Law in Contemporary Society

A Teenager's Death and an Attorney's Legacy

-- By AshleyWilson - 26 Apr 2022

The Morning of November 3, 2013

In the freezing early morning hours of November 3, 2013, Renisha McBride? , a Black teenager, crashed her car in the City of Detroit. Hours later, bleeding and possibly experiencing head trauma, Renisha walked less than a mile from the crash site into neighboring Dearborn Heights, Michigan. At 4:30AM, the unarmed teenager “pounded” on the door of the home of Theodore Wafer, a white middle-aged man. Without calling the police, or even turning on a light, Wafer shot Renisha through the locked screen door of his home with a pre-loaded shotgun, killing her.

A National Disgrace with a Local History

Wafer was not immediately investigated or charged in Renisha's death. This was after Wafer gave conflicting reports to police about what happened that evening, claiming Renisha’s death was an accident. Wafer would later go on to testify that he acted in self defense and defense of his home, and that he was afraid the person on the porch was someone "from Detroit" attempting to break into his house. And while this case could be seen as one of a string of cases where a white man has killed an unarmed Black person and claimed self defense, particularly in states with “stand your ground” (or “shoot first laws”), there is a specific history in this case that cannot be ignored. One of a longstanding discord between Dearborn Heights and the City of Detroit, and the legacy of a segregtionist-turned-mayor named Orville Hubbard.

35 Years of Terror

First elected in 1942, former Assistant Attorney General of Michigan Orville Hubbard was the mayor of Dearborn, home to Ford Motor Company, for over 35 years. Often called the “Dictator of Dearborn”, Orville won 16 elections with over 70% of the vote. Hubbard was a vocal segregationist and considered his electoral successes as mandates to make Dearborn inhospitable for Black people. To do this, he weaponized and mobilized the Dearborn Police Department against Black people, particularly those from bordering Detroit.

The use of the Dearborn Police as a symbol of white supremacy was well known in Metro-Detroit. Dearborn’s official slogan is “The Hometown of Henry Ford”, a figure shrouded in his own past of antisemitism and racism. But under Hubbard's reign, the slogan plastered on Dearborn Police Department cars and equipment shifted to “Keep Dearborn Clean”. This was understood by all to mean “Keep Dearborn White”, which was all but confirmed by Hubbard on numerous occasions.

Hubbard’s policies were not always so thinly veiled. He clearly displayed his willingness to use the Dearborn Police as a deadly tool of white supremacy during the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. As chaos unfolded in Detroit, with his actions in view of the US Army and Michigan State Police, Hubbard lined armed Dearborn Police officers along the Detroit-Dearborn border and ordered his police officers to shoot any rioters on sight. Hubbard said of the (mostly Black) rioters, "When you have mad dogs running loose…you've got to bring them under control by brute force.”

Hubbard also sanctioned white violence by community members in denying Black people in Dearborn the protection of law enforcement. In 1965, a mob of white supremacist residents descended on a home that they believed had been sold to a Black family. The Dearborn Police were called, but Hubbard ordered the police not to get involved. As 400 residents destroyed the property, Hubbard proved his willingness to leave Black people without protection, at the mercy of both the police and Dearborn residents. This event did not go unnoticed, and Hubbard was indicted by the LBJ Administration for civil rights violations. His defense, funded by white supremacy groups, won his acquittal. He was subsequently reelected.

A Tale of Two Cities?

Modern-day Dearborn and Dearborn Heights are two separate cities, but they are by no means disconnected.. Until 1962, Dearborn Heights was considered a disputed part of the larger Dearborn Township, which had shifting borders for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1962, Dearborn Heights incorporated into its own municipality after an annexation attempt by neighboring Inkster, Michigan. By the time Dearborn Heights became its own entity, Hubbard had been mayor of modern-day Dearborn Heights for over 20 years.

After losing his formal grip on Dearborn Heights, Hubbard's reign lasted another 16 years, and his policies continued to have effect on the neighboring Heights. Geographically, Dearborn Heights is shaped like a dumbbell, and most of its length is bordered by Dearborn, save for the northeast and southeast tips of the city that reach out and touch Detroit. To this day, the geography and similar architecture of the towns make it difficult to know where Dearborn Heights ends and Dearborn begins, even to longtime residents. This ambiguity created a dangerous situation for Black people who had an interest in buying homes or building community in Dearborn Heights.

Hate's Lasting Presence

It is well documented that Detroit has the highest proportion of Black residents of any big city in the United States, with an estimated 77% of residents identifying as Black in 2021. Dearborn Heights, on the other hand, has a white population of 85%, with the proportion of residents who identify as Black below 9%. Of other similarly situated towns that touch Detroit’s East and Southeast edges, Dearborn Heights and Dearborn (with just 3% of the residents estimated to be Black) have the highest proportion of white residents and the least number of Black residents.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense mentioned race, town demographics, or the history of institutionalized segregation that shaped Wafer during the courtroom proceedings. He was still eventually found guilty of second degree murder and involuntary statutory manslaughter. And while Wafer’s conviction was a rare moment of reckoning, Dearborn had yet to address its past. On the day the verdict was announced, Dearborn Police cars were still emblazoned with “Keep Dearborn Clean”. And less than a mile from Wafer’s home, Orville Hubbard’s statute waived jovially to the visitors of the Dearborn Historical Museum.


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r6 - 07 Jun 2022 - 16:40:15 - AshleyWilson
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