Guns / Firearms, Minority Issues, Racism, Violence

A Person Not A Political Prop: Questions About Renisha McBride’s Tragic Death

As Joe wrote yesterday, a 19-year-old Detroit woman named Renisha McBride was fatally shot last weekend on the porch of a Dearborn Heights home. Her death has received national media attention because of the speculation that, as Joe put it, it follows “the same basic pattern of an African-American in a predominantly white neighborhood at night running afoul of a gun-toting homeowner.”

The family members of Renisha McBride issued a press statement last night asking for peace while they mourn and promising to meet with activist groups after Renisha’s funeral. The funeral is scheduled for today at 10 a.m.

Authorities have slowly released details related to the young woman’s death. Some of these details match the statements made by Renisha’s family. Some do not.

Before leapfrogging over the specifics of Renisha’s case and launching a politically motivated rant, let’s look at what we do and don’t know about the tragedy that occurred on that Dearborn Heights porch. If Renisha McBride is more than a political prop, she deserves at least that much . . . .

Let’s look more closely at some of the facts reported so far.

Police Lieutenant James Serwatowski, the chief detective on the case, told the Detroit Free Press that Renisha McBride was, indeed, in a car accident prior to her death and “that she left the accident scene, and then some hours transpired” before her death. He said that the car crash occurred at about 1:30 a.m., and the shooting occurred at about 3:40 a.m. He would not say whether police had evidence of what Renisha was doing during the intervening time.

The Detroit News reported that the shooting took place in the 16800 block of Outer Drive near Warren Avenue in Dearborn Heights, a suburb of Detroit. Google Street View of this location shows a mix of businesses and residences.

Bernita Spinks, Renisha McBride’s aunt, had earlier told the Detroit News that Renisha “probably wanted to ask [the shooter] to make a call for her or if she could use the phone” after crashing her car, noting that Renisha’s cell phone battery was dead when she was found.

The Detroit Free Press reported that Renisha’s family said the house where she was killed was about four blocks from where the car accident took place. They said that she was driving her 2001 Ford Taurus, hit another car, parked, and walked to find help. Bernita Spinks speculated that Renisha was “just disoriented and started walking” to try to get help, “knocking on people’s doors.”

According to Detroit Pastor W.J. Rideout, speaking for the family, Renisha was shot as she was leaving the suspect’s porch. The family suggested that Renisha was shot while retreating.

Lt. Serwatowski told the Free Press, “This girl was not shot in the back of the head while leaving the porch. I don’t know where the family is getting this. She was shot in the front of the face, near the mouth.”

The Free Press also quotes the police detective as saying, “This man’s claiming — believed the girl was breaking into the home. And he’s also saying the gun discharged accidentally.”

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy’s office issued a statement saying that it is awaiting further investigation by the police before deciding whether to bring criminal charges.

Let’s consider some of the many factual questions that remain.

Was there another driver involved in Renisha’s car accident? If so, what does that person know?

What was Renisha doing during the approximately two hours in between her accident and when she was killed? Four blocks, the distance between the car accident and the shooter’s home stated by the family, is not a long distance to cover over two hours. Was Renisha injured in the car accident?

If Renisha was going door-to-door asking for help after her accident, did she approach other homes or businesses in the area before approaching the home where she was shot? Were any businesses in the vicinity open during those hours?

How plausible is it for the shooter to have both thought that Renisha was attempting to break into his home and to have accidentally shot her?

Did the homeowner report the shootings to authorities, or was Renisha’s body “dumped” nearby? (Reports conflict on this point. The police have not spoken to it.)

Is Renisha’s family basing its claims about what she was doing in between the accident and her death — she was disoriented, knocking on doors asking to use the phone, etc. — on speculation, or do they have additional facts that they haven’t shared publicly? Needless to say, the family members were not present themselves, nor were they in ongoing cell phone contact with Renisha during that time.

None of these questions mitigate the horror of what happened on that Detroit-area porch this past weekend. None of these questions necessarily undermine the narrative offered by Renisha’s family. None of these questions imply that nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride should be dead. She shouldn’t be. None of these questions suggest that the shooter should not face criminal charges.

Asking and answering these questions is important, though. Neglecting these questions and immediately opining about the resemblance between this case and other tragedies is premature. We don’t yet know how much Renisha’s death actually looks like other recent tragedies. Drawing comparisons only makes sense when you have enough information to do so.

A grieving family should be forgiven much. Renisha’s family lost their baby last weekend, no matter the surrounding circumstances. They lost a vibrant young lady who they shouldn’t have lost. Their mourning absolves them of many immediate reactions they might have, including the desire to make sense of their loss in terms of other families’ losses.

Pundits, activists, and commentators should not be given that leeway. Immediately invoking Renisha McBride’s name to mount sweeping arguments about self-defense, guns, or race is not only premature. It is exploitative. It turns a young woman into a prop. Renisha ceases to be person. Renisha becomes a tool for advancing a pre-existing political agenda. A young woman’s death becomes a convenient excuse for having the conversations you wanted to have anyway.

No matter what happened on Saturday night, Renisha McBride deserves better than that.

Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at

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