On the morning of July 7, wrongly detained WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to the charges she is facing in Russia. The most serious charge, equivalent to drug trafficking, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. Griner’s four-month detention in Russia has exposed critical differences between the Russian and US legal systems – and salary imbalances between WNBA and NBA players† To make matters worse, her case is now being used by the GOP and its supporters to use black suffering for their political advantage and worse, entertainment.
The front page of Fox News features stories of Griner’s wife, Cherelle, with angles focused on the failures of the Biden administration.
Since Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February, her plight has become a hotly debated piece of US domestic political discourse. Initially, Griner’s family and team requested privacy as they waited for the State Department wheels to work on her release. But in recent weeks, as her family and supporters public pressure on the Biden administration for her freedom, Republicans and conservatives have begun to take advantage of the situation.
The front page of Fox News features stories about Griner’s wife, Cherelle, with angles focusing on the The perceived failures of the Biden government† Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington have used her imprisonment to promote themselves and their former boss Donald Trump. The House Judiciary Committee tweeted an article about Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard — then used Nygaard’s comments to brag that Trump had released Brittney sooner.
Whoever controls that account seems to have conveniently forgotten that Americans Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed were imprisoned during Trump’s tenure and neither was released. Reed was released in April after a prisoner exchange with Russia. He has actively contributed to media appearances to fight GOP attempts to use his ordeal in Russia for pro-Trump messaging.
Even as Republicans and Trump supporters use Griner to boost their agenda, they’ve also indulged in classic victim-blaming. In addition to believing in Russia’s “narcotics smuggling” charges, these people have used Griner’s past activism, particularly her critical attitude about playing the national anthem before WNBA games, as justification for her continued imprisonment in a hostile state.
Popular black conservative documentary filmmaker Errol Webber portrayed Griner as a hypocrite because she turned to the US government for help. Conservative commentator Todd Starnes went so far as to claim that Biden should keep Griner in Russian custody until she publicly rejects her stance on the anthem.
Conservative commentator Todd Starnes went so far as to claim that Biden should keep Griner in Russian custody until she publicly rejects her stance on the anthem.
Memes abound, including one featuring Griner’s mugshot, and she was purposefully wrong-sexed by tweets saying things like “leave him where he is.” In this vein, Griner fits neatly into the classic stereotype of the black criminal — a figure of speech that has long served the GOP. (Think George HW Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad of the 1988 elections?)
Such Republican and conservative views are clearly cruel and utterly useless. But do they matter in the bigger picture of American public discourse? I would say yes. Because they emphasize how the GOP, like Russia, often seeks to capitalize on the suffering of black people and other minorities for political gain. On Twitter, people have referred to Trump’s maneuvering to release rapper A$AP Rocky from a Swedish prison as proof that he could have done the same for Griner. They make these claims even though Sweden and Russia are two fundamentally different political systems, and the allegations Griner faces are more serious. It doesn’t matter that A$AP Rocky claims that Trump’s involvement made his release a little more difficult†
Thus Brittney Griner represents a perverse sort of Schrödinger’s minority to the GOP and their supporters. They can claim that Trump would have released her on social media, as there is no charge to them. They support black and LGBTQ individuals – as long as they are not in the United States. Griner’s life is important to them because she’s not in America.
In reality, she is representative of multiple demographics targeted by the GOP: Black Americans, LGBTQ individuals, and women. It’s no accident that cynical GOP tweets about Griner garner responses that are anti-black, anti-gay and anti-trans.
While Griner will be heard again on July 14, the American public continues to litigate her case on social media and the Internet. She and her legal team fight for her life and future in Russia, while the communities she represents fight for their rights in her homeland — and neither can afford to lose.