When Criminal Justice and Environmental Justice Collide

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Yves here. While the abusive treatment of Standing Rock protestors got some national press play, this article indicates that environmental protestors are going to be even more subject to having their activities run afoul of law enforcement. And since “out” groups, like Native Americans, people of color in low-income urban areas, and rural populations (think fracking) are going to be the ones most subject to these problems, and hence more likely to protest, you have the double whammy of them being less likely to get a fair hearing.

By Justine Calma, Grist’s justice fellow. Originally published at

Rhonda Anderson and her daughter, Siwatu-Salama Ra, have spent much of their lives working to protect their Detroit community from polluters. Anderson has organized for the local Sierra Club for nearly two decades. And Ra represented the Motor City during the landmark Paris climate talks.

Fellow activists credit Ra with bringing this year’s Extreme Energy Extraction Summit — where activists from vulnerable communities strategize on fighting polluters — to Detroit for the first time.

Ra, however, won’t be able to attend. Last month, a judge sentenced the 26-year-old mother, who is currently 7-months pregnant, to a mandatory two years in prison after she was controversially convicted of felony assault and firearm possession. She faces the prospect of giving birth in prison — away from her family, as well as the community she works to lift up.

“My daughter — my baby — she’s not doing well,” Anderson tells Grist. Ra, who had complications in her last pregnancy, is already experiencing contractions this time around. Her mother describes a pelvic examination her daughter recently had to endure while shackled.

“It’s medieval,” Anderson says. “And it reminds me of slavery.”

Black communities in the United States, like the one Ra and Anderson serve, face a host of structural challenges that impact day-to-day life — from environmental injustice to heightened policing and racial profiling. Black people are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods that border oil and natural gas refineries — and they face a disproportionate amount of health threats as a result of air pollution. As a black woman, Ra is more likely to be incarcerated than a white woman — four times more likely, in fact. These systemic injustices have collided in Ra’s case, as her supporters say a double standard and a flawed legal system have robbed her community of one of its most dedicated defenders.

“Siwatu has spent her life fighting environmental injustice and pushing back against the big polluters who are violating the law to poison her community,” the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, said in a statement. “In this case, it does not appear that she is being afforded the protection of the law she deserves, as is all too often the case for women of color dealing with our criminal justice system.”

Here’s how Ra arrived at her current predicament: This past summer, at Anderson’s home, Ra got into an argument with another woman. As the dispute escalated, the woman reportedly rammed her vehicle into Ra’s car — which had Ra’s toddler inside — before allegedly aiming her car at Anderson. In response, Ra, who says she repeatedly asked the woman to leave, reportedly took out her unloaded, registered firearm. The woman called the police before Ra did, which authorities said made Ra the assailant in the case.

Michigan has a stand-your-ground law that protects people from facing criminal charges if they use deadly force in self-defense. It’s the same legal strategy George Zimmerman successfully employed in Florida after he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking to his father’s Orlando-area home. To prove her innocence under the provision, Ra needed to convince jurors that she was afraid for her life.

“The prosecutor convinced the jury and judge that I lacked fear, and that’s not true,” Ra said during her sentencing. “I was so afraid, especially for my toddler and mother. I don’t believe they could imagine a black woman being scared — only mad.”

Ra’s advocates have called into question the fact that the jury was not informed that finding Ra guilty would result in a mandatory sentence. Because of the required punishment for a guilty verdict, letters of support from the community attesting to her years of service had no effect in lessening her punishment.

“In environmental-justice organizing, you’re dealing with a lot of small emergencies all the time, especially in an underdeveloped, under-resourced city like Detroit,” says William Copeland who worked alongside Ra at the East Michigan Environmental Coalition. Her incarceration, he adds, “is a big emergency.”

Copeland says Ra excels at getting people who are often left behind engaged in environmental justice work. As a teen, she founded a program to get urban youth involved in the East Michigan Environmental Coalition — reeling in a group that other environmentalists hadn’t been able to reach.

“The successes that she had shows the depth of being able to speak people’s language — to be able to read something that’s written in one language and translate it to the language of the ‘hood or the language of the people,” Copeland says. “[Without Ra], those folks wouldn’t be getting involved.”

That’s one reason why he and Anderson say they need Ra back in the community immediately. In the past, she’s also worked to hold a Marathon Petroleum refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator accountable for their emissions. “Get her back out here so she can continue the work that she’s been doing all these years,” Anderson says.

Ra’s attorneys are working toward an appeal and asking that she be released on bond so that she can give birth outside of prison. On Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter filed a complaint on behalf of Ra and other Muslim women at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, noting that they have not been allowed religious meal accommodations or access to a hijabs.

As part of her campaign to free her daughter, Anderson is calling for the larger environmental community to realize that pollution is just one of many inequities people in fence-line communities face. But polluting and criminalizing these groups essentially go hand-in-hand, she explains.

“As long as we find a whole group of people dispensable, the environment is going to continue to be impacted. You can pollute them and do whatever to them, and white folks and anybody else can sit off to the side and say, ‘I’m safe — it’s not me,” Anderson says. “We are the ones that are preyed upon.”

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10 comments

  1. Tyronius

    White privilege is the ability to be surprised that such outrageous Injustice happens to people of color on a regular basis in our country.

    I find this entire case to be despicable and suspicious considering how disruptive her work has been to those who would profit by continuing to pollute in predominantly minority areas.

  2. southern appalachian

    just heard a couple speak about a series of articles they had written:
    “This is the first of a three-part investigation into North Carolina’s hog-farming industry. This story will examine claims by lower-income African-American residents of eastern North Carolina that neighboring hog farms have polluted their properties and efforts by lawmakers to shield pork producers from litigation. ”

  3. David

    From across the Atlantic, this seems a bizarre story. The woman concerned certainly deserves sympathy, but it seems that the dispute had nothing to do with environmentalism, but was an ordinary confrontation with another woman, which resulted in her drawing a gun. From the fact that the other woman’s skin color was not mentioned, I presume she was black as well. You can certainly argue that there was a miscarriage of justice or that she was punished too severely, but what this has to do with environmentalism, except as a hook to hang a story on, escapes me. Or is it that different laws apply (or should apply) to environmental activists? Puzzled of Europe.

    1. a different chris

      She’s a black woman who is contending outside of (whatever little) “safe zone” she has. Not the kind of thing that gets Al Sharpton on your quick dial, I don’t think.* This crap happens all the time and it’s, um, “limiting” to say the least.

      We can dig up plenty of stories where a pair of middle and upper class white women did the same thing and the cops didn’t even write it up. Every d*mn mall in America has seen that, I think.

      *could be wrong! but replace “Sharpton on quick dial” with “the attention of the Black Misleadership class” maybe

    2. human

      As usual. here is a hard-hitting, insightful story from Black Agenda Report that puts “Climate Justice” into perspective:

    3. Eclair

      Color me cynical, or just color me as one who has seen first hand both justice system violence against people of color as well as increasing justice system violence against people of color who are attempting to protect their homes, and their homeland, from the violence perpetrated by the extraction industries. And, who has read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”

      There is this: “The woman called the police before Ra did, which authorities said made Ra the assailant in the case.” So, if you have the local police on speed dial, you are automatically ‘not the assailant?’

      Ra’s gun was registered. And unloaded. And why do our gun laws permit citizens to carry guns, if not to protect themselves in situations such as this. Just applies to white citizens, you say?

      Ordinarily, this altercation would be viewed by the ‘authorities’ as one of those ‘black on black’ crimes, ho hum, let ‘those people’ iron out their own differences. But there is the opportunity to slap down good, an uppity young black woman who is bucking the system, and leading others to buck the system. Good lord, she might turn out to be another Martin Luther King, questioning the entire capitalist system and military -industrial complex!

      And police sent a SWAT team to arrest Ra. A young pregnant woman with a toddler. Overkill much?

      The jury was not informed that a conviction, under Michigan law, carries a mandatory two year sentence. Mandatory sentencing laws disproportionately affect people of color (see “The New Jim Crow). And, probably, poor people, but I have not seen confirmatory statistics on this.

      No one was injured. Again, color me cynical, but this prosecution seems to be a warning shot across the bow; if you’re black, don’t mess with the System, because you will suffer. And this racial violence is embedded in our system, our psyche, our constitution.

      I am happy, David, that you perhaps live in a country in which systemic violence, in the form of police and environmental brutality (think lead in the water in Flint, refineries in the Ponca tribe’s Oklahoma homeland (ok, technically it’s not their “homeland” since they were forcibly relocated there from what is now Nebraska)) is not endemic. But, we are exceptional.

    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      The “theory of the case” is that this woman was a very successful activist who was successfully mobilizing people who had been heretofore unreachable. She had already costed some illegal polluters some money, and she posed a credible threat of costing some really big illegal polluters some really big money. The local legal enforcement authorities were not concerned with her oh-so-exquisitely arguable-either-way maybe-or-maybe-not “infractions” of “law”. They were concerned to take her out of society and stop her work period.
      This arrest and “trial” and “conviction” is a decapitation strike. It is an example of the kind of decapitation strikes which the governating authorities will use against successfully impactful activists and leaders to stop them from costing the illegal polluter class money.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And if my understanding of what this is all about is correct, then it will be harder for any kind of activists to directly cost illegal polluters any of their illegal money. Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. If they visibly try, and are visibly stopped, perhaps they can be an organizing principle and a spur-to-action on the part of millions of remote onlookers.

        How many central and peripheral Clinton supporters are there in the #TheResistance? 50 million all told? Do they reaaaaa-ly care about things like this? Do they reaaaa-ly care about decapitation strikes against impactful activists under the color of Law? Reaaaaa-ly? REAAAAAAA-ly?

        If they reaaaaa-ly caaaaare . . . . SO much . . . . they can grind their 50 million individual lifestyles around to strangle back their use of energy, primarily electricity most of all, to strangle back the revenue streams reaching Big Koch and Coal. Big Koch and Coal support Trump for all the obvious reasons. And the #TheResistance are supposed to be reSISting that, right?

        Yeah sure. Lets see how much money the Pink Pussy Hat mass movement will bestir itself to withhold from Big Koch and Coal.

    5. Loneprotester

      Hi David,

      I have the exact same thoughts on this story. Not only did the incident have nothing to do with Ra’s activism, it is not at all clear what actually happened. I spent half the morning digging into this story and the organization of which she is a part. I cannot find a single take on it that is not from her defense’s side. However, we do know that a jury of her peers (who I would hazard a guess reflect the racial diversity of Detroit or her lawyers would have objected, then and now) found her guilty after having spent nearly a week going over all the details in court. The law is hard, but it’s hard for a reason: Detroit needs to get on top of violent crime or it doesn’t stand a chance.

      As for the East Michigan Environmental Council for which she works as the Youth Director (link here: ) I can only say that it seems to be not terribly effective at doing much more than organizing the occasional march or teach-in. It appears to have been modeled on a 50 year old, extremely well-organized organization on the other side of the state: the West Michigan Environmental Council ().

      Just because you make a living promoting Environmental Justice doesn’t mean you are incapable of breaking the law. Just because the justice system is imperfect, there is no reason to presume that a miscarriage of justice has taken place here. Just because a woman is pregnant and has a small child, it does not follow that the law should apply to her actions any less than it does to anyone else. She appears to be good at talking about Environmental Justice in a way that her peers find compelling. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be in jail right now.

  4. a different chris

    to prove her innocence under the provision, Ra needed to convince jurors that she was afraid for her life white.

    Fixed it for ya

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