“It felt all too real,” Siwatu-Salama Ra said from her home in Detroit, Michigan. Her lifelong struggles against two injustices plaguing her community — pollution and incarceration — had become fused in a surreal way.
Three years ago, Ra, a world-renowned environmental justice organizer, lay shackled to a hospital bed. Since her childhood, she had followed in the footsteps of her mother, Rhonda Anderson, fighting for environmental justice in her neighborhood — a commitment that led to her representing her city during the 2015 United Nations climate talks in France. But in 2018, Ra, pregnant with her second child, was sentenced to prison for waving an unloaded gun at someone during a dispute.
It was there, facing the prospect of giving birth in a women’s correctional facility outside Detroit, that she learned a new jail was being built to incarcerate her son’s generation, too. This time it would sit in the shadow of the largest trash incinerator in Michigan, and one of the largest in the country….
“This is going to be the work of our children’s children. We’re planting the seeds to show that our communities deserve better, that majority-Black Detroit deserves better.” Fighting the construction of the jail, although unsuccessful in one sense, was a victory for the organizers of Detroit, Ra says. Community leaders are beginning to connect all aspects of public health and the environment at the center of struggles for justice — and will continue to do so.
“Detroit will be one of those cities that will lead our fight for freedom and survival — connecting the environmental justice movement, decarceration, defunding the police, clean water, and better food for everyone,” she said. “Our perspective from fighting for freedom with the jail will forever be applied to all of the ways that we envision ourselves and what it means to be healthy and free.”