Siwatu-Salama Ra was in her third trimester when she spent her first night in prison. She sat inside the walls of the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, some 64km southwest of Detroit, for 258 days. Ra is co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, a local environmental organising group in Detroit. However, her community leadership didn’t keep her from getting ensnared in the criminal justice system for a crime she doesn’t think she committed.
The 26-year-old now has a felony on her record that’ll stay there forever—unless she succeeds in appealing it. Why? Allegedly, for attempting to protect her mother and her then-2-year-old daughter back in July 2017. According to Vox, what began as an altercation between Ra’s niece and another girl at school escalated when the second girl’s mother, Channell Harvey, tried to hit Ra and her family with her car. When Ra pulled out a registered, unloaded, and concealed firearm she had a licence to carry to defend her family, she got hit with a “felony firearm” charge—which requires a minimum mandatory two-year sentence—even though she’s in a state with a Stand Your Ground Law.
The fact Ra is black and was found guilty despite this law threw her case into the national spotlight. The environmental community has thrown all its support behind her, especially the Sierra Club, for whom her mother, Rhonda Anderson, works in Detroit.
However, this isn’t a story about gun rights (though gun violence certainly plays a role in the environmental space). It’s a story about a young mum and an environmental leader who got dealt a bad hand. It’s a story about how the experiences people of colour, especially women of colour, face in their everyday lives help shape their work, especially those in the predominantly white environmental space.
Ra was released on November 15 by Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Donald Knapp, who is letting her stay home with her two small children until the appeals process plays out. Earther spoke with Ra recently to hear about what her recent experiences meant for her and for the environmental justice movement as a whole.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earther: How does this [your incarceration] relate to the general struggle black women and other women of colour who are activists face?
Ra: What really makes this unique is that it’s almost like a bridge to bring other people on board to this same type of work we’ve been talking about for so long. What separates environmental and environmental justice organisers is that there is this huge impact on people. We’re talking about the same thing and making that same connection when we’re talking about the prison industrial complex.
Our American society is so addicted to the militarization culture. In the environmental justice space, as an organiser, you cannot leave out how the military and the production of weapons are some of the biggest polluters in this world. So if we’re fighting for environmental justice and making connections of how it impacts people first, then we’re also fighting these other exploitive systems like the military.
When I was in prison, there was a huge connection to what people consider the military and the prison life—whether it was the uniform, the treatment, the food, the confinement, the separation of your family—but also in a more degrading way because you’re a prisoner. You’re not considered a hero fighting on the frontline. We as environmental justice organisers who have had to forcibly take a large look at the prison industrial complex up front, up close, say this is all interconnected and impacts people of colour and women first.
Earther: What was your time in prison like?
Ra: I was able to sit very still and just kind of take a step back. I was able to try to understand how I even ended up inside of a prison. That kind of just showed me how many more women are in there unjustly. My knowing that I’m innocent and my community knowing that I’m innocent, but yet still I was sent to prison? That just let me know how many people are sent to prison in that same manner who were sent there unjustly.
I was really able to get centered and to respect some of the things we look over, some of the very simple moments. The moments we tend to take for granted here : to turn running water on when you want to, to take a shower when you want to, to eat when you want to, to have some dignity about yourself, and to not have to strip naked and have an officer search your naked body . There are different things that you hold compassionately forever when you become a prisoner. I understand the power of love a lot more. I am able to recognise the power of people a lot more. I recognise a dying and threatened system, and it is the work of people, it is the work of love, that’s going to win this battle.
I did a lot of reading around neuroscience, how the brain stores trauma. We know much about that as organisers. We store us some trauma. We internalize it. We eat up crises. We carry it on our shoulders. We are those ones, so I was really into trying to figure out how we must create an easy transition to shift into this new phase of humanity.
Earther: Were there any concerns you faced around environmental injustice while incarcerated?
Ra: We’re fighting to keep our water running. We’re fighting to breathe clean air. We’re fighting for clean and healthy land. It was the same inside of a prison. As a prisoner, you’re treated like a third-class citizen where they can justifiably poison your water.
The comparison is that communities of colour are already prisoners. We’re prisoners to this very unhealthy nasty way of living and the way we’re treating each other, but you saw it all too well from inside the prison: from the running water we’d have to drink coming out yellow, and the officers knew very well not to drink that water, but we were forced to. That was all we could drink.
Earther: You were pregnant and drinking yellow water?
Ra: My last three months of my pregnancy were in prison. So, yeah, many women are drinking yellow water while they’re in prison. And this is something the women were organising around. It’s not like things are going on in the prison, and women are not doing something about it. You normally see women on the frontlines fighting, and you saw the very same thing inside the prison: women fighting to hold onto some of their dignity and humanity to say, “This is not how we will live.”
There was work happening around getting our water treated. There was work around not having maggots in our food . There was work around pregnant women and their rights . There was so much organising happening behind bars . In fact, it was very inspiring to see the women fighting for themselves and the community inside .
Earther: Do you plan on continuing those battles now that you’re on the outside?
Ra: Yeah, I’m accountable to my community anywhere I go, so now these women are my community. They call me. They write me emails all day, and we talk back and forth about what they need. I have dedicated the rest of my life to this work, and that’s all I know to do , so you have a large population of women who will be returning citizens who have literally been face to face with the very beast we’re fighting. They are walking out of that prison cell, out of custody, with much knowledge, so resilient, and so beautiful. I encourage that everybody support women and men coming out of these prisons because they have seen so much. They know what it will take to win this.
Earther: How did incarceration change your perspective on environmental issues?
Ra: It really strengthened my belief in de-siloing our work and stepping away from, “Oh, I work on this and only this .” Once upon a time, I knew nothing about prison s. If you asked me about prisons as an environmental justice organiser, I could tell you America was addicted to punitive, barbaric practices and that mass incarceration is absolutely ridiculous. I could say that, but I didn’t know what it was really like.
It took me to literally be taken away from my family and taken away from my children and placed in a prison cell to understand we have to step away from that. We have to step away from self-identified work and dedicate our entire selves to a better world.
As an environmental justice organiser, you’re already prone to recognise injustice anywhere, and so justice organisers are special because you don’t focus just on one thing. You have to look at everything and take everything into consideration of how all these injustices are interconnected and feeding off one another.
If you’re fighting Exxon, you’re also fighting against the prison industrial complex. If you’re fighting against climate change, you’re also fighting the prison industrial complex . If you’re fighting for clean water, you’re also fighting against the prison industrial complex. We have to look at it like that .