A 26-year-old, pregnant environmental activist is serving a two-year sentence at Michigan’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility right now.
But Siwatu-Salama Ra says she acted in self-defense when she pulled a gun on another woman last summer during an altercation outside her mother’s Detroit home.
Ra is a licensed gun owner, and she never fired a shot. Her supporters believe her case highlights a disparity in how the justice system treats black gun owners who use their weapons in self-defense — and question whether she would be behind bars if she was white.
Born into activism
Ra was born into what her mother, Rhonda Anderson, calls Detroit’s African-centered “activist culture community.”
“Siwatu’s name means born during war, to bring in peace, sent by god,” said Anderson.
Anderson is a prominent activist in that community. Her work focuses on environmental justice issues, like the toxic emissions and other contaminants that haunt poor, industrial cities like Detroit.
As she grew up following her mother to community meetings and protests, Ra became one too. After attending a student climate change conference in Wisconsin at age 15, Ra became passionate about environmental justice. She also took an interest in youth issues, mentoring younger activists with groups like the East Michigan Environmental Action Council.
As Ra blossomed into a young activist in her own right, her work took her far beyond the city where she was born.
“She’s been to Turkey. She’s been to Paris. She’s been to Senegal twice,” said Anderson.
She calls her daughter a “kind, generous, considerate” person who’s also an accomplished dancer and mother to a three-year-old daughter, Zala.
Anderson believes that the many stresses of life in Detroit’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods can create many kinds of toxic situations. And one of those arose last July, in front of her home on the city’s west side.
“This incident was really a result of an altercation two children had had,” said Ra’s attorney, Victoria Burton-Harris.
The two children are Ra’s teenage niece, and one of her schoolmates. They were friends, but the girls got into a fight at school, in which Ra’s family say the other girl attacked Ra’s niece.
The two girls made up, but tensions lingered between the families. Which is why Ra was unhappy when the other girl's mother, Channell Harvey, dropped her daughter off to spend the night at Anderson’s house last July 16.
Ra told the girl to leave. The girl called her mother, crying, to come pick back and pick her up.
“And she was irate when she pulled up. She pulled up upset and demanding answers,” Burton-Harris said.
From there, their stories diverge.
Harvey said she returned to Anderson’s home confused and upset about why her daughter couldn’t stay at Anderson’s home, saying Ra’s niece had spent several nights at her house the prior week.
Harvey says Ra approached her car, using profanities and angrily telling her to leave. When Harvey didn’t immediately go, she said Ra told her “I got something for you.”
Then, according to Harvey, Ra went to her parked car, pulled out her daughter who had been playing in the front seat, then pulled out a gun and aimed it at Harvey and her daughter.
Harvey’s account continues with Anderson coming down off the porch and “smacking the gun” out of Ra’s hands. After it fell to the ground, Ra picked it up and pointed it at Harvey and her daughter again. That’s when Harvey says she drove away, going immediately to the police station and filing a police report — and providing them with three cell phone pictures she’d snapped of Ra holding her gun.
In a follow-up interview with police a couple of weeks later, Harvey told a slightly different version of the story. Crucially, she added one detail: that she “accidentally” struck Ra’s car with her own while trying to drive away.
What Harvey did with her car plays a much larger role in Ra’s version of the same event.
Ra says Harvey returned to Anderson’s home irate, and began using her car as a weapon.
“She started yelling at me, screaming at me cursing at me,” Ra says in a video her supporters recently made about her case. “And in the midst of this I’m asking this woman to leave. And she wouldn’t.
"I was afraid. And I told her, 'You have to leave now."'
Ra pulled her daughter out of her car. Meanwhile, 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,” she says.
Ra claims that’s when she pulled her unloaded, licensed firearm from her car and pointed it at Harvey and her daughter.
Ra also filed a police report with her account of the incident less than two hours after Harvey did.
But she was the only one charged — with felonious assault against Harvey and her daughter.
Self-defense and the law
That question of fear — of what fear looks like, when it’s justified, and who decides that — is at the heart of this case.
It’s also at the heart of Michigan’s laws governing when acts of self-defense are justified, and when they’re not.
Steven Dulan is with the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners, and an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School.
Dulan says pulling a gun is always considered deadly force. The person using deadly force has no duty to retreat from a threatening situation.
But, “Deadly force is appropriate self-defense only when preventing death, great bodily harm, or rape,” Dulan says. “Imminent death, bodily harm or rape.”
It’s a two-pronged legal test: There must be an actual, imminent threat to yourself or others, and your use of deadly force must be reasonable.
“So you have to actually believe it, and basically the jury has to agree that your fear was reasonable under the circumstances,” says Dulan.
Ra didn’t have to take her case to a jury. Her first lawyer encouraged her to take a plea deal.
But Ra didn’t want that, says her trial attorney Victoria Burton-Harris.
“Siwatu rejected that advice and said, ‘I would rather fight this. I am not who they are painting me as. I acted in self-defense. I would like to present my case to a jury,’” said Burton-Harris.
All the jury had to go on were these dueling stories, and the three cell phone pictures Harvey had taken of Ra holding her gun.
Burton-Harris says the prosecutor made a big deal out of those pictures, saying Ra didn’t look scared in them.
Burton-Harris questions that perception. “Fear looks different on different people,” she said. “And that was a part of what the jury had to analyze and determine.”
At trial, Burton-Harris attacked Harvey’s credibility. She pointed out that Harvey gave several different accounts of the incident, and that she was on probation for a gun charge at the time it occurred.
In the end, the jury apparently agreed with the prosecution. But it was a strange split verdict.
The jury found Ra guilty of felonious assault against Harvey, but not against her daughter — even though the two were in the car together when Ra pointed her gun at them.
Jurors also found Ra guilty on felony firearm charge prosecutors added after Ra refused a plea deal. That’s a mandatory two-year sentence under Michigan law, and the reason Ra is serving a two-year sentence today.
Burton-Harris says “we’ll never know” exactly how or why the jury reached this verdict, which suggests that “either Siwatu acted in self-defense toward the daughter, but not the mother, or that she never did anything wrong to begin with toward the daughter.”
“It’s so puzzling that it made me wonder if … maybe they couldn’t decide and they just split the baby. Maybe they wanted to go home,” Burton-Harris said.
Perceptions of fear
Ra thinks the jury saw her as angry rather than scared. And she thinks that’s at least partly because of her race.
“Something we’re fighting against is the way the world views what black fear looks like,” Ra said. “If I was somebody else, maybe, just maybe, they would have identified with [me] when I said: ‘I was afraid.’”
Steve Dulan of Cooley Law School says it’s hard to know for sure whether black defendants who invoke self-defense are convicted more often than white defendants in similar cases.
“I honestly don’t think we have enough data on that. I think it’s a legitimate concern, and I think more data needs to be gathered,” Dulan said.
But some researchers have drawn that conclusion, though a lack of data and the number of possible confounding factors limits how widely it can be applied. And it’s often difficult to judge how much racial bias impacts the outcome of any one particular case.
But Ra’s mom, Rhonda Anderson, is also convinced that stereotypes — particularly ideas of black women as innately angry — helped convict her daughter.
“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.”
Ra’s supporters point to another incident in her past to suggest why she was particularly frightened, and one reason she carried a gun in the first place. In 2015, she and her daughter were driving in Macomb County when Ra claims a white man pointed a gun at her in a road rage incident.
Ra reported the incident to the Macomb County Sheriff’s office, which investigated. Sheriff’s deputies interviewed the man, who claimed he didn’t have a gun at all. He said he waved his cell phone at Ra, because she was talking on her phone while driving and he was angry about it.
For Anderson, this is proof of the justice system’s built-in bias.
“She said it was a gun. I believe her,” Anderson said.
“She was very frightened. Then they went to this man, accepted his word over her word, and it was done. Whereas in this situation, where she stood up for herself, now she’s in prison because of it.”
Holding onto hope
Ra now sits in prison, seven months pregnant with a little boy. She had serious complications with her first pregnancy, and her current one is considered high-risk.
Anderson is consumed with worry about her daughter’s condition in a situation she describes as “a living hell.” As an activist, she’s not used to sitting back and putting a lot of stock in concepts like “hope.”
“But hope is, I think, probably more important for us now than anything,” Anderson said. “Because we’re realizing, at least I am, that faith and trust in this system … mm-mmm.”
Ra’s legal team plans to appeal her conviction. But first, they’re trying to secure an appeals bond.
That would allow Ra to go free while the case is on appeal, and deliver her baby outside prison custody. Prisoners who give birth are often shackled, and aren’t allowed to have family or friends with them during the birth. The baby is usually removed from the mother 24 hours.
Ra says “that’s the pain” of this whole story: “To have my first son, and to not be with him for the first two years.”