Incarceration Nation

Response to Brittney Griner’s Capture Is an Indictment
of the Right and the “Left”

By Dave Zirin

Update: Brittney Griner was released December 8, 2022 and is now home.
—The Editors

I am deeply disturbed by the response to my recent column about what we know about the abhorrent prison conditions that Brittney Griner is enduring in a labor camp in Mordovia, Russia. While the article garnered attention to her plight, there were two trends on the right and among some supposedly on the left that speak to how toxic and enraging our political world has become. Part of the problem is my own naivete in thinking that the idea of an Olympian in a penal colony for nine years just might create unity across the political spectrum. There are points of unity, all right, but nothing like what I expected.

The right’s response made clear to me that racism, sexism, and homophobia have become the new patriotism. I was bombarded with messages that praised Russia and Vladimir Putin for having these “tough on drugs” laws (as if Griner’s nine-year imprisonment doesn’t have far more to do with hostage diplomacy and Russia’s war on Ukraine than with a vape cartridge). I was repeatedly told that because Griner used to take a knee during the national anthem, she is somehow not worthy of our support and our care, that she hates “America” so she shouldn’t count on “America” to fight for her freedom. And then the barrage of racism, sexism, and homophobia was more than I have received for any article in years of doing this work. It’s been staggering. But this is their patriotism: the freedom to hate others and mock others’ agony. There is also—and we underestimate how widespread—a cult of Putin on the right where they venerate his perceived masculinity, his anti-gay laws, and his control. They see him as the icon of a global authoritarian movement, and they would sooner chew glass than criticize him in the name of a Black, queer woman. And what a condemnation of the Republican party that they would sooner earn points with Nazis than be part of calling for the freedom of not just Griner but also Paul Whelan, another American in a Russian jail.

Shame on me for thinking in this period of fascistic right-wing confidence that the response would be anything else. But the response that has been even more jarring is from people putatively on the left. It doesn’t feel right to say that they are on the left; they’re more like smug shitposters with a repellent left-wing moralism. These are people who think that any call for Griner’s freedom is really about demonizing Russia and that any demonization of Putin only benefits U.S. imperial and NATO imperial aims. Here is Putin, the valentine of the Nazi right, and we have people who claim to be on the left who are de facto offering support for Griner’s nine-year labor camp imprisonment.

Then there are the people who say that the people calling for Griner’s freedom are at best ignorant of how terrible prison and drug laws are in the United States and are at worst providing cover for the War on Drugs in the U.S. Forget, for a moment, that Griner’s plight could help build an international movement for prison abolition and eradication of the drug war. Their argument seems to be that by calling for Griner’s freedom, we are

giving prison conditions in the United States a pass. They say, “Now do Alabama,” as if we aren’t. They say, “Now do our drug laws,” as if we do not. It’s incredibly insulting, especially to the WNBA players who did so much in 2020 to raise public awareness about racial inequity and police violence. They have gone from social justice heroes to dupes, just for calling for their friend’s freedom.

Meanwhile as these awful politics thrash around Griner like she’s some kind of culture war piņata, we still have Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, in pain over Brittney’s endless imprisonment. We have Cherelle relaying Brittney’s fear that she will be forgotten. Brittney Griner must remain in our thoughts, but how she is remembered matters as well. There is no politics more basic than solidarity with the imprisoned. There is no politics more obvious than solidarity with someone in conditions of 16-hour workdays, beatings, and torture, and—reflecting the Russian state—an environment notoriously racist and homophobic. If we can’t get this right, God help us.

The Nation, November 29, 2022