It’s been over 150 days since Russian authorities first arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner at a Moscow airport, setting in motion a prolonged and uncertain detention, as well as a sustained campaign to ensure her release.
With Griner’s trial now in Russian court, that campaign has gotten louder. For months, her fans, family and teammates were advised that too much attention might politicize the case, jeopardizing Griner’s release amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, as Griner faces up to 10 years in prison, her supporters are calling on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home — with some tying her detention as a Black queer woman to a broader call for collective liberation.
“It’s about how anti-Blackness fits into surveillance, and how anti-Blackness fits into policing, restriction of our movement and the harshness of prosecution,” said Dominique Symone, director of power building at Black Feminist Future, which has been campaigning for Griner’s freedom since March. “These are things we feel here all the time, but it doesn’t stop when you leave American borders.”
This month, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges over possession of a vape canister containing a small amount of hashish oil, which Russian officials found in her luggage. It’s possible that the guilty plea might accelerate the conclusion of Griner’s case — and set the stage for negotiations — in a Russian legal system that heavily favors the prosecution.
In May, more than two months after her detention, the U.S. State Department announced their determination that Griner had been “wrongfully detained,” setting the stage for more visible pressure related to her release.
“We know that silence has never secured our release as Black people,” Symone explained. “People said that we should just wait and let the government do its job, and really trust in these systems that we know have never served us.”
So, activists have taken Griner’s release into their own hands. In March, sports journalist Tamyrun Spruill started a petition on Change.org calling for Griner’s release that has since garnered over 340,000 signatures.
In June, Griner’s teammates met with State Department officials, Congressional representatives and members of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to discuss her release. Earlier this month, a group of nearly 1,200 prominent Black women leaders signed a letter organized by the collective network #WinWithBlackWomen, where they urged the president to secure Griner’s release from prison and meet with Griner’s wife Cherelle.
The WNBA has also been honoring Griner this season with decals of her initials and jersey number on its 12 courts. U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe sported Griner’s embroidered initials on her suit lapel while receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Her detention has also shined a spotlight on pay inequity for women in sports, and the lengths WNBA players often go to supplement their income. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested while traveling during the offseason to play for the Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she earns more than she does playing for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
In a handwritten letter delivered to President Biden this month, Griner herself pleaded for release.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote in an excerpt from the letter shared with reporters.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,” she wrote.
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Griner’s wife Cherelle told CBS News that Griner’s decision to write the letter came after the family had no luck in their own attempts to contact him. She also expressed her frustrations over pressures for the family to maintain discretion while speaking about Griner’s case.
The day after receiving the letter, the White House announced that President Biden had contacted Cherelle to offer his support. This Tuesday, the president also issued an executive order intended to bolster efforts to free American hostages and detainees. According to the James W. Foley Foundation, more than 60 U.S. citizens are currently wrongfully detained in about 18 countries.
“Initially I was told, you know, we are going to try to reserve, we’re going to try to handle this behind scenes and let’s not raise her value and you know stay quiet,” Cherelle told CBS News. “You know, I did that and respectfully, we’re over 140 days at this point. That does not work.”
Cherelle said she won’t remain quiet anymore. “I will find that balance of, you know, harm versus help in pushing our government to do everything that’s possible because being quiet, they’re not moving, they’re not doing anything. So my wife is struggling, and we have to help her.”
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