#FreeSiwatu: Pregnant Black Detroit Activist Jailed for Standing Her Ground & Protecting Her Family

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An environmental activist and young black mother in Detroit may be forced to give birth behind bars, after standing her ground during a frightening encounter. Since she was 15 years old, Siwatu-Salama Ra has fought for environmental justice. She campaigned against the Marathon oil refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator. She represented Detroit at the Paris climate summit. She’s also worked to engage kids and educate young mothers about nutrition. Now, at age 26, Siwatu has been sentenced to a mandatory two years in prison, following an incident in which she brandished her unloaded—and legally registered—handgun while defending her mother and 2-year-old daughter. She was sentenced last month to two years in prison even though she is scheduled to give birth in June. We speak to two of her attorneys and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Come Ye” by Nina Simone. Nina Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend, 15 years after she died.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to an environmental activist and young black mother in Detroit who may be forced to give birth behind bars, after standing her ground during a frightening encounter. Since she was 15 years old, Siwatu-Salama Ra has fought for environmental justice. She campaigned against the Marathon oil refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator. She represented Detroit at the Paris climate summit. She’s also worked to engage kids and educate young mothers about nutrition. Now, at age 26, she has been sentenced to a mandatory two years in prison, following an incident in which she brandished her unloaded—and legally registered—handgun while defending her mother and 2-year-old daughter.

AMY GOODMAN: In this video provided by her support team, Siwatu and her mother describe the verbal dispute between Siwatu and a neighbor. They say the neighbor confronted Siwatu, ramming Siwatu’s car, which at the time contained Siwatu’s toddler, with her own car. Fearing for her, her child and her mother’s lives, Siwatu brandished a gun—she is a licensed concealed gun owner—hoping to prevent the neighbor from running them over. The weapon was not loaded.

SIWATU-SALAMA RA: She had come to our house upset, very upset, very angry. She started yelling at me, screaming at me, cursing at me. In the midst of this, I’m asking this woman to leave, right? I’m asking her to leave, just go, you know, and she wouldn’t. And so the next thing that she did was ram her car into my car. Plus, my baby was in the car. She was in the car playing. That shocked fear in me, and I jumped and got my baby out of the car. So, she’s literally going back and forth with this car, putting it in reverse and fixing herself to come at us again and go after my mom. My mother, who was also standing very close to me, wasn’t able to run.

RHONDA ANDERSON: She’s using her car as a weapon. When I could not move, that’s when I was the most frightened. She was so close to hitting me that I can feel the car on my clothes.

SIWATU-SALAMA RA: That’s when I made the decision to reach for my firearm, that was unloaded, with no bullets. I was afraid. And I told her, “You have to leave now.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Even though no shots were fired and no one was harmed in the incident, Siwatu was convicted of one count of felonious assault and given a mandatory 2-year minimum sentence. She is now fighting to be released before the birth of her second child in June.

SIWATU-SALAMA RA: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Detroit, where we’re joined by attorney Victoria Burton-Harris, who’s seeking Siwatu’s release during the appeal of her case. Also in Detroit is Amy Doukoure. She is a staff attorney for the Michigan chapter of CAIR. That’s the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Today she’s filing a civil rights lawsuit over how Siwatu has been treated in prison. And in Los Angeles we’re joined by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, founder of Dignity and Power Now and a fellow at MomsRising. She was one of the first to call attention to the case in a story for The Grio headlined “Black Lives Matter co-founder seeks justice for pregnant mom incarcerated by Stand Your Ground law.”

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Victoria Burton-Harris. Lay out what happened. I think a lot of people are scratching their heads right now. Talk about the day that the last incident took place and what transpired next. How did the Detroit police get involved?

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

This tragic story, it started on a Sunday evening in July in Detroit at Siwatu’s family home, where her mother, sister, brother and nieces resided. Siwatu and her mother were sitting on the front porch when the complaining witness dropped her daughter off. And her daughter attended school with Siwatu’s niece. They were the same age. Prior to this Sunday evening in July, the two teen girls, Siwatu’s niece and the complaining witness’s daughter, they attended school together, and there was testimony at trial that the complaining witness’s daughter beat up Siwatu’s niece in the girls’ bathroom. And so, after that incident, the family naturally said, “This young lady is not a friend of yours.”

And so, when her mother dropped her off at the house, Siwatu and her mother sat on the front porch and looked each other, very puzzled and confused, and wondered why this young woman was just at their home, why was she just dropped off here. So, Siwatu went inside the house, asked her niece if her mother knew that this young lady was at the house visiting. Siwatu called her sister herself and found out from her sister that there was no permission given for this young lady to be at the family home that day visiting, and therefore Siwatu informed the young lady that she needed to call her mother to come back and pick her up. The young lady protested. She did not want to go home. Siwatu’s niece protested, as well. She didn’t want this young lady to go home. Apparently these two teen girls had patched up their issues, as children do. However, the family didn’t think it was appropriate for this young lady to be there.

And so, the mother arrived about 10 minutes later to pick the child up. She was very upset, irate even. She pulled back up to Siwatu’s family’s home. She started yelling, using profanity. She was very angry. She started demanding answers. “Why can’t my child be here? These girls have made up. Your niece has come to my home over the last two weeks. I don’t understand.” And she testified at trial that she thought she had a right to be on that property and to demand answers as to why her child was not welcome there. And that’s where this incident started.

Siwatu asked this woman to go. She had had her—her child had gotten in the car. So there was no reason for this woman to still be on the property or in front of that house. And the woman refused to leave. After Siwatu asked her to leave multiple times, the woman became even more upset. She wasn’t getting answers to the questions that she had, and so she decided at some point to escalate the situation and drive her car into Siwatu’s parked car on the street in front of the house. And inside that parked car was Siwatu’s 2-year-old daughter. She was in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel playing with the wheel—the car was off—and doing what children sometimes do on the summer days.

And so, when this woman rammed her car into the driver side door of Siwatu’s car, Siwatu’s tone completely changed. It went from, you know, “Bye. Leave. Please leave,” to “Oh, my god! You’re crazy! What’s wrong with you?” She retrieved her child, passed her child to someone else so that she could be safe. And she again went back to, you know, “You have to leave. Please leave. Go.”

By this point, Siwatu’s mom had come off the front porch, and she was again asking—or she also was asking this woman to leave. “Please, just go.” Mom was attempting to de-escalate the situation. The woman then decided she was going to attack Siwatu’s mom, and started using her car, as Siwatu’s mom testified at trial, as a battering ram, and started going forward and then reversing, going forward and then reversing, and she almost hit Siwatu’s mom. At that moment that she almost hit Siwatu’s mom, Siwatu became even more afraid. And that’s when she went to her parked car, retrieved her firearm and pointed it in the direction of this woman and said, “You need to leave.” The woman still did not leave.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, let me ask you—at some point, clearly, the woman then went to the police department, and this is clearly a dispute that escalated into really dangerous territory. The key thing here is: What was the response of the police department? Did they interview all of the people involved to find out who was in the right or who was in the wrong?

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: I really wish that they would have. Siwatu, after she pointed this firearm at the complaining witness and her daughter, the complaining witness snapped three photographs and said, “Oh, you’re a CPL holder. I have something for you.” She snapped the three photographs and immediately drove to the nearest police station, and she gave a false report. In this report, she did not mention that she attempted to hit Siwatu’s mother. In this report, she neglected to mention that she even hit Siwatu’s car, which she later admitted to doing in a subsequent police report. The police listed this complaining witness and her daughter as the victims in this case, victim one and victim two. And Siwatu was noted as the aggressor. Siwatu made—

AMY GOODMAN: After having interviewed them both?

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: No. So, Siwatu made a police report a few hours after the complaining witness and her daughter. And my this moment, or by this time, she has already been deemed the aggressor. And it was testified at trial by the investigating officer, the officer in charge, that their practice is, when a report is made and someone is noted as the aggressor, they are not allowed to speak to that person. There is no interview that is had with that aggressor. So, when Siwatu made a police report, she was never considered a victim. Her police report went nowhere, because it was made second. She was already, by the time she made her police report, again, deemed to be the aggressor. So no one followed up with Siwatu. No one did an interview with Siwatu. Siwatu was not called back to the station two weeks after she made her report, like the complaining witness and her daughter were, to give a written statement. Siwatu had one opportunity to provide her version of the events, and that was when she made her report a few hours after this mother and child. And the next thing that she knew, she was being contacted by the police, not for an interview and follow-up, an investigation, but because SWAT was outside of her home to arrest her.

AMY GOODMAN: Two weeks later? Was this two weeks later?

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: This was a few weeks later, yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Your response, why you felt this was so important? And to your knowledge, has the NRA stepped in to defend Siwatu because she stood her ground?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: You know, when I heard about this case, the first thing I felt was an immense amount of grief. I was thinking about what this young black woman was feeling like, sitting in a jail cell, pregnant. She hadn’t been convicted yet. And I felt like it was incredibly important that Black Lives Matter get behind this issue. We’ve seen this time and time again—black women not to be seen as victims, but end up inside jails, end up inside prisons, end up pregnant, being shackled. At this point, Siwatu has had to endure so much, has had to face so much. And this woman, who clearly was out of order, out of line, who is clearly racist, gets to be free. Once again we’re seeing this. And so, the work of Black Lives Matter has been to really uplift the story and follow the lead of folks in Detroit. But this was an incredibly important opportunity for us to talk about how black women are criminalized.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you fear, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, that if she gives birth in jail in June, that she will give birth in shackles?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: She will. 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. So, to be shackled is just disturbing and barbaric.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Amy Doukoure of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, why has your organization gotten involved? And what is the nature of the civil rights lawsuit you’re filing?

AMY DOUKOURE: Sure. So, Siwatu is a practicing Muslim woman. And since she’s been in jail, she hasn’t been accommodated for her religion. She requested a hijab, or a traditional Islamic head covering, so that she could make her five daily prayers. However, as of today, she still hasn’t received the head covering that she needs to pray. She also has not been given food accommodations. And some of the food that’s served at the prison has pork product in it. And as Muslims, we can’t eat pork products. So she’s had to abstain from eating meals at times, and protein, while she’s six, seven months pregnant, resulting in weight loss to her, because the prison just has not accommodated her religion appropriately.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could to talk—

AMY DOUKOURE: So, we’re—

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you asking for, Amy?

AMY DOUKOURE: 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 GOODMAN: Victoria Burton-Harris, Siwatu was convicted. Can you explain what happened in the trial?

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: Well, to a certain point. As you all know, Siwatu had a jury trial, and a jury of her peers decided the facts of this case. And they do so in seclusion in a jury room, and we are not allowed to go in that room while they’re deliberating. And this particular jury did not want to speak with the defense attorneys after they rendered their verdict. So, we’ll never really know how they decided the facts of this case and how this verdict was reached.

But I can tell you that we spent five days trying this case over two weeks. When we initially started picking a jury, which jury selection lasted about two days—or it took place over the span of two days—the jury pool was told that this was going to be a two-day trial. The jury pool that we had, a lot of them were unable to sit for jury duty and were unable to be selected, simply because even a two-day trial posed a hardship to some of those folks. We had one juror in particular who needed to drive her Uber in order to provide proper income or adequate income to pay her bills. And so, that’s important to note, because it did not take two days. It took five days to try this case. And so, I believe that that fact alone was considered in their deliberations.

During the trial, there was very little evidence other than the testimony that was provided. We told the jury that this is not a trial that you would see on television. There was no fingerprint evidence. There was no DNA evidence. There was simply the word of this complaining witness and her daughter versus the word of my client and her mother and her niece. There were civilian officers who testified—each officer who took the report from my client and from the complaining witness. Any officer in charge testified. So—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Victoria—

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: So—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Victoria Burton-Harris, we have just less than a minute, but we wanted to get your response to the issue of why you want her out by June and the situation with her pregnancy.

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Victoria, we just have 15 seconds, and I want to ask—the jury was not told that she faced a mandatory minimum of two years in jail. The judge had no leeway here. Is that right?

VICTORIA BURTON-HARRIS: That’s absolutely correct. There was actually a jury instruction read to the jury that said you are not to consider the penalty for the charges, that, you know, that is for me to decide. And that’s actually not true. Most of the time, the judges have the discretion. But with mandatory sentences, they do not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all very much for being with us—Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, has also called for the release of Siwatu—Victoria Burton-Harris, Siwatu’s lawyer, Amy Doukoure of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. We’ll link to your piece, Patrisse, also a fellow at MomsRising.

I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. I’ll be speaking in Lincoln, Nebraska, Friday night.

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