How Black women served a critical role in securing Brittney Griner’s release
Jotaka Eaddy was sitting at her home in Washington on Thursday morning when she got a text message from a friend: Brittney Griner was coming home, it said.
Eaddy paused, then reread the message as a flood of emotions — relief, joy, pride— ran through her.
The founder of the Win With Black Women collective, Eaddy had been among thousands of women across the country battling to bring Griner, a center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and an Olympic gold medalist, home after she was detained in Russia for bringing vape cartridges with hashish oil into the country.
Eaddy and members of Win With Black Women wrote the Biden administration in July, demanding more be done to secure Griner’s freedom.
“When you see a fellow American and when you see a fellow sister in such intolerable, unfair conditions, you’re compelled to act and you’re compelled to do something and say something and keep saying something until she’s home,” Eaddy told The Hill.
Since Griner’s detainment 294 days ago, Black women have been at the forefront of seeing the WNBA star’s release and keeping the pressure on the administration.
The campaign We Are BG was organized, and more than 300,000 people signed a petition urging the government to create a deal to bring Griner home.
“It was painful for so many, particularly Black women, to see another Black woman be in those harsh conditions, to just see the pain in her face,” Eaddy said. “It was hard to watch. It’s hard to hear about the inhumane conditions that she was forced to be in.”
Eaddy said Black women played a critical role in securing Griner’s release.
Not only were they courageous and consistent in speaking truth to power, she said, but much of the organizing was done by a Black woman: Griner’s wife, Cherelle.
Members of the WNBA, including Executive Director Terri Jackson and former star Dawn Staley, a basketball Hall of Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist who is now the head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, also spoke out consistently on Griner’s imprisonment. Griner’s own team also stood in solidarity after she was sentenced to nine years in prison in August.
Vice President Harris was also a major player in securing Griner’s release.
“It took Black women sending a strong message to the world that we had to do everything that we could possibly do to get Brittney home,” said Eaddy. “It took the work and the voices of so many that have leveraged their platforms, their individual power, to help join the corps of so many Americans, especially Black women, to say that we must bring Brittney home and we will not stop saying her name, we will not stop standing in solidarity, we will not stop pushing until she’s safely home.”
Black women across the country could identify with Griner’s story, said LaTosha Brown, a community activist and co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
“Part of the reason why I think myself and so many others wanted to continue to uplift her name and this issue is because I know it is very, very easy for America to forget about Black women or to not fight for us,” Brown said.
“Part of that is why you saw Black women come together and I think it was very intentional to affirm this notion of ‘We Are BG.’ We’re feeling this and we’re collectively seeing her as a part of us. And so when she’s not OK, we’re not OK.”
Racial and gender issues hung over the the story of Griner, whose detention in Russia was widely seen as politically motivated given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Some argued that if male and female athletes were paid the same, Griner would not have been forced to join a Russian team in the offseason and there never would have been a possibility of her arrest.
Others said if Griner were not Black or lesbian, more would have been done sooner to secure her release.
“It reminded me of the African American experience,” said Brown. “How you’ve just been snatched from your environment and your comfort. … [Griner] was taken and held captive against her will and there was nothing she could do about it.”
Brown said she was moved to tears when she heard Thursday’s announcement. She reflected on photos and videos of Griner in Russian courtrooms, the terrified look on her face and stories of the conditions Griner faced in the penal colony.
“We kept getting reports that even because of her height, because of her body, that the cell that she was in was extremely cramped and not really big enough,” said Brown. “We also know that she was in a prison that was created to intentionally inflict long-term consequences.”
In a statement, Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, said Griner should have been home all along.
“As a Black, queer, American woman, Brittney Griner was at grave risk in a country known for its human rights violations, especially at this time when Russia is ramping up its attacks on LGBTQ people,” Howell said.
“Brittney Griner is free, but others still languish in Russian prisons,” Howell added. “Today, we celebrate Griner’s release — tomorrow we join advocates around the world in demanding that Russia stop its human rights abuses once and for all.”
Eaddy said that though she is celebrating Griner’s release today, she too is thinking of all those still detained — including Paul Whelan, a high-profile American who was not part of what appeared to be a prisoner swap that saw the U.S. release notorious arms dealer Victor Bout.
She says she will continue to pray and advocate for “the countless other Americans wrongfully detained.”
Brown added that if she could say anything to Griner today, it would be to remind her she is in the hearts of millions.
“I would say to her, sister, we love you. Be free. Enjoy your time. Enjoy this moment with your family and just be free,” said Brown.