Voices: Condemn Russia for what’s happened to Brittney Griner — but condemn the US too

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Russia Griner (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Russia Griner (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

No one should have their life ruined over a damn weed pen.

A day after WNBA star Brittney Griner was handed a nine-year sentence to a Russian penal colony, Russia’s top diplomat claims to be ready to negotiate with the United States for her release.

During a Friday press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Russian Federation is “ready to discuss this topic”. Specifically, he was talking about a prisoner swap that would include Griner, who received her sentence on Thursday as a result from an arrest at Moscow Airport in February for possession of a vape cartridge with hash oil. Lavrov said he’d enter into talks about the potential swap on the condition that talks are conducted through a “channel” agreed by both President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Responding to Lavrov’s remarks in a separate press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on and what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning, and said publicly, is that they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that, and we’ll be pursuing it.”

Earlier in the week, on Thursday, President Biden had released a statement calling Griner’s sentence “unacceptable.”

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” the president said. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan [a Canadian with US citizenship who was handed down a 16-year sentence in Russia in 2020] home safely as soon as possible.”

Griner’s nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years she faced under the charges – and prosecutors had asked for a nine-and-a-half year sentence.

Although she reacted with little emotion when Judge Anna Sotnikova read her sentence, defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”

In a separate interview, Blagovolina added, “She’s devastated. She is very upset and she’s honestly quite shocked, so she needs to digest what happened today.”

Russian penal colonies are known for their brutal conditions – notably inheriting many of their practices from the gulags, a system of Soviet labor camps – while also being money-making enterprises.

I agree with the sentiment that if not for the gross wage gap that exists between NBA and WNBA players, Griner probably wouldn’t even have been in Russia to be subjected to any of this. So for her to not only become a political pawn, but a prisoner whose labor will be further exploited under the harshest conditions imaginable in a country with one of the world’s largest prison populations, is a particularly enraging example of injustice.

However, as harsh as this sentence was even by Russia’s own legal metrics, it’s worth noting that the US has a highly problematic and racist justice system of its own.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Biden or Blinken in their pledges to do all it can to get Brittney Griner home, but as we wait for negotiations to unfold, I do think this is a time to offer a real gesture to women who face similar conditions — harsh prison sentences at subpar prisons where their labor is exploited – stateside.

I don’t say this as a means to distract from Griner’s situation or in any way downplay the significance. I want Brittney Griner to be home with her wife and family. I want her and other women professional basketball players to be better compensated so they don’t have to travel to make more money, potentially subjecting themselves to the will of foreign governments with axes to grind in doing so. I can say that and also point out that there are many people like Griner — Black, female, or both – sitting in American prisons who have had their lives stolen over a few ounces of weed or less.

Of all people who understand this, it is President Biden, a man who has actively supported draconian drug laws in the past.

Last month, Biden said his administration was “working on” plans to fulfill his campaign pledge to free people who are incarcerated for marijuana. “I don’t think anyone should be in prison for the use of marijuana,” he said in response to a question from The New York Post’s Steven Nelson.

“We’re working on the crime bill now,” the president added — presumably referring to a decriminalization bill from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer along with Senator’s Cory Booker and Ron Wyden.

It was the first time Biden had made any public comment about the policy since taking office.

The 46th president has been criticized by activists for taking too long to fulfill his pledge, and while he is correct that there’s a bill being worked on right now, it does not presently seem likely to pass.

If Biden were to use executive authority or his pardon and clemency powers, it would send a powerful message — and would change the lives of thousands of people whose futures were ripped away for something that shouldn’t even be a crime. As we condemn Russia’s criminal justice system for wrongly holding Brittney Griner captive, we can look to what necessitates improvement within our own country. Because it is no less unacceptable for anyone to be imprisoned for marijuana, no matter if it’s the United States of America or the Russian Federation. Both these countries do a disservice to Black people for their inane policy. Only one has the opportunity to at least do something about it.

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