Renisha McBride’s mother is grieving her daughter’s death on a stranger’s front porch. The fatal shooting of the 19-year-old has triggered protests and vigils in Detroit and plenty of questions for other mothers and daughters: How would they feel if they had to knock on someone’s door to ask for help? Would they offer aid if someone showed up on their doorsteps?
The former cheerleader, who is African American, was shot in the face while seeking help after a car accident on Nov. 2, family members say. She was dazed and confused after her car hit a parked car. Her cell phone battery was dead and she wandered away from the accident scene.
She may have knocked on several doors with no luck. Around 3 a.m., she came to a tidy brick home and apparently tried again. A man, described as 54, white and living alone, answered. He feared someone was breaking into his home and accidentally shot her with his 12-gauge shotgun, according to police and the man’s attorney, quoted in Detroit media outlets.
“This guy opened his door, took his shotgun and blew her head off,” Gerald Thurswell, an attorney representing the McBride family, told me in an interview. “He was in his house and he was safe.”
Family members say McBride was racially profiled by the man; a few are drawing parallels to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, whose shooting death in Florida triggered debate and protests over stand-your-ground laws.
Friends and activists have staged protests outside the home where McBride died, seeking justice. Some wear signs or t-shirts remembering “Nisha.” But before this tragedy happened, would they have been willing to stop their car or open their door to a stranger in distress?
Renisha McBride’s death stands out even in a city as used to death and murder as Detroit, which has a homicide rate that is among the highest in the nation.
The Medical Examiner’s report on Monday indicated McBride died of a shotgun wound and ruled it a homicide. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is reviewing the case, and sending investigators to determine what happened to her that night, Thurswell said.
At her funeral last week, family members recalled the 5-foot-4 inch young woman as outgoing, friendly and close to her family and friends. She lived with her mother, grandmother and sister, worked full-time and liked cars. According to some accounts, her father doted on her and bought her at least two cars, and she reportedly was driving his white Ford Taurus the night she was killed.
Detroiters have questioned why she was out so late, and whether she was high or drunk when she hit the parked car. Others asked why the homeowner didn’t call 911 and allow the police to come take her away.
Women are less likely to die such violent deaths, unless they are killed by lovers or husbands. Three-quarters of U.S. homicide victims are male, and more than a third of them are under age 25, according to Department of Justice statistics. In Detroit, most of the 411 people who were killed last year were black men, often shot in arguments with people they knew, according to a Detroit Free Press analysis.
“We’ve become immune to it,” not just in Detroit but all across the country, said Kim Trent, a writer and political and education activist in Detroit who recently wrote about the lack of outrage over a string of fatalities in Detroit. She’s saddened to think that a young woman lost her life because a homeowner would not approach his front door without a gun.
“This endemic loss of trust … that’s the real tragedy in this story,” said Trent.
Deena Policicchio understands that loss of trust, and tries to help girls and young women deal with the realities of fear and crime as director of outreach and education services for the nonprofit Alternatives for Girls.
The young women are taught how to avoid or minimize risks, by turning down their music when they wait for the bus and by avoiding parties where acquaintance rape may occur. “In Detroit, girls are just at risk. Is it because the girl is black or because she’s a girl? Girls are at risk, across the world,” said Policicchio.
Even though she’s taken self defense courses and taught women about safety, she recalls her own reaction when a woman knocked on her door asking for help. “I didn’t feel safe answering the door,” she said, after the woman could not answer her questions adequately. “I did not open the door.”
Policicchio said it’s become accepted that neighbors won’t watch out for each other in most urban areas. “We celebrate it when it does happen,” she said, mentioning the case of the three young women held as sex slaves for years near Cleveland and how astounded everyone was when a neighbor heard one crying out and came to her aid.
Trent suggests that people feel hopeless and frightened because violence and fear has so many dimensions and so few easy cures. Her own mother left Detroit long ago, and now, “She’s terrified something’s going to happen to one of us,” she said.
So how can mothers help their children live and thrive amid so many horrible crimes and so much fear? Trent at first says she wishes she could answer, then considers and mentions the importance of appreciating our “common humanity.”
She added: “We must not be afraid of one another.” Otherwise the worry and the divisions and the guns may drive more people to protect themselves against someone selling wrapping paper or someone who has been in an accident and needs help.
Vickie Elmer is an award-winning journalist in Detroit who contributes to The Washington Post, Fortune.com, Quartz and other media. Follow her on Twitter @WorkingKind.