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Why Was a Pregnant Black Activist Sentenced to Two Years In Prison For Standing Her Ground?

Black environmental activist and mother Siwatu-Salama Ra was sentenced to two years for brandishing a registered, unloaded weapon to defend the lives of her family. If she remains in prison, Ra, who is pregnant, will give birth in shackles in June. The case sheds light on how “Stand Your Ground” laws fail to protect the rights of Black gun owners.

How does a pregnant Black woman receive a two-year sentence for defending herself and her family with an unloaded registered handgun, against someone who attempted to hit her with a car? Why don’t Stand Your Ground laws protect Black people who stand their ground and act in self-defense, and why doesn’t the NRA seem to care? Why do the laws disproportionately punish Black people? Why are these stories often swept under the rug?The case of Detroit environmental activist and young Black Muslim woman Siwatu-Salama Ra raises questions, as she serves a mandatory sentence and is set to give birth to her second child in prison, and in shackles, after standing her ground.

Siwatu-Salama Ra, 26, is a community leader and activist with the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. In July 2017, there was an altercation at the Detroit home of Ra’s mother, in connection with a fight between Ra’s niece and the friend of the niece a few months earlier, as the Detroit Metro Times reported. The friend came to Ra’s mother’s house, reportedly leading to a dispute between Ra and Channell Harvey, the friend’s mother, who had come to pick up her daughter.

In a quick escalation, Harvey rammed her car into Ra’s vehicle while the activist’s 2-year-old daughter was playing inside. As Harvey allegedly attempted to run over Ra’s mother, Ra took her unloaded, registered handgun from the glove compartment and brandished the weapon, which defused the situation. Ra was a licensed concealed gun owner. Harvey then reportedly took three photos with her cellphone of Ra holding her handgun and went to the police to file a report that Ra was threatening her with a gun. After Harvey, who was on probation for a gun charge at the time, filed her report with the police, Ra also filed a report. But Ra’s attorneys say that a detective testified that Detroit Police Department policy dictates that the first person to file a report is considered the victim — in this case Harvey. Police and prosecutors have denied the existence of the policy.

The jury, ending their deliberations early due to a pending snowstorm, found Ra guilty of felonious assault against Harvey and of “felony firearm” — use of a firearm while committing a felony — but not guilty of felonious assault charge against Harvey’s daughter, yielding Ra a mandatory two-year sentence. The jury was unaware of the mandatory sentence because juries are not provided such information.

Described by Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune as “a powerful and inspiring leader in the Michigan environmental justice community,” Siwatu-Salama Ra has made her presence known in the national and international environmental arenas, participating in the COP21 conference in Paris, taking on polluters such as the Marathon Oil Refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator when when she was only 19, and organizing people from around the country, as her mother Rhonda Anderson noted. Anderson, an organizing manager with Sierra Club in Detroit, told Michigan Public Radio that her daughter grew up in Detroit’s Afrocentric “activist culture community” and that Siwatu’s name means “born during war, to bring in peace, sent by God.” Anderson believes the stereotype of the angry Black woman helped convict Siwatu. “I know that she was innocent, that she was doing exactly as she said,” Anderson said. “She was protecting me, herself, and her daughter, from a person who was enraged, and hell-bent on hurting somebody, or threatening to hurt somebody.” While fear was at the heart of the case, with prosecutors arguing Siwatu did not look scared, her supporters note a reason why she was frightened — a 2015 road rage incident in which a white man pointed a gun at her and daughter while driving in Macomb County, Michigan.

In Ra’s trial, the jury was focused on why the gun was in her car, an issue that was not part of the case.

Mandatory sentencing — which strips judges of the discretion to sentence defendants such as Siwatu — disproportionately affects Black people. A University of Michigan Law School study found that Black defendants are 75 percent more likely to be subjected to a mandatory sentence than white defendants who committed the same offense.

Under Michigan’s Stand Your Ground law, a person who is not committing a crime has the right to use force against someone in self-defense, without a duty to retreat, if “he or she honestly and reasonably believes that the use of that force is necessary to defend himself or herself or another individual from the imminent unlawful use of force by another individual.”

The NRA, which has lobbied heavily for Stand Your Ground laws, has faced criticism for its silence and inaction on Ra’s case.  The gun rights organization tweeted about Ra, and NRA TV discussed the case:

Whether the NRA will assist Ra, however, remains to be seen. Unlike white people, Black people have been unable to secure their gun rights in Stand Your Ground states. According to the Urban Institute, when whites fatally shoot Black people, 34 percent of those killings are found justifiable. However, only 3 percent of homicides involving Black perpetrators and white victims are judged justifiable, while cases involving Black shooters killing Black people are less likely to be found justifiable than when the shooter and the decedent are white.

With an already complicated history regarding Black people, the NRA has been cited for its silence on Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence victim who was convicted for firing a shot to fend off her abusive husband in 2012, and whose Stand Your Ground defense was rejected. Further, the NRA said nothing of the Second Amendment rights of Philando Castile, who was killed by police in St. Anthony, Minnesota in 2016 for legally carrying a gun. Rather the group trolled Castile’s supporters and lashed out at them on social media. The NRA and its board members and spokespeople have made racially offensive comments about Black people and have made open calls to white supremacy by blaming Black Lives Matter for racial hatred and warning the group will torture and kill white people like Black South Africans. One NRA recruitment ad made open calls for violence against anti-Trump resistance movements. The president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence even called the NRA terrorists.

Black Lives Matter, which protests police violence against Black people, has taken on the cause of Siwatu-Salama Ra, who is fearful of giving birth in prison.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors told Democracy Now! that the shackling of Siwatu is ”disturbing and barbaric,” adding the jailed activist will be shackled while giving birth. “She’s been shackled several times, at doctor’s visits, shackled so badly that she can’t feel her — her legs go numb. This practice of shackling has been stopped in some states, but obviously not all,” Khan-Cullors said. “And so, yes, she will be shackled while giving birth, unfortunately. And it’s devastating for any person who’s pregnant and giving birth to have to go through anything but the labor, anything extraneous outside of the labor. So, to be shackled is just disturbing and barbaric.”

Often in Michigan, prisoners are shacked when in labor and are not allowed to have family or friends with them while giving birth. Typically, the mother can only spend 24 hours with her baby, who is then removed from her. Even prisoners with high-risk pregnancies who were allowed medical care outside the prison were subjected to humiliating strip searches, belly chains and handcuffs, with children’s services informing mothers their baby could be placed in foster care. In a recent study of shackling policies for pregnant women throughout the country, Michigan was unwilling to provide information on its guidelines. At Huron Valley, the only women’s prison in Michigan, pregnant prisoners are reportedly handcuffed during transport to the hospital even when in active labor, and while restraints are removed in the hospital unless there is authorization to do otherwise, there is no state legislation mandating the practice, and apparently no regard for the needs and concerns of pregnant and postpartum women. Ra is reportedly receiving inadequate medical care for her high-risk pregnancy, with her feet shackled to the bed during vaginal exams.

Prison is no place for a pregnant woman, noted Victoria Burton-Harris, who is representing Ra and seeking her release while appealing the case. “It’s hard enough to carry a child, to carry a child full term. And Siwatu did not carry her first child to term. She had an early pregnancy, or she had an early delivery date with her first child. She had serious complications with that pregnancy,” Burton-Harris told Democracy Now! “And she’s currently showing signs and symptoms of the same complications now with the second pregnancy. And so, we are working diligently to get her released on an appeal bond, so that she can deliver her child safely at home.” Siwatu’s legal team is also pursuing a reversal of her conviction, a commutation and pardon.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan also filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of Ra, who is imprisoned at Huron Valley Correctional Institution, alleging the Michigan Department of Corrections is denying her of her freedom of religious expression by denying her pork-free meals, and not providing her with a hijab for daily prayers. Ra, who has lost weight while in prison, does not want to give up meat while she is pregnant.

An online Freedom Fund and a #FreeSiwatu website were established to support Ra.

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