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From Breonna Taylor to Brittney Griner: The brutality of being a soft target

Whether it’s America or Russia, justice is a hurdle hard to clear around the world

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison for less than one gram of cannabis oil.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/Associated Press

A victim of American brutality, an American hostage in Russia.

Thursday, more than two years after the killing of Breonna Taylor, four Louisville officers responsible for her death and for lying about it were charged by the federal government. That same morning, in another country, WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years after a Russian judge found her guilty of smuggling illegal narcotics.

When she was detained on Feb. 17, Griner was in possession of less than a gram of cannabis oil in vape cartridges, hastily packed into her bag from her home in Arizona. A physician had legally recommended the drug for her pain. She’s been held captive ever since.

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There was no criminal intent. This is an abduction masquerading as a criminal court.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” President Biden said in a statement.

“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden continued.

Griner, like Taylor, is a soft target: Easily preyed upon, without defense, and more likely to be attacked or exploited.

Police waited until nearly 1 a.m. on March 13, 2020, to show up at Taylor’s home in plainclothes. They barely knocked and then battered down her door, ready to shoot. Her ex-boyfriend, the suspect, was not there, did not live there, and had already been arrested.

We now know officers lied about the alleged criminal connection between Taylor and her ex-boyfriend. They did this because they knew they could.

When they broke into her home, her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who is licensed to carry a firearm, pulled out his weapon to protect himself and Breonna. It was the police who claimed self defense. They shot 32 bullets. They killed Breonna Taylor and felt justified.

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And had we not been loud and persistent, they would have gotten away with it.

Police wanted to use Taylor in a case that had nothing to do with her, just like Russia wants to leverage Griner as a political pawn in an already fragile, frightening relationship between our country and their own, under the backdrop of a war against Ukraine.

Being a Black woman in the American South made Taylor a particularly soft target. Griner, a Black, queer woman, a 6-foot-9 athlete with a big career, is also a soft target.

Officials in Russia knew what they were doing when they grabbed Griner. Russia’s disinformation campaigns have had a special interest in Black Americans and race for years. President Vladimir Putin vilifies Black Lives Matter and has defended the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

Despite counting Russia as her second home, another country where she proudly played basketball and won games in their name, the country did not see her as one of them.

“I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said on Thursday in her closing statements. “I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”

She was sentenced to nearly a decade in prison.

Who Griner is as a Black woman matters in this detainment and how we talk about it. Our value, and perceived lack thereof, is always a factor. Just as important, she is an American. Anyone, from any land, can become a chess piece when they leave their home country.

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We have to protest, beg, and debate for our humanity and rights in America. Yet it is our nation leading conversations and negotiations for justice. That is an indication of how dilapidated liberation and equity are globally.

No matter what passport you carry, we all become soft targets when the world’s stakeholders are greedy for power. How does that not incite you to fight for the freedoms of all people?

We’ve seen the cruel and unjust detainments and eventual releases of British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and my friend, Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian, in Iran. We’re still fighting to bring home Austin Tice, who was abducted while reporting in Syria in 2012.

About two months after Griner was first detained, former US marine Trevor Reed, who was wrongfully imprisoned in Russia since 2019, was released in a prisoner swap. He, too, had been sentenced to nine years, alleged to have attacked police while intoxicated.

Another former marine, Paul Whelan, has been detained since 2018. In 2020, he was convicted of espionage by a Russian court and sentenced to 16 years.

Now, Biden is trying to bring home both Whelan and Griner in a prisoner swap for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, convicted in 2011 on charges of conspiring to kill Americans. He’s served a little less than half of his 25-year sentence. But the trade doesn’t end there.

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Russia requested America get convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov, sentenced to life in prison in Germany, released.

We do not know what will happen next. But we cannot look away. We cannot afford to back down.

It is imperative we continue to witness Brittney Griner with the same persistence we lifted Breonna Taylor’s name. We cannot, as Griner pleaded, let her life end there.

Justice, truly, would have meant Taylor never being killed and Griner not enduring a living nightmare.

We cannot rewind time. But we can advocate for the future we want and be present in these fights for democracy in America and freedom everywhere, for everyone.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.