Editorial: Biden needs to bring Griner home

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday July 20, 2022
Share this Post:
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner. Photo: Bigstock photo
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner. Photo: Bigstock photo

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner has been locked up in a Russian jail since February, when she was detained at an airport in the country after authorities allegedly found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. Earlier this month in a Russian court, she pleaded guilty to the charge but said the presence of the canisters was due to her hasty packing and that she had no criminal intent. Griner, a lesbian who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was supposed to be playing for a Russian team during the WNBA's off-season (top female pro basketball athletes in the U.S. do not make gazillions of dollars like NBA stars Stephen Curry or LeBron James, so they often supplement their income when the WNBA season is over). Griner's guilty plea is seen by many as a necessary step to speed up her eventual release through a possible prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two countries is at its lowest point in years, largely due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which started in February.

We add to the chorus of calls by Black and LGBTQ leaders urging President Joe Biden and his administration to do more to secure Griner's release from Russia. The confident Biden who campaigned on promises and action seems missing these days. Although we're well aware of the president's limitations on domestic issues due to congressional deadlock — and Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin — it seems that he isn't even using his bully pulpit effectively. We've read the various media accounts of the Griner case where the State Department has designated Griner as wrongfully detained. She sent a personal plea to Biden on July 4 — delivered in a letter in which she wrote: "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."

Granted, negotiations could be taking place behind closed doors, but Biden obviously does not have much leverage with Russia. And that is scary for Griner, whose detention is reportedly authorized through December. Griner isn't even the only American detainee in Russia. There's former Marine Paul Whalen, who's also considered "wrongly detained" by the State Department and has been imprisoned for four years now. He was charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a prison camp.

But this is about Griner, and why it's wrong for Russia to continue holding her on a trumped up drug charge of possessing a small amount of cannabis oil that she has acknowledged. The Russian government could have fined and deported Griner, but of course, it opted for the high-stakes criminal charge and trial, knowing full well that the U.S. would need to offer something — perhaps an exchange with Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, aka the Merchant of Death, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted on conspiracy and terrorism charges.

Liz Dwyer, writing in the July 14 Word In Black newsletter (it's a group of Black publishers similar to the Bay Area Reporter's involvement in Word is Out, an LGBTQ collaborative), asked why more Black people aren't calling their representatives demanding Griner's release. "Is it that she's gay, out, and has been since she entered public life, and some folks haven't worked out how to support folks in the LGBTQ+ community while also practicing their faith?" Dwyer wrote. "Is it that she was arrested for drug possession and that she pled guilty to having 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in two used vape cartridges — and even though we know police lie and we have no reason to trust Russia, there's a 'she should have known better' dismissal of her situation?

"Is it that the war in Ukraine has shown the limits of U.S. power and we figure ain't nobody going up against Vladimir Putin like that, so #KanyeShrug, there's nothing we can do about it — so let's keep on trying to stay employed and free of whatever 'Rona variant is running in these streets?" Dwyer wrote.

Both LGBTQ and Black community members must unite on this issue. We should contact congressmembers and senators demanding Griner's release. It's been reported that the Griner family has reached out to former New Mexico governor (and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate) Bill Richardson, who now runs the Richardson Center and has been involved in other high-profile diplomatic situations. He's had some successes in helping arrange for the release of Americans detained in foreign countries, but according to Politico, some in the Biden administration view him as a distraction. We say, enough of that talk — reach out to Richardson. The administration needs to utilize every option available, especially since relations with Russia are severely constrained. All avenues need to be explored so that Griner can come home.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.