Despite having a concealed carry permit and a gun that had no bullets in it, a Black woman is looking at two years in prison.
This past summer, a Michigan woman used a registered (and unloaded) firearm to protect herself, her mother, and 2-year-old daughter from a woman who, according to her attorneys, tried to run them over with a car. She possessed a concealed carry permit and lived in an open carry state that has a “stand your ground” law in effect.
Presently, Siwatu-Salama Ra is at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, where she’s serving a two-year sentence after being found guilty of felonious assault and felony firearm charges. She is seven months pregnant, and her attorneys say she’s receiving inadequate medical care — including being cuffed to her bed during a vaginal exam — despite the fact her pregnancy is high-risk. Though Ra’s case is under appeal, Judge Thomas Hathaway, has already refused a request to postpone Ra’s sentence until the baby is born.
Ra’s case is yet another example of a legal Black gun owner getting punished for using a weapon to defend themselves.
MSN.com’s Jane Coaston spoke to Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who reportedly told her, “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.”
While concealed carry permit application numbers for both African-Americans and women are steadily increasing, and the number of Black gun owners has spiked since the 2016 election, the protections their white neighbors enjoy when it comes to exercising their gun rights have long been inaccessible, including in states that have a “stand your ground” law.
According to the Urban Institute, “stand your ground” states, when white shooters kill black people in “stand your ground” states, 34 percent of the resulting homicides are considered justifiable. When the shooter is Black and the victim is White, however, only 3 percent of deaths are found justifiable. Even in cases where both the shooter and victim are Black, those shootings are less likely to be ruled justifiable in a court of law than those where White shooters kill White people.
Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter, a gun rights association geared towards urban communities and Black Americans, told Coaston that local governments frequently “drop the ball” when it comes to protecting the gun rights of Black Americans. He cited the case of Marissa Alexander, who did three years in prison for letting off 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 s— 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, although Black Lives Matter and other left-wing civil rights organizations have been publicizing Ra’s case and similar ones, mainstream pro-gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, have been silent about the incident — though the “stand your ground” passed in Michigan 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) released 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.”
Responding to a comment on Twitter, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch said that she had discussed the case on NRATV and on her radio show, but it seems there is not a single mention of the case on the NRA website or social media platforms. Coaston reached out to the group for comment on the case.
Ra’s mother, Rhonda Anderson, is an organizing manager for the Sierra Club and has been speaking out 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.
In July 2017, Ra, a well known environmental activist in Detroit and co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), was in the middle of a long-running dispute with Channell Harvey, the mother of a girl who had been fighting with Ra’s niece at school. When Harvey dropped her daughter off at the home of Ra’s mother, Rhonda Anderson, for a sleepover on July 16, Ra asked the girl to leave.
What ensued is still not entirely clear. At first, Harvey told authorities that when she came back to pick her daughter up from Anderson’s home, Ra threatened her, then retrieved a gun from her car after saying, “I got something for you.” Harvey then told officers that she took pictures of Ra holding the gun, and then went to the police station and filed a complaint.
Ra and her family tell a very different account of what 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.”
Later, Harvey told police that she might have “accidentally” hit Ra’s car while leaving Anderson’s property. Ra says she then pulled her 2-year-old daughter out of her car (where she had been playing during the argument), then got her unloaded handgun out of her car and pointed it at Harvey. After Harvey left, Ra also filed a police report.
The problem is, Harvey filed her report first. In Detroit, the person who files a report first gets to become the “victim” in a legal dispute. According to the Detroit Metro Times:
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. Therefore, investigators were not allowed to speak to Ra directly.
That wasn’t the only issue during Ra’s trial. First and foremost, the jury — which, according to one of Ra’s attorneys, Victoria Burton-Harris, was “very diverse” — weren’t told that the gun charges carried a mandatory two-year prison sentence. The trial was held with an impending snowstorm, which Burton-Harris told the Metro Times led to the jury making too quick of a decision on a verdict — one that determined Ra was guilty of assaulting Harvey but was acting in self-defense toward Harvey’s daughter (who was in the passenger seat.)
And according to questions sent to the judge during deliberations, the jury was directed a lot of attention to why Ra’s gun was in her car, where her daughter was playing — an issue that wasn’t included in the case presented to them.
But Burton-Harris told Coaston that she’ll never really know what factored 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 that is severely overcrowded and has structural issues. She will remain there, away from her young daughter and in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy. Because she defended herself with a legally purchased — and unloaded — gun, in a state where doing so is supposed to be perfectly legal. And for now, the NRA, the country’s most vigorous defender of the right to bear arms, is curiously silent.
As Burton-Harris told Coaston, “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.”