When I was a kid, my older sister, my little brother and I called 911 one evening after my mom failed to return home on time from her teaching job in Greeley, Colo., about a two-hour drive from where we lived in a mostly black suburb of Denver. (Apparently you can’t file a missing-persons report for a grownup who’s a few hours late coming home, even if you are a scared kid.)
What we learned, when she finally did get home, after 11 that night, is that my mother had been in a one-car accident. It was dark out, and some large debris from a flatbed truck in front of her had flown into the front of her car, causing it to catch on fire. She managed to get out, and began walking down the road, shaken and looking for help.
Luckily, another car drove by, and the driver offered her a ride. These were the days before cell phones were commonplace, so it was a matter of going to a police station, from where a tow truck could be called. She later told us that her biggest fear that night — besides the burning car — was getting into a car with a stranger. In those days we worried about kidnappers, who picked up unwise hitchhikers and disappeared into the night. Luckily, this particular stranger was, in fact, a Godsend.
If the same thing happened today, I might worry about my mother, or a friend, or myself, in the same situation, wandering into an unfamiliar neighborhood, and having to worry not about getting into a stranger’s car, but rather, knocking on a stranger’s door.
Because if you choose the wrong door, and the person behind that door is armed, seeking aid could be a very deadly proposition indeed.
On Nov. 2, Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old Detroit woman on her way home to her mother’s house, had a minor car accident. Her cellphone battery was dead, and so she found herself wandering through the residential neighborhood of Dearborn Heights, in the wee hours of the morning, dazed and seeking help.
Unfortunately, she chose the wrong door. The person behind it, a 54-year-old man, who is white, has told police he feared the young African-American woman was trying to break in. But he wasn’t fearful enough to not open the door, or simply call 911. He opened his front door, shotgun in hand, and shot Renisha in the face.
So far, no charges have been filed.
Had the man who killed Renisha called police, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Or perhaps not.
In North Carolina in September, former Florida A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell got into a single-car accident. He wandered out of his car, dazed and confused. He went to a nearby door, and knocked, seeking help. The homeowner did call police, but when the officer arrived, he responded by shooting Ferrell 10 times, until he was dead.
For many African Americans, what these two stories have in common, besides the obvious (black victims, shot to death after seeking help in neighborhoods where there aren’t many black people), and the basic inhumanity, is the chilling sense that they represent a new normal.
In the new normal, the fear of black people that has persisted in this country since the days of slavery is now backed by the law of the gun. The NRA has been wildly successful at breaking down not just the will of national lawmakers to lift a finger to prevent gun violence — which has been rewritten, from the one-off shooting to the school massacre, as simply the price of gun owners’ freedom — but also, apparently, the psychological barrier against proactively pulling out your gun and firing. By excising all liability, they have created, particularly in “Stand Your Ground” states like Michigan and Florida, a kind of mental permission for gun owners to act on their fears. Because if you do, and someone dies, the gun laws the NRA has erected have your back.
So if you’re a black teenager, walking home at night and a stranger follows you, you should assume they’re armed, and run like hell.
And if you’re in a car accident, in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the wee hours, you might want to think twice about knocking on a stranger’s door or running toward a police officer.
And if you’re wandering down a dark road, having left your broken car behind, it could be equally dangerous to get into a stranger’s car, as to encounter one on their porch.
Because in the new normal, the gun is king. And there may be few consequences if a gun owner “feels threatened” and decides to shoot first, and ask questions later.