Siwatu-Salama Ra is facing the unthinkable after being sentenced to two years in prison for standing her ground during a frightening encounter.
Ra, a fierce environmental activist who represented her community of Detroit at the Paris Climate talks and fought against toxic plants in her neighborhood, may be forced to give birth behind bars. She was convicted of one count of felonious assault stemming from an incident in which she brandished a registered firearm to defend herself, her mother, and her 2-year-old daughter.
According to the Detroit Metro Times, Ra was at her mother’s house when a fight broke out between her niece and her niece’s friend. When Ra asked the friend to leave, she was confronted by the girl’s mother, Chanell Harvey. Ra said Harvey began ramming her car, with the activist’s 2-year-old daughter inside, before attempting to run over Ra’s mother. To stop the attack, Ra grabbed her unloaded —and legally registered— handgun from her glove box. Ra pointed the gun at Harvey’s car, which put an end to the threat.
Unfortunately, Harvey went to the police station to file a report a few hours before Ra, and was therefore treated as the victim throughout proceedings, while Ra was treated as the aggressor.
In spite of Michigan’s stand your ground laws, which allow licensed gun owners to use a firearm to protect themselves, Ra was charged with two counts of felony assault, and later convicted on one. Ra and her lawyer, Victoria Burton-Harris, argued police never considered the activist could be a victim because she’s Black.
“You're allowed to behave differently when you’re fearful based on the color of your skin,” Burton-Harris told the Detroit Metro Times. “George Zimmerman was allowed to be fearful and to act on that fear. He was allowed to take the life of an unarmed Black child. Juxtapose that next to my client who had a car coming at her mother, and that same car had just presented a danger to her child. It was driven by the complaining witness, but Siwatu wasn’t allowed to be fearful and rely on her government-licensed and sanctioned firearm to ward off her attacker.”
Ra reiterated her lawyer’s stance during her sentencing hearing.
“The prosecutor convinced the jury and judge that I lacked fear and that’s not true,” she said. “I was so afraid, especially for my toddler and mother. I don’t believe they could imagine a Black woman being scared — only mad.”
Environmental groups have spoken out on Ra’s behalf. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said Ra was “a powerful and inspiring leader in the Michigan environmental justice community” and called her incarceration unjust.
Because of Michigan’s mandatory minimum laws, the judge had no discretion in sentencing Ra, who was directed to serve two years in spite of being pregnant. Although Ra’s lawyers asked the judge to delay her sentence until after she gives birth this summer, the request was denied and she was sent to prison, where her legal team said she’s receiving inadequate care.
“They put the shackles so tight around her ankles that she couldn't even walk and lost all feeling in her feet,” Burton-Harris said. “She’s six to seven months pregnant, so ankles are already swollen. She doesn’t have access to good health care, and it’s totally inhumane to shackle a pregnant woman’s feet to a bed as she’s getting a vaginal exam.”
Burton-Harris said she will appeal the case. In the meantime, they are hoping Ra can be released on bond during the appeal process so that she can avoid having her baby behind bars.