisha through the screen door of his home. Wafer didn't call police until an hour later--at which point, he claimed to have fired in self-defense. He then changed his story, claiming the shotgun went off by accident--only to change it back again when prosecutors filed murder and manslaughter charges against him. Initial reports said Renisha's body had been "dumped," but police later said it was found on the porch.

RENISHA'S MURDER is being compared to the Trayvon Martin case, and for good reason--Wafer is using "Stand Your Ground"-style self-defense laws to try to escape punishment by claiming that he felt threatened by Renisha.

Protesters demand justice for Renisha McBride
Protesters demand justice for Renisha McBride

Although her death was ruled a homicide, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy didn't file charges for 13 days, during which time police and the mainstream media kept the killer's identity secret. Worthy reportedly refused an initial request for a warrant by Dearborn Heights police, saying more investigation was needed.

Detroiters didn't take the same do-nothing attitude toward Renisha's murder.

On November 7, about 50 people gathered outside police department headquarters in Dearborn Heights. Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, spoke for the crowd when he asked: "Had she been a white woman and the shooter a black man, would the shooter be sitting comfortably at home watching TV today?"

Two days later, some 200 people attended a rally, organized by the National Action Network, on the West Side of Detroit. Another protest was held a week later, on December 16, organized by the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and the International Socialist Organization.

Faced with this mounting pressure, Worthy finally filed charges against Wafer, including second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Now that charges have been filed against Wafer, the media are taking another page out of the Trayvon Martin case and are putting the victim on trial. Mainstream outlets are reporting on toxicology reports showing that the alcohol level in Renisha's blood was past the legal limit for intoxication--and unconfirmed tests showing marijuana in her system. As if that justifies her execution by shotgun for seeking help.

Worthy insisted that the decision to charge Wafer had "nothing whatsoever to do with the race of the parties"--but no one who looks at the case can take that seriously. As journalist Rania Khalek wrote at her blog, Renisha was "a Black woman from Detroit, which is 82 percent Black, whereas Dearborn Heights, the area she was shot in, is 86 percent white."

Anyone who has protest police violence and racism in Detroit is familiar with the double standards applied to Black and white, including by Kym Worthy, who is African American.

Worthy, for example, wasn't so cautious about filing charges with Charles Jones, the father of Aiyana Jones, the 7-year-old girl murdered by Detroit police in her sleep three years ago. Shortly after Aiyana's death during a police raid on her home, Charles was charged with providing the gun used in another murder. Although the only "evidence" against him was the testimony of a jailhouse snitch that had been thrown out by a judge, Jones has been held without bail for three years as Worthy continually postponed his trial.

The prosecutor assigned to Jones' case is the very same one as for his daughter's killer, which Worthy denies is a conflict of interest. In the case of Aiyana's killer, the prosecutor's office somehow managed to select an all-white jury from a predominantly Black area for the cop's first trial, which ended in a mistrial.

This is only another example of a justice system that treats Black life as less valuable--something made gruesomely clear once every 28 hours--the rate at which African Americans are killed by police, security guards or vigilantes, according to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.

It goes without saying that a Black man who killed a white woman on his porch would be put in jail right away. The news media wouldn't be printing statements from his neighbors about how he's a "good man" who "never bothered anybody." Wafer wouldn't have been released on 10 percent of a $250,000 bond and described as a "low risk to the community"--and the media wouldn't be talking about whether he reasonably believed his life was in danger.

ON THE morning of George Zimmerman's acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murder earlier this year, with the mainstream media raising the specter of riots, blogger Jay Smooth made a prediction: "The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George Zimmermans."

There were no riots. There have been more George Zimmermans.

In July, a New Orleans homeowner shot unarmed 14-year-old Marshall Coulter in the head because he thought the teen was trying to break into his house, and a pregnant woman was killed on a sidewalk in Pratt, Kan., by a man shouting racial slurs. In September, a man in Dallas shot 8-year-old D.J. Maiden in the face as he played in a parking lot.

Then there's the case with the closest echoes to that of Renisha McBride. Also in September in Charlotte, N.C., 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was involved in an auto accident so severe that he had to climb out the back window to escape. He went to the nearest house and pounded on the door to beg for help, and the resident inside hit an alarm indicating a home invasion was in progress. When police arrived, they didn't offer the injured man help, but Tasered him--and then shot him three times, killing him.

The protests in Dearborn Heights and Detroit have shown the justified outrage that people feel over Renisha's killing. But in to prevent the deaths of future Renisha McBrides and stop future George Zimmermans, we will need more than outrage. To defeat the New Jim Crow, we need ongoing anti-racist mobilization and organization.

Further Reading

From the archives