Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, was detained in Russia for three years and served two years of a nine-year sentence, after being convicted on charges of endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers. He has maintained his innocence, and his supporters, including the US government, have long classified his trial as a sham. Reed was given the chance at a reduced sentence if he pleaded guilty and instead said, “I would rather stay in prison an honest man than walk away tomorrow a liar and a coward.”
The State Department told his terrified parents, Paula and Joey Reed, to stay calm, keep quiet, and let the diplomatic experts do their jobs. But as the days turned to weeks, months, and years, their patience wore thin. Then, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shredded diplomatic connections between the United States and Russia, and news emerged of their son’s tuberculosis as well as an injury sustained in prison, the Reeds had had enough. They set up a website. They gave interviews. They even picketed the White House. Now, despite the current geopolitical hell and the rapid reimposition of the Cold War, Trevor Reed has been set free. Reed was finally released in a dramatic tarmac plane swap after the Biden administration agreed to exchange him for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who had been serving a 20-year federal prison sentence in Connecticut for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.
The Trevor Reed story should focus our attention on another imprisoned US citizen in Russia, WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, and indeed, judging by trending across social media, it has. Since mid-February, Griner has been detained in Russia awaiting a May 19 trial date where she faces 10 years behind bars—five years at hard labor—for the alleged crime of having hashish vape cartridges in her bag at the airport. With Reed’s release, Griner’s supporters want to know that she is next.
If you’ve been reading this space, you know that I believe we need to understand Griner as a political prisoner, partly because she has been paraded in front of Russian state media like some sort of six-foot-nine prize, partly because 10 years for allegedly having cannabis cartridges is obscene. Factor in that Griner is a Black queer woman in a country where national minorities and LGBTQ people have been victims of targeted harassment, and the urgency to secure her freedom only grows.
The State Department and the WNBA has preached silence in the hope that Griner would not become the kind of high-profile political prisoner Russia could use like a pawn on a chessboard. But that’s wishful thinking. Of course Griner was always going to become a political prisoner. This was easier to predict than the success of an attempted Griner slam dunk. It is past time that supporters shed their silence and spoke out for her return. They only need take a cursory look at Trevor Reed’s case and the activism of Reed’s parents—done with one-millionth of Griner’s cultural capital—to see that this could prove to be a positive approach—or at least more positive than doing nothing. The possibilities could be seen in how the release of Reed spurred a long-overdue public discussion about Griner. The State Department commented on the matter, with spokesperson Ned Price saying to CNN, “When it comes to Brittney Griner, we are working very closely with her team. Her case is a top priority for us. We’re in regular contact with her team.”
One of the reasons or justifications much of the sports world has used for their silence regarding Griner has been that they were following the wishes of Griner’s wife, Cherelle, who asked for privacy and quiet. But on Wednesday, Cherelle broke her silence with a statement posted on Instagram, where she said
As I do everything in my power to get [Brittney] home, my heart is overflowing with joy for the Reed family. I do not personally know them, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home. For the Reed family, that day is today. Welcome home Trevor, sending love to you and your family on this special day.
This heartbreaking, gracious statement should be seen as a cue to recognize that Griner’s best chance at freedom is not hoping for the benevolence of the Russian legal system or the stealth expertise of the State Department. It will be in our exercising whatever improbable back channel freed Trevor Reed and demanding that Brittney be freed.