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Prominent Black women urge Biden to ‘make a deal’ for Brittney Griner

Dave Sheinin

Jul 5, 2022

Nearly 1,200 prominent Black women signed a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris urging the administration to secure Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison, an escalation of a pressure campaign by the WNBA star’s supporters that comes as her trial proceeds in a court outside of Moscow.

Nearly 1,200 prominent Black women signed a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris urging the administration to secure Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison, an escalation of a pressure campaign by the WNBA star’s supporters that comes as her trial proceeds in a court outside of Moscow. The letter, which was delivered to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, was signed by a collection of Black female leaders from the realms of sports, entertainment, labor, business, politics and faith. It claimed Griner is “enduring inhumane conditions” during her imprisonment and said, “It is imperative, President Biden, that you address this ongoing human rights crisis and make a deal to bring Brittney home quickly and safely.”

The letter arrived one day after a letter to Biden from the Phoenix Mercury center herself, handwritten from her cell, was delivered to the White House on Independence Day. In Griner’s letter, excerpts of which were released by her agents, she wrote, “I’m terrified I might be here forever,” and asked Biden to do “whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

Asked for comment on Griner’s letter to Biden, Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told The Washington Post: “[Biden’s] team is in regular contact with Brittney’s family and we will continue to work to support her family. … The U.S. government continues to work aggressively — using every available means — to bring her home.”

Griner, 31, was arrested in February at an airport outside Moscow when customs officials allegedly discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. At the time, she was returning to the country to join UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team for which she plays during the WNBA offseason. In early May, the State Department declared Griner’s case a “wrongful detainment,” an official classification that elevated it to the office of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

Her trial began Friday and is expected to continue Thursday; Griner has yet to enter a plea. She is expected to be found guilty — an estimated 99 percent of Russian criminal trials end in guilty verdicts — and could face up to 10 years in prison.

Following Friday’s hearing, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood, who was in attendance, said in a statement that U.S. officials were working “at the highest levels” to bring Griner home. After being able to speak with Griner in the courtroom, Rood said, “She is doing as well as expected under these difficult circumstances.”

Among the women who signed the letter delivered Tuesday were Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.; actress Anika Noni Rose; singer Ledisi; television hosts Shaun Robinson and Sunny Hostin; former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile; former CEO of Black Entertainment Television Debra L. Lee; activist and former NAACP president Hazel Dukes; University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley; and numerous players, coaches and executives from the WNBA.

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is among hundreds of Black women who called on the White House to do more to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

“The letter is support — support from a group of Black women who are trying to save another Black woman. It’s as simple as that,” Staley said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “… I think about Brittney throughout the entire day, every day. I try to put myself in her shoes, and I’d want somebody fighting for me — people who won’t shut up.”

With little hope for an acquittal, Griner’s supporters in recent weeks have sought to ramp up public pressure on the Biden administration to secure her release through diplomatic channels, an effort complicated by heightened tensions between the United States and Russia since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.

But in Tuesday’s letter, Griner’s supporters demanded more urgency: “More than prioritizing her immediate return in word,” it said, “you must do so in deed and make a deal to bring Brittney home.”

“Enough is enough. I don’t want to count days anymore,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA players union and one of the organizers of the letter, referring to the fact that Tuesday represented Griner’s 138th day of imprisonment. Biden and Harris, she added, were “elected by constituents who look very much like my membership. This letter will be powerful. This letter is going to make them pay attention.”

The letter, organized by the collective network #WinWithBlackWomen, also urged Biden and/or Harris to meet with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and pointed out that an arranged telephone call between the Griners last month failed because there was no one staffing the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to patch through the call — a failing the State Department called “a logistical error.”

“I will not be quiet anymore,” Cherelle Griner said Tuesday on “CBS Mornings.” “I will find that balance of harm versus help in pushing our government to do everything that’s possible. [Administration officials] are not moving. They are not doing anything. My wife is struggling, and we have to help her.”

Speculation in Russian state media has suggested a prisoner swap involving Griner and Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization. But U.S. officials have not commented on the likelihood of such a swap. In April, U.S. officials secured the release of former Marine Trevor Reed from Russia through a prisoner swap.

“We need to do whatever is necessary to get Brittney back on American soil,” Staley said. “Whatever that is.”

Also Tuesday, Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of National Action Network, called on Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to arrange a visit from him and other faith leaders to Griner in Russia.

“After speaking with her wife last week, I am deeply concerned for Brittney Griner’s physical, mental and spiritual well-being,” Sharpton said in a statement. “Today I’m urging [the administration] to bring myself and fellow faith leaders to Russia immediately so we can pray over Brittney in prison. She deserves to see the United States is doing something for her, so she can find the strength as this show trial goes on. … Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I hope the president acts on her pleas to come home.”

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