As Cherelle Griner smiled and said, “Today, my family is whole,” it was impossible not to feel moved by the enormity of the moment—yet some have insisted upon trying. But let the haters rot. Cherelle Griner’s wife is coming home. WNBA superstar Brittney Griner is at long last leaving a Russian penal colony. As this space has argued, don’t believe the nonsense that all this has been about a vape cartridge. Until today Brittney Griner was a political prisoner in Russia. She was sentenced to nine years of hard labor in Mordovia’s “land of prisons” because there is an increasing hot/cold war between the United States and Russia. She was sentenced because she had the misfortune to be profiled, targeted, and caught at a Moscow airport, right when Russia was launching what it thought would be an easy invasion of Ukraine. Ever since, she has been part of what is politely called “hostage diplomacy.”
Understanding Griner as a political prisoner would mean building a very specific kind of movement that involves raising the profile and plight of the imprisoned in order to force officials and diplomats to prioritize her freedom. I remember the day when news of Griner’s capture made its way across the ocean, thinking that raising awareness would be the least of our problems. After all, this is six-foot-eight-inch Brittney Griner. Her absence will be noticed. But this was not the case. Instead, there was a kind of organized erasure coming from the 24-hour sports news cycle.
It has been said so often that it has become a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true: If a Tom Brady or a Steph Curry were in a Russian prison facing years of hard labor, the outcry from the sports world, from this government, and—especially for Steph—from the world would be a cacophony. But Brittney Griner was an afterthought. In the sports world, this reflected how the media treats women’s sports specifically and Black, queer women more broadly: as depersonalized objects of invisibility or derision. Factor in Griner’s history as someone who has raised the issue of the toll of police violence on Black lives, even—gasp—taking a knee during the national anthem, and we had a recipe for erasure. Better to report on Aaron Rodgers’s latest whine to a podcast host than on the efforts to lift Griner’s name and secure her freedom.
There were also many who stayed silent on the counsel of the State Department, who told us all that any agitation would only make Brittney a more valuable “asset” to Putin and cause negotiations to be more difficult. And yet, as the months dragged on, Cherelle Griner had enough of the lead from the State Department and began her own effort to say her wife’s name and encourage others to do the same. Fans and other prominent athletes in the WNBA and NBA worlds—including the aforementioned Curry at the Golden State Warriors championship ring ceremony—called for her freedom. Supporters made homemade buttons and T-shirts. The media got the hint and began pressing people like Griner’s former coach at Baylor Kim Mulkey on why they weren’t supporting Griner. People persevered in the face of a Trump-led right wing more comfortable mocking Griner than standing in solidarity with an Olympic athlete behind bars. People also persevered despite a section of the “left wing” who did not see the importance of Griner’s case and even saw it as a distraction to the very real twin crises of the drug war and the prison system in the United States. There were also, as I wrote, factions on right and “left” defending Putin and turning Griner into some kind of representative of US imperial ambition instead of a human being languishing in a cell.
Yet now Griner is free, and instead of all of us joining Cherelle Griner in her joy, there is already clamor from the right that the deal never should have been made because Griner is “un-American” and the US was “fleeced” by swapping Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout, aka “the merchant of death.” Conservative grumbling ignores that Bout was set to be freed by 2029 at the latest. Is Brittney Griner’s life worth at most seven years of Bout’s freedom? That’s not a fleecing. Others have criticized the Biden administration for not being able to swap for former Marine Paul Whelan, also in a Russia jail, as if Griner were being privileged. But both the Griner and the Whelan families have said that they support each other and that whoever was freed first would fight for the other. Sure enough, in her remarks at the White House, Cherelle Griner said, “Today, my family is whole. But as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole. BG’s not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work on getting every American home, including Paul [Whelan], whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home. We do understand that there’s still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing, tremendously, their loved ones.”
Brittney Griner’s release is a vindication of agitation, of pushing the Biden administration to act publicly and transparently in its efforts to secure her freedom. Far from distracting us from US jails and the millions of family members here also “missing their loved ones,” it should embolden us to take that fight home. Far from its being hypocritical to champion Griner while people here suffer, it is part of having a global perspective on prison abolitionism and drug decriminalization. The true hypocrisy would have been choosing silence when faced with Brittney and Cherelle Griner’s pain. Their pain was an injustice; the mockery and silence in the face of that pain was an injustice. But their self-advocacy and calls for solidarity are incredibly inspiring. In a time when inspiration can sometimes seem in short supply, today was a good day.