Students and community members attended a virtual webinar event on reproductive, environmental and criminal justice Saturday afternoon. Students for Reproductive Rights and Justice in conjunction with Earth Day 2020 hosted the event. The webinar featured speaker Siwatu Salama-Ra, an advocate for the liberation and dignity of women, an organizer for environmental justice and a prison abolitionist.
Salama-Ra also took questions from several students and community members about her experiences and highlighted ways individuals can get involved in activism even during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Salama-Ra first introduced her platform by linking it to the global coronavirus pandemic, referring to our current time as a time of war.
“Some would describe the days amongst us to be a time of war,” Salama-Ra said. “The intersecting work of reproductive justice, environmental justice and climate justice are ingrained in my story, and I am grateful to share how community power and the power of story freed me from prison.”
In addition to organizing programs and legislation for these issues, Salama-Ra said there is a need for a change in the culture as well.
“In addition to all of the organizing to resist systems of oppression, we need to create a culture of care instead of cops, cages and surveillance,” Salama-Ra said. “This is why things like the approval of facial recognition in Detroit and in other Black cities is an assault on us all. If we really know that the criminal justice system had very little to do with justice and truth, we would all go down to the courthouse and disassemble it brick by brick.”
Salama-Ra shared her personal experience with incarceration and emphasized the importance of change to our current justice system.
“I, like so many others, are living examples of how prosecutors weaponize felony firearms and other heightened charges in order to corner people into taking plea deals regardless of their innocence,” Salama-Ra said. “This vicious system must come to an end. I saw nothing but Black and brown bodies going through what seemed like an assembly line into the jaws of this monster and there (were) no words to express how devastating it was to experience.”
Salama-Ra continued by connecting her work within the prison system to environmental justice, showcasing the parallels that lie within these issues.
“If a community is polluted and poisoned, it is also likely to be policed and prisoned,” Salama-Ra said. “This same system that exploits the planet and its resources is the same system that exploits our Black and brown bodies in the criminal justice system.”
Salama-Ra discussed how an oversight bill to create an advisory committee in the prison system could improve physical and mental health of prisoners. Especially during the current COVID-19 outbreak, these individuals are most vulnerable.
“The oversight bill is so necessary now, more than ever, as thousands of people inside prisons and jails are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Salama-Ra said. “My last outing before Governor Gretchen Whitmer closed all non-essential businesses was to the state capitol building where we introduce these bills.”
She emphasized the importance of communities coming together to support a movement that connects prison reform and environmental justice.
“I’d rather not be a leader in this movement — I’m no leader — I’d rather be part of a collective movement where all of us are leaders,” Salama-Ra said. “I survived something so damaging that our community was able to see up close what the prison industrial complex is, how aggressive it is and what it would take to abolish it … I invite you to join me on this path (in a) grassroots lead (organization) that connects all of these threads.”
LSA sophomore Kiley Lowery asked during the Q&A portion of the talk about ways people can get involved in activism, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak. Salama-Ra responded that individuals should connect with those who are in need and may lack support.
“Reaching out to loved ones who are imprisoned and need help navigating through isolation — be in contact with them,” Salama-Ra said. “The way that I’ve been handling it is staying in constant communication (with) people I know who need some support. Sometimes I do not have the support that they need and sometimes it is me forwarding a message and I reach out to people in our community who are more equipped (to) dealing with prisons, we call on our allies to intervene.”
Public Policy senior Brianna Wells, president of the Students for Reproductive Rights and Justice organization, told The Daily these discussions are important especially during these unprecedented times.
“Hosting this webinar with Siwatu in collaboration with Earth Day was really important for people to understand the intersections between racial justice, reproductive justice and environmental justice,” Wells said. “We wanted to shift the conversation about reproduction in relation to climate change from harmful rhetoric about overpopulation to conversations about how we build more just and sustainable communities in the face of climate crisis.”
Wells also told The Daily this type of work is more necessary than ever amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities.
“This virus is not impacting everyone equally,” Wells said. “We’re reminded every day about the disproportionate number of Black lives that are being taken by COVID-19. Clearly, there’s something deeply wrong structurally, and highlighting the intersection of these injustices with personal stories like Siwatu’s can go a long way in getting to the roots of these problems.”
Engineering junior Dhruv Tatke sent a statement on behalf of himself and LSA senior Dim Mang to the Daily and emphaiszed how events like these help bring personal narratives to campus that are important for students to hear/
“This event was just one way for Siwatu, and many activists like her, to tell students personal stories that we often don’t seek out ourselves or engage with, despite this University’s assertions to solidarity and coalition-building,” Tatke wrote. “It’s important for Michigan students to know about Siwatu as well as the work she’s done and is continuing to do so that we can look outside of our campus, and outside of the narrow confines of academia, to actively engage with incarcerated communities.”
Tatke also emphasized the importance of Salama-Ra’s work during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Siwatu’s work takes on even more importance in times like these,” Tatke wrote. “When the state places more restrictions on the lives of people without doing much to support people’s need for resources to safely get through this time, police and the carceral state gain the power to enforce the state's bidding. Work being done to advocate for the rights of incarcerated people from both inside and outside prisons is often the only way for incarcerated people to remain safe, as the prison system has proven it will not do anything.”
Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich