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Black women played a critical role in helping to free Brittney Griner

“Many of us felt like if it didn’t get media attention, her case would just fade away,” said LaTosha Brown, founder of the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium.
"We Are BG" campaigned to bring Brittney Griner home.
"We Are BG" campaigned to bring Brittney Griner home.WeAreBG.org; AFP - Getty Images

The Black women-led groups that advocated for WNBA star Brittney Griner’s freedom are celebrating her release as a victory of their own.

As the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury basketball star spent nearly 10 months in Russian custody, groups like Win With Black Women, the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium and the Black Women’s Leadership Collective held rallies, launched campaigns, circulated petitions and wrote to the Biden administration, demanding more be done to bring Griner home. 

Black women played a critical role in securing Griner’s release, advocates say. And it seems their hard work paid off last week when  Griner was released from Russian custody in a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Moscow

“I was moved to tears,” LaTosha Brown, of the Southern Black Girls and Women’s Consortium, said of the moment she learned of Griner’s release. “I felt relieved; I felt hopeful. I always felt we would bring her home, I just didn’t know when. I believe Black women were instrumental in multiple ways.” 

Russian authorities arrested Griner, who also played pro basketball in the country, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. She was accused of carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained,” which Russia has denied.

Brown said she sprang into action when she learned of Griner’s detainment not only because she regularly advocates for Black women, but also because many people in her life knew Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner. Brown connected with other advocates and groups to take action that would last long after Griner’s news left the headlines. “Many of us felt like if it didn’t get media attention, her case would just fade away. She could possibly live her life to rot in jail,” Brown said. 

President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release Thursday. The administration agreed to release notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner. Bout had been serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars' worth of weapons that U.S. officials believed were intended to be used against Americans.

The trade meant the U.S. would leave behind Paul Whelan, a businessman and former Marine imprisoned in Russia on suspicion of spying. The Biden administration said the U.S. will “never give up” on securing Whelan’s release. 

In November, just weeks before her release, Griner was transferred to a penal colony more than 200 miles east of Moscow to begin her nine-year sentence. Advocates say it was Black women who were the most vocal about Griner’s imprisonment and urged leaders not to forget about her. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, also a Black woman, was among her biggest advocates, organizing rallies and actions alongside other supporters. 

“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,” Jotaka Eaddy, founder of Win With Black Women, told The Hill. The Win With Black Women collective received 1,200 signatures of women in a letter of support for Griner that they sent to the Biden administration in July. “It was hard to watch. It’s hard to hear about the inhumane conditions that she was forced to be in,” Eaddy added.

Griner's agent Lindsay Kagawa-Colas decided to launch a campaign, We Are BG, which brought together Black women advocacy groups, activists, human rights groups, WNBA officials and players, and many others to carry out everything from demonstrations and appeals to the government to creating “We Are BG” T-shirts.

Karen Finney, of Black Women’s Leadership Collective and a consultant who worked with We Are BG to strategize the campaign, said it was especially important for the group to focus on public outreach when fighting to bring Griner home.

“It was all about keeping the issue front and center,” Finney told NBC News. “We live in a media environment where stories come and go so quickly. So the idea was to keep the awareness going and build a coalition.”

Griner’s case has renewed conversations about the vulnerability of Black women in America, especially Black queer women. As a WNBA star, Griner was already enduring the gender pay gap. Her supporters believed that if they did not keep her name in headlines, Griner would likely fall victim to a phenomenon that PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill called “missing white woman syndrome,” in which mainstream media seems more focused on the missing and endangered cases of white women than those of people of color.  

Griner’s case isn’t the first time Black women have had to rally behind one of their own to ensure ongoing coverage. In November, Black people on social media used their collective power to bring national attention to Shanquella Robinson, the 25-year-old North Carolina woman who was found dead in a Mexican villa.

Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, highlighted this vulnerability, and Black women’s collective power, in a statement to NBC News.

“We are overjoyed that Brittney Griner is headed home after nine months away from her family. This is a huge moment, and we must acknowledge and celebrate it,” Simpson said. “Black, queer, trans, women and many communities that are pushed to the margins by systems rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy are constantly navigating violence, unjust criminalization and threats to our human rights. Brittney’s treatment is just one example among too many of this reality … We honor the Black women like Brittney’s wife Cherelle, who fought tirelessly to bring her back. Welcome home, Brittney, we missed you.”