black women

Renisha McBride vs. Trayvon Martin: Why these cases are NOT the same

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wafer-mcbrideby Dr Boyce Watkins

I was recently on CNN to discuss the case of 19-year old Renisha McBride.  McBride was shot by 55-year old Theodore Wafer after knocking on his door after a car accident.  The case was tragic, and as the father of daughters that are close to Renisha’s age, I could feel her family’s pain.

The case has been described by some as a black teen who was inexplicably shot when knocking on a stranger’s door to get help, and has been compared to the killing of Trayvon Martin.   When I was studied the facts about the case and stated what I knew on television, someone asked me, “Why aren’t defending this black woman who was shot?”

I thought about it for a second and replied to the person, “I certainly defend Renisha’s right to fairness, truth, justice and equity.  But I am not willing to tell lies in order to do so.”

I hate saying this, but the “innocent black child” story might be defined as a gross mischaracterization of what happened that night.  While we know that there are historic biases clearly showing that black people, especially women, have lives that are valued less than others, it would be unfair to define this case to be similar to that of Trayvon.

In fact, I have to admit that in the scores of times I’ve appeared on CNN over the years, no appearance has made me more uncomfortable than this one.

Some people are attributing the difference in the coverages of the Renisha McBride trial and Trayvon Martin case as a matter of gender discrimination.  This is a possibility, since we know that the deaths of young black women are often ignored in media.

But the case of Renisha McBride might not be the right time to presume that gender-based disparities are the reason that people aren’t fighting for her as much as they fought for Trayvon, Hadiyah Pendleton or 11-year old Shamiyah Adams, who was hit by a stray bullet in Chicago last week.

The truthful reality is that, most people know that on the night Renisha was shot, she’d drank half a bottle of vodka, smoked three blunts, got behind the wheel, crashed into a parked car, illegally left the scene of a car accident, and knocked on a stranger’s door at 4 o’clock in the morning.  It’s clear that she wasn’t in her right mind, since her blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

To compare this case to that of Trayvon Martin might cause us all to look like hypocrites, since you can’t compare a kid walking home from the store with Skittles and Ice Tea to a person who’d been drinking and smoking all night before leaving the scene of a car accident to wake a stranger up at 4 o’clock in the morning.  The police and an ambulance were on their way, so it’s tough to argue that she was “looking for help.”  This chain of events certainly plays into the manner by which McBride may have approached Wafer’s house that night:  Did she knock politely, or did she engage in the same irrational behavior that she’d been showing all night long?

Did the man have to shoot Renisha? Of course not. He should be tried for his actions and found guilty, as any of us would for shooting someone for banging on our door at 4 am.  But I also know people who live in high crime areas who would be stunned to have someone banging on their door at 4 o’clock in the morning.

While it might be simple and easy to just presume that this man wanted to wake up in the middle of the night so that he could go on a racist tirade and murder an innocent black person, it might make more sense to assume that he just overreacted.  It is also abundantly clear that, unlike George Zimmerman, Wafer didn’t go out looking for trouble that night.  Trouble came looking for him while he was in deep REM sleep, which can cause a serious jolt to your system when you’ve been interrupted.

This case didn’t just hit me close to home because I have daughters McBride’s age.  It also affected me because I’ve been in the shoes of Wafer.  I once had a drunken neighbor try to break into my house at 11 o’clock at night.  She rang the doorbell over and over again, scaring the hell out of me, and when I opened the door, she tried to come into my house.  I was shocked and remember having to be VERY physical with this woman to keep her out of my home.

The crazy thing about it was that I’D NEVER MET THIS WOMAN BEFORE IN MY LIFE.

Of course I wasn’t going to shoot the woman, but I did put my hands on her.  If I’d owned a gun, I would have had it with me.  As a man who is adamantly against violence against women under almost any circumstances, I found myself having to break my own rule to keep this woman from coming into my home uninvited.  Most amazing was the fact that when I met the woman later when she’d not been drinking, she didn’t even remember what she’d done that night when she tried to come into my house.

Years after that, I was hit in the back of my car by a drunk driver.  When I asked the person to roll down her window so we could exchange information, she refused to speak to me.  She then drove away from the accident and ran over a pedestrian at a stop light.  That didn’t stop her either, as she continued to drive all the way home.  The point here is that people who are under the influence can do things that put the lives of others in  jeopardy, which is why we should consistently warn young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

Once again, should Wafer have shot Renisha that night?  Absolutely not.  Should Renisha die because she was high, drunk, driving and evading the police?  No, she should not.   Does this mean that we should not demand that Renisha’s family receive appropriate justice?  Absolutely not.

But was he this man frightened, as any of us would be?  Probably, especially living in a city like Detroit, where the police have warned citizens to arm themselves to avoid being crime victims.  This doesn’t let Wafer off the hook for what he did, but it does give us additional facts that must be taken into consideration when evaluating this case.

One thing we should not do is misuse the black liberation struggle as a way to play the race card every time a black person tangles with a white person.  Also, anyone who thinks that McBride is not getting attention because of her gender should take a look at all of the young black women we’ve marched for over the years.  In fact, I dare say that we’ve marched for more women than men in the last half decade, as black women are important figures in our community who also deserve our protection and support.

My appeal to those who seek to be fair-minded and honest, is to at least try to seek the truth and not just promote a thoughtless, uninformed agenda.  Radical feminists and hardcore liberals have some black people pushed so far against a wall that we can end up feeling like we’re being traitors when we don’t attribute every mishap to racial or gender oppression.   But when evaluating Renisha’s case, all facts must be considered, not just the ones that are politically convenient.

Renisha McBride’s case is not the same as that of Trayvon Martin.  In fact, they’re not even close, other than the fact that they were both black teenagers shot by a person who isn’t black.  There were different kinds of people involved, a different kind of neighborhood, and very different actions taken by each party on the night in question.  If we’re going to study this case and talk about it, we need to focus on the facts.