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JUSTICE FOR RENISHA: From No Arrest to a Guilty Verdict

originally published August 7, 2014 / EBONY


When 19-year-old Renisha McBride was shot in the face after knocking on a White man’s door in suburban Detroit, I tweeted that her death would probably not mean as much to Black people as the then recent shooting of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell. I doubted aloud if her murder would mean as much as Trayvon Martin’s, for whom we’d united to demand justice. I tweeted that Black male bodies mean more to us than Black female bodies.

I wasn’t feeling particularly divisive, just resigned. My daughter, only a couple years younger than Renisha, was a new driver in Detroit. Renisha knocked on Ted Wafer’s door seeking help, her phone had died and she’d been in a car accident. When my daughter’s cell phone (often) dies, I work to quell tiny moments of terror where I wonder if she’s in unimaginable danger. I tell myself those fearful feelings are irrational. Sometimes I quietly chant: My daughter is safe.

Even though I lived in Detroit, where I was born, when Renisha was murdered, I didn’t hear about her killing until days after the Dearborn Heights police department had deemed it unworthy of investigation. Somehow, as I began to feel rage about her murder, this not knowing about Renisha, became another erasure, unworthy of the very attentive on and offline communities to which I belong.

I remembered that I had power, reach and influence and I called a rally at the Dearborn Heights police department, demanding that they do their jobs and investigate Renisha McBride’s killing. I called my Detroit friends first, then I made calls to action on social media. More than one hundred of us gathered that night, a few days after Renisha’s death, for justice, but also because we wanted to be with other humans who are still outraged when an unarmed teenager is shot in the face.

Since I was filming a documentary I’m directing (about another 19-year-old girl who was murdered in Detroit), I had a rented camera and my Director of Photography in from Brooklyn, so we made a short video of that rally. With the help of fellow Detroit journalist (and EBONY editor) Kelley Carter, we distributed a press release. We wanted to make Renisha’s story a national one. We wanted to shame the Dearborn Heights police department for not doing its job. We wanted to raise this Black girl’s name high.

Though the story did gain national traction, not a single news agency would print Ted Wafer’s name. Because the Dearborn Heights police department hadn’t inconvenienced him with even a trip to their station for questioning, there was no arrest record. But Ted Wafer’s name was not hard to find. His name was publicly listed as the owner of the home where Renisha McBride’s body lay, most of her face missing. Still, an almost week long collusion amongst media persisted, with Ted Wafer repeatedly referred to as a “homeowner”- bestowing on him, by default, the right to be in his home, the right to defend said home.

The criminalization of Renisha’s corpse began when Ted Wafer was finally arrested and his attorney insisted he aimed a shotgun at Renisha through a locked door because he feared for his life, because as Noliwe M. Rooks wrote for Time, Black women are not seen as deserving of protection, of ever being vulnerable.

We didn’t always know the door was locked. That piece of information didn’t become public until Kym Worthy, whose demands that Dearborn Heights all-White police department investigate Renisha’s murder, were ignored, sent out investigators from Wayne County’s prosecutor’s office. When it was discovered Wafer shot Renisha through a locked door, Worthy charged him with second-degree murder, manslaughter and use of a gun during a crime. Renisha’s family, who are themselves from Southfiield, a Black middle class suburban enclave, avoided the rally we’d spontaneously organized at the Dearborn Heights police department because they rightly had faith in Worthy’s office. Prosecutor Worthy has never given the impression that she’d be influenced by rallies. She did, however, recognize Renisha McBride’s humanity, which as we learned in Sanford, Florida, is not always a given.

Kym Worthy is a powerful and charged figure in highly segregated Metro Detroit. She is the first Black prosecutor of Wayne county, which includes mostly Black Detroit and Dearborn Heights, the White suburb where Renisha McBride was killed. Detroiters came to respect her when, as assistant prosecutor, she convicted White and decorated Detroit police officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn for second degree murder after they brutally beat Malice Green to death. She convicted them two months after a Simi County jury found the LAPD officers responsible for Rodney King’s videotaped beating, not guilty. The prison sentences served by Evers and Budzyn remains the exception, as police violence against Blacks is almost never punished as a crime.

Suburban whites and the new, settlers in gentrified downtown Detroit, loved when Kym Worthy threw the book at Kwame Kilpatrick. To the surrounding, hostile suburbs and counties, who’d effectively practiced an economic embargo on Detroit for four decades, Kilpatrick’s conviction confirmed their long held ideas about criminality and incompetence, even and especially, in the Black political class who’d governed Detroit for three generations.

A few weeks before Ted Wafer murdered Renisha McBride, Worthy overrode Detroit’s disgraceful crime lab, and began processing for prosecution, thousands of unprocessed rape kits.

Renisha McBride’s family invested their faith in Worthy’s considerable prosecutorial skills, and today, her office delivered some justice. Ted Wafer was found guilty on all counts. A jury named him what he is, a murderer.


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