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“A Vindication for Agitation”: Dave Zirin on How Brittney Griner’s Supporters Secured Her Freedom

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Basketball star Brittney Griner landed in the United States early Friday after nearly 10 months of detention in Russia. Griner was freed Thursday in a dramatic prisoner swap between the United States and Russia, with the Biden administration agreeing to free Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence. Griner had been held in Russia since February, when she was arrested at a Moscow airport for possessing a small amount of cannabis oil, and her status as an openly gay Black woman made freeing her from a country with anti-LGBT laws a pressing concern for supporters. But journalist Dave Zirin says the sports world was still slow to rally to Griner’s cause due to sexism, racism and homophobia. “The amount of erasure and deliberate ignoring of Brittney Griner’s case was apparent to anybody who listens to sports radio or watches sports television,” says Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of the Edge of Sports podcast. “If it was Steph Curry or Tom Brady imprisoned overseas … the cacophony would have been so loud. Yet with Brittney Griner there was silence.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: WNBA star Brittney Griner is free. She’s back in the United States after nearly 10 months jailed in Russia. She was freed Thursday in a dramatic prisoner swap between the United States and Russia. As part of the deal, the Biden administration freed Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence. The prisoner swap took place on the runway of an airport in Abu Dhabi. Early this morning, a plane carrying Brittney Griner landed in San Antonio, Texas, where she’ll undergo a medical evaluation at a military hospital. Brittney Griner had been held in Russia since February, when she was arrested at the Moscow airport for possessing a small amount of cannabis oil. President Biden announced the prisoner swap Thursday morning at the White House.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home, after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances. Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.

AMY GOODMAN: Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, also spoke at the White House. During her remarks, she made reference to Paul Whelan, the American former marine who remains jailed in Russia.

CHERELLE GRINER: Today my family is whole, but, as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole. And so, BG is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home. We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved one. So, thank you, everybody, for your support. And today is just a happy day for me and my family, so I’m going to smile right now. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration had initially proposed a two-for-one prisoner swap involving both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, but that was rejected by Russia. On Thursday, Paul Whelan’s brother David told CNN he supported Biden’s decision to secure Brittney Griner’s freedom.

DAVID WHELAN: I’m absolutely supportive of it. I think to prolong the punishment of one American in a foreign hostage situation, in the hope that you might be able to bring home two of them, is absolutely the wrong call for the U.S. president to make. An American in that situation who has a possibility of coming home, I think the U.S. president has to bring them home. And unfortunately for my brother and for our family, it’s not our family member, but I think, from the perspective of Americans, that’s the right decision.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with Dave Zirin, host of the Edge of Sports podcast and sports editor for The Nation magazine, where his latest article is headlined “A Vindication for Agitation: Brittney Griner Is Coming Home.”

Well, Brittney Griner is free, Dave Zirin. Were you surprised by the news yesterday and the speed with which she has come home to San Antonio, Texas? She grew up in Houston. Talk about the significance of how you believe she was freed.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, Amy. Thanks so much for having me.

When I heard that Brittney Griner was going to be freed, I was floored. I had tears in my eyes. My phone was blowing up about this, obviously. I’ve been investigating and covering this story for months. And, no, this was not something I expected, because earlier in that week you heard that negotiations were again breaking down.

And I think it’s so important, as we discuss the ins and outs of this, that we don’t lose the plot. And that’s that Brittney Griner is coming home. Brittney Griner is going to be back with her family. Brittney Griner is going to be back with her family for the holidays, for goodness’ sakes. And we have to remember that ths is a moment of celebration and a moment of joy, during a time where celebration and joy are in short supply.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about, well, what your title was about, the agitation, who was there for her and who wasn’t, why you think she is free today.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes. When Brittney Griner was first imprisoned, when we first got word of it in late February and early March, the response from the sports world, you can really characterize it as existing in two different lanes. In one lane, you had a sports world that is awash in racism, sexism and homophobia, and Brittney Griner is, of course, a Black queer woman. And the amount of erasure and deliberate, deliberate ignoring of Brittney Griner’s case was apparent to anybody who listens to sports radio or watches sports television. I mean, if it was Steph Curry or Tom Brady imprisoned overseas in a Russian prison facing nine years of hard labor, I mean, the Earth would have opened up, the cacophony would have been so loud, yet with Brittney Griner there was silence.

There was another lane of people, as well, who love Brittney Griner, people in the WNBA and NBA communities, who, on the advice from the State Department, were silent, because the State Department said, “Delicate negotiations are taking place, so we don’t want any outcry about Brittney whatsoever.” And that created this veil of silence, and even shame, about Brittney Griner being arrested.

And then there was Cherelle Griner in all her heroism, speaking out, saying, “The heck with this silence. We need to shine light on this and raise Brittney Griner’s name, so there is much more of an effort to agitate to make sure that Brittney Griner’s name — and Paul Whelan’s name — are at the top of the State Department’s to-do list, at the top of Antony Blinken’s to-do list.” And that agitation grew and grew, both in the sports world and among fans. People made buttons and T-shirts and took them to games. The sports world could no longer be silent. Steph Curry mentioned Brittney Griner at the ring ceremony for the Golden State Warriors. And the cacophony did start to grow.

And I do believe that, along with, frankly, the fact that Russia is losing to Ukraine and Vladimir Putin felt like he needed a win of some kind, I think that’s why this trade took place. So, in one degree, you can say that the Ukrainian resistance is why Brittney Griner is coming home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre denied claims by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that they had any involvement in the mediation efforts that secured the release of Brittney Griner from the Russian labor prison camp.

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia. And there was no mediation involved. We are grateful for the UAE, as the president mentioned, as I am mentioning now, for facilitating the use of their territory for the exchange to take place. We are also grateful to other countries, including Saudi Arabia, that released the issue of our wrongfully detained Americans with Russian government.

AMY GOODMAN: A joint statement by the UAE and Saudi Arabia released Thursday had said that Brittney Griner’s release, quote, “highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties.” Dave?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, so this was a tremendous effort by all corners to get Brittney Griner home. And there is something that I think needs to be said about this that’s so important. I mean, so many people on the right wing — I know you’re going to talk about Viktor Bout in the next segment. But, my goodness, the fainting couches about doing this trade for Viktor Bout, when the U.S. is the biggest arms dealer in the world, is a little tough to swallow. But I know you’re going to talk about that in the next segment.

But the most important thing is that we fought for Brittney Griner to come home. And I know there are a lot of people out there who say, “Well, we have these problems in this country. Shouldn’t we focus on them, about prisons, about the drug laws in this country?” But we have to have a global perspective about prison abolition, about the war on drugs. And that’s why Brittney Griner’s freedom should be seen as a victory for anybody who gives a damn about social justice in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have this announcement yesterday at the White House, Cherelle Griner smiling ear to ear, Brittney Griner’s wife. And just hours later, you have 39 Republicans joining with the Democrats in the House of Representatives voting to support marriage equality. At the same time, in Russia, you have Putin on Monday signing a fiercely anti-LGBTQ law into effect, making it dangerous to be LGBTQ in Russia. Can you talk about what Brittney Griner faced as a lesbian, as an African American woman in Russia in prison?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, according to reports by people who have been in the prison that she was going to be in for the next nine years, a labor camp in Mordovia, the racism, the, of course, anti-Americanism and the homophobia are so intense that we can say that Brittney Griner’s life would have been hell. And there’s no saying that she would have even survived the next nine years. In addition, in Mordovia, we know that there are no medical services to be — we don’t even know if Brittney Griner, in her 6-foot, 8-inch frame, would have had a bed that she could sleep in. That’s what she was facing over the next nine years. So getting her home was about the fact that we don’t know if she could have survived in such a situation. And I encourage people to read the words of Nadya Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot, who spent three years in the same Mordovian prison. It is absolutely chilling, what Brittney Griner would have faced. And her coming home, I really do believe, is about saving her life, as well as returning her to her family.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, very quickly, Dave, on another subject — you’re certainly following the FIFA World Cup in Qatar — the death of yet another worker, and the response by the Qatari government that death is part of the life process. Can you respond?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, yeah. Shocking, disturbing. This is a World Cup that comes to us soaked in blood and dirt. Now, other World Cups have had their share of injustices, no question. But what’s happening in Qatar is a crime against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, host of the Edge of Sports podcast. We’re going to link to his new article in The Nation magazine, “A Vindication for Agitation: Brittney Griner Is Coming Home.” Go to democracynow.org.

Next up, WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed in a dramatic prisoner swap in exchange for Viktor Bout, the convicted Russian arms dealer. A lot has been made of him selling weapons to everyone from al-Qaeda to the Taliban. What about being paid millions of dollars by the United States? Stay with us.

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“A Personified Weapon of Mass Destruction”: Ex-Arms Trafficking Inspector on Freed Russian Viktor Bout

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