A Gun Will Only Protect You if You Are White
A pregnant Muslim African-American woman has been sentenced to two years in prison for brandishing a registered, unloaded gun at a woman who was attempting to hit her with her car.
She expects to give birth to her second child in prison, most likely in shackles.
Siwatu-Salama Ra is a Detroit community activist who has focused her efforts on combating big oil in her home state and has consistently championed environmental protection and regulation, going so far as to represent Detroit at the Paris Climate talks.
Ra has also developed educational and outreach programs to assist mothers and their children in learning about nutrition and the environment.
This upstanding member of the Detroit community was enjoying her evening on the porch of her home with her mother on a Sunday in July when she became engaged in a violent confrontation initiated by her neighbor, Chanel Harvey.
Harvey began attacking Ra and her mother verbally, and Ra consistently asked that Harvey leave.
Further enraged by Ra’s pleas, Harvey decided to drive her car into Ra’s parked vehicle, in which her 2-year old daughter was playing behind the steering wheel (the car was not on and the keys were not in the vehicle).
Ra rushed to retrieve her daughter from the vehicle that had just been hit, passed her to her mother, and resumed asking Harvey to leave, having become more forceful in her language as the situation escalated.
By this time, Ra’s mother had come down from the porch and was standing next to her daughter. Harvey then began driving towards Ra’s mother, threatening to hit the woman with her car.
In her panic to protect her mother and daughter, Ra ran to her car and retrieved a registered, licensed, unloaded weapon from her vehicle and pointed it at Harvey, demanding that she leave.
Harvey snapped photos of Ra holding the gun on her cell phone, drove to the nearest police station, and filed a false report in which she described Ra as the aggressor and failed to mention the violence she had enacted with her vehicle against Ra and her family.
Detroit police department policy apparently prevents law enforcement officers from interviewing an “aggressor,” and since Harvey’s report was filed before Ra’s, Ra was never interviewed by police or given the opportunity to present her side of the story.
The only contact she received from police was to inform her that a SWAT team was outside her home waiting to arrest her.
Last month, Ra was given a mandatory two-year sentence after being convicted of fellonious assault, despite the stand-your-ground laws in place in the state of Michigan that would usually have otherwise protected someone in Ra’s position.
But again, because Harvey’s report was filed first, Ra was unable to claim the protection of the stand-your-ground laws as she had already been labeled as the “aggressor.”
During her time in prison thus far, the seven-months-pregnant Ra has been shackled on numerous occassions, including during doctor’s visits, and expects to be forced to give birth under the same circumstances.
“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. 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.” – Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
Ra is also a practicing Muslim, and has requested that she be provided with a hijab and prayer mat so that she can make her five daily prayers.
She has also requested that her religious food accommodations be met, which has also gone ignored. Because many of the prison’s meals contain pork products, the pregnant woman has been forced to skip meals, thereby exposing herself to weight loss at a critical point during her pregnancy.
These violations of her religious rights have prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to intervene in Ra’s case on her behalf.
“What we’re really asking for is we’re asking for the Michigan Department of Corrections to follow the policy directives that they already have in place. There are policy directives that require them to provide religious meal accommodations for people that are being housed in their facilities, to allow them to have appropriate materials necessary for the reasonable practice of their religion, including, for Muslim women, a headscarf, a prayer rug and a Qur’an. And these policies are already in place for a reason. They’re just, in this case, not following them.” – Amy Doukoure of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
As if Ra weren’t facing enough obstacles already, she also faces complications in her pregnancy that drastically increase her need to give birth outside the confines of prison.
“Prison is no place for a pregnant woman. 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. 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.” – Victoria Burton-Harris, attorney for Siwatu-Salama Ra
Ra’s case painfully highlights the fallibility of mandatory sentences to adequately, appropriately, and justly punish crimes, as well as the inflexibility of the U.S. justice system.
More than anything, though, it highlights the inherent bias our country and our legal system both have towards women of color.
“Something that we’re fighting against is the way the world views what black fear looks like. I think that if I was somebody else, maybe, just maybe, they would have identified with when I said I was afraid. My name is Siwatu-Salama Ra. I’m a mother. I’m an organizer. I’m a daughter. I’m a wife. I have dedicated my life to serving others, my entire life. And so, I’m not thinking of myself when I heard that verdict. I could do it. But I thought of my children. That’s the pain, to have my first son and to not be with him for the first two years. Let me have this baby on the outside with my family, with my community.” – Siwatu-Salama Ra
To hear the full story behind the incident as told by Victoria Burton-Harris, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Amy Doukoure, listen to the interview conducted by DemocracyNow!’s Amy Goodman.