The Growing Grassroots Movement to Free Brittney Griner

The Growing Grassroots Movement to Free Brittney Griner

The Growing Grassroots Movement to Free Brittney Griner

Amid protests and calls for government action, the Biden administration remains silent.


Harlem, New York City—We are used to hearing “Say her name” as a protest chant aimed at raising up the names of Black women killed by police. But on June 20, “Say her name: Brittney Griner” rang through Harlem as several dozen people marched from the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building to Harlem’s Harriet Tubman statue. The protesters were demanding that the US government do whatever it takes to negotiate the freedom of WNBA all-star Brittney Griner, who is in a Russian prison facing a 10-year sentence. Griner was arrested at the Moscow airport for allegedly having cannabis-derived vape cartridges in her bag. But make no mistake: She is a political prisoner.

On June 27, Griner appeared briefly in public. At a short hearing, a judge announced that her trial would start this Friday, July 1, and that she would remain jailed for the duration of her trial. Her detention has been extended three times now, and the authorities have plastered her photo all over Russian state television—a clear taunt at the United States when US-Russian tensions are their highest since the Cold War.

At the time of last week’s march, Griner had been detained in Russia for 123 days, and had not spoken to her wife, friends, and teammates during that period. One day prior to the march, on their fourth wedding anniversary, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, was supposed to have her first phone call since Brittney’s arrest. But that call never went through. The US Embassy in Russia failed to provide a staff member to pick up the phone, as Cherelle Griner explained to the Associated Press. Brittney Griner tried to call her wife 11 times on June 19. Each time, the call went unanswered. “I find it unacceptable, and I have zero trust in our government right now,” Cherelle said. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”

The next day, Cherelle continued her fight for her wife’s release, supporting protests in Phoenix and New York. She called into a Harlem protest as an organizer pressed a phone against a microphone so Cherelle could be heard by the crowd. “I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for saying my wife’s name,” she said. “No justice for any of us if there’s no justice for BG. So thank you for pushing every single second right now.”

With this protest, seasoned organizers from the movements for Black liberation added their voices and movement tactics to those whose calls for Griner’s release have, for many months, seemingly fallen mostly on deaf ears in Congress and the White House.

Jumaane Williams, New York City public advocate and a candidate in next week’s New York State gubernatorial primary, told the protesters why he thought Griner’s supporters have been ignored: “If this wasn’t a Black woman…all of the media, all over, would be talking about this case. I was told it was some kind of strategy not to do it, to try to help. But I think that 123 days later…everybody now knows who Brittney Griner is. So, there’s no strategy here. What we have is exactly what I said: A Black woman that is being ignored. If she looked a different way, maybe if she loved someone differently, maybe if she wasn’t a woman in sports… There’s so much intersection in this one case here. I can’t imagine a man in the NBA being stuck in a Russian jail and everybody not shutting it down and trying to bring him home.… So we’re asking this country: Please step up and free Brittney Griner.”

Cherelle Griner has made public pleas to speak to President Biden but has been denied.

Kaitlyn Chesney, a friend of the Griners’ and law school classmate of Cherelle, spoke to the difficulties Brittney’s family and friends are experiencing. “It’s a helpless feeling,” she said during the rally. “These are the only things that we can do, but it’s still not enough. It’s also hard…to find the words to say to Cherelle,” as months pass without news of her wife.

A petition calling for Griner’s return to the United States had more than 285,000 signatures at time of publication.

Expect more marches as long as Brittney Griner remains incarcerated in Russia. Cherelle, friends, and family waited for the State Department’s back channel approach to work. That failed, and until the US government takes this case seriously, they have no other recourse than to take to the streets.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy