Last summer, a black woman in Michigan defended herself, her mother, and her 2-year-old daughter with a registered (and unloaded) gun against a woman who she and her attorneys say tried to hit them with a car. She was a concealed carry permit holder and living in an open carry state — one with a “stand your ground” law in place.
Now, Siwatu-Salama Ra is serving a two-year prison sentence at Huron Valley Correctional Facility for felonious assault and felony firearm convictions. She’s seven months pregnant, and according to her attorneys, she’s receiving insufficient medical care — including being shackled to her bed during a vaginal exam — even though her pregnancy is high-risk. The case is under appeal, but the judge deciding Ra’s fate, Thomas Hathaway, has already denied a request to postpone Ra’s sentence until she gives birth.
Ra’s case is yet another instance of a black gun owner, with the permits to legally carry, defending themselves against violence — and getting punished for it.
I spoke with Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, who told me, “Siwatu should be home getting ready to deliver her baby, and being with her family. Instead, she is suffering and isolated being punished for protecting herself, her child and [her] mother. This is a shameful, shameful reality, and it’s clear that we need to challenge a criminal justice system that would try a pregnant black woman for upholding ‘stand your ground’ laws and her Second Amendment rights.”
Black gun owners, particularly black women, face unequal treatment under local laws
While concealed carry permit application numbers for both black Americans and women are rising steadily, and the number of black gun owners in total has spiked since the 2016 election, they have long been unable to access the same protections their white neighbors enjoy when it comes to exercising their gun rights, including in “stand your ground” states.
The Urban Institute found that in “stand your ground” states, when white shooters kill black people, 34 percent of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable. Only 3 percent of deaths are ruled justifiable when the shooter is black and the victim is white. Even when black shooters kill black people, those shootings are less likely to be deemed justifiable in a court of law than those involving white shooters who kill white people.
Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, a gun rights association aimed at urban communities and black Americans, told me that too often, local governments “drop the ball” when it comes to protecting the gun rights of black Americans. He referenced the case of Marissa Alexander, who served three years in prison for firing a single shot near her husband, who she said had threatened to kill her.
“You have situations where women defending their lives are sent to jail for the dumbest shit on earth. [A man] attempts to attack [a woman] and instead of killing the man, [she] shoots in the air, and that woman is facing years,” he said. “Those scenarios are outrageous and mass media and public outrage is heightened, but justice for these situations is trash.”
Making matters worse, while Black Lives Matter and other left-leaning civil rights organizations have been publicizing Ra’s case and others like it, mainstream pro-gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, were dispiritingly quiet about the incident — though the “stand your ground” law in place in Michigan, passed in 2006, was made possible by a group working in close contact with the NRA.
In 2012, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) put out a statement saying “stand your ground” legislation allows “lawful people to defend themselves, and deters would-be murderers, rapists and robbers.” NRA-ILA executive director Chris W. Cox said in 2013 that “self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right.”
In a response on Twitter, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch said that she had discussed the case on NRATV and on her radio show, but there appear to be no mentions of the case on the NRA website.
However, on Monday, the NRA’s Twitter account shared the Detroit Metro Times’s story on Ra’s case with the message, “No one should be imprisoned for exercising their right to self-defense.”
Rhonda Anderson, Ra’s mother, is an organizing manager for the Sierra Club and has been outspoken in her daughter’s defense. In a statement to Vox, she said:
My daughter Siwatu has been a powerful force for justice in Detroit and across the globe since she was just a young teenager. When she was 19 years old, she took on polluters like the Marathon Oil Refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator. As co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, she planned an environmental justice conference to bring folks from around the country to Detroit — that conference will be happening without her this month as she is incarcerated.
A dispute between parents and a confusing Detroit police rule
In July of last year, Ra, a prominent environmental activist in Detroit and co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), was in the midst of a long-running argument with Channell Harvey, the parent of a girl who had been fighting with Ra’s niece at school. When Harvey brought her daughter to the home of Ra’s mother, Rhonda Anderson, for a sleepover on July 16, Ra asked the girl to leave.
What follows is still unclear. At first, Harvey told police that when she returned to pick up her daughter from Anderson’s home, Ra threatened her, then pulled a gun out of her car after saying, “I got something for you.” Harvey then told police that she took pictures of Ra holding the gun, and then drove to the police station and filed a complaint.
But that’s not what Ra and her family say happened. In a video made for supporters of Ra’s case, Ra said that Harvey was “literally going back and forth with this car, putting it in reverse and fixing herself to come at us again, and go after my mother, who was also standing very close to me and wasn’t able to run.”
Harvey later told police that she may have “accidentally” hit Ra’s car while leaving Anderson’s property. According to Ra, she then pulled her 2-year-old daughter out of her car (where she had been playing during the dispute), then grabbed her unloaded handgun out of her car and pointed it at Harvey. After Harvey left, Ra also filed a police report.
During the trial, a DPD detective testified that the department considers the person who arrives at the police station first to be the victim, lawyers say. Thus, detectives were not allowed to speak to Ra directly.
That wasn’t the only problem during Ra’s trial. First and foremost, the jury — which, according to one of Ra’s attorneys, Victoria Burton-Harris, was “very diverse” — wasn’t informed that the gun charges carried a mandatory prison sentence of two years. The trial was held with a snowstorm looming, which Burton-Harris told the Metro Times led to the jury making too quick of a decision on a verdict — one that found that Ra was guilty of assaulting Harvey but was acting in self-defense toward Harvey’s daughter (who was in the passenger seat and, notably, not driving the car.)
And according to questions sent to the judge during deliberations, the jury was very focused on why Ra’s gun was in her car, where her daughter was playing — an issue that wasn’t part of the case presented to them.
But Burton-Harris told me that she’ll never really know what went into the jury’s decision, saying, “I wasn’t in the room.”
Today, Siwatu-Salama Ra is in prison, in the only correctional facility in Michigan that houses women — one with severe overcrowding problems and structural issues. There she will stay, away from her young daughter and in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy. Because she defended herself with a legally owned — and unloaded — gun, in a state where doing so appears to be perfectly legal.
As Burton-Harris told me, “This case was simple — a black woman, a mother, a daughter, an activist was afraid — and it didn’t matter. Her fear wasn’t significant enough for a jury of her peers to believe it. We’ll never know what more she needed to endure to justify her fear. She stood her ground and is now serving a mandatory two-year prison term. It’s a hard pill to swallow.”