Will Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan be Home for Christmas?

Athletics, politics, Sports

On August 4, 2022, what friends, family, and fans of Brittney Griner feared would happen, did indeed happen.  

The WNBA Phoenix Mercury All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist received a sentence of nine-and-a-half years in a Russian penal colony for alleged drug possession and smuggling. She pled guilty in July, after being held in jail in Russia since her arrest in February. Although Griner and her Russian legal representatives insisted she had unknowingly carried the cannabis oil officials found in her luggage, the judge decided she had done so intentionally and handed down the harsh prison sentence, along with a 1 million-ruble fine (about $16,700). 

It all went down as expected. While the sentence is harsh even by Russian standards, many weren’t surprised to find that a Black, openly queer American woman, regardless of her fame on the basketball court, received no leniency during a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the United States.  

President Joe Biden called the sentence “unacceptable.” His government officially declared Griner wrongfully detained in May, and appears to be working steadily, and increasingly publicly, for her release.  

Griner’s Russian defense team said the judge ignored evidence they presented that should have weighed in Griner’s favor. Additionally, the fact of her guilty plea should have led to a more lenient sentence. They have also filed an appeal.  

Griner was expressionless as the judge spoke her sentence. As she was led from the courtroom, she simply said, “I love my family.”  

A sentence that could be a solution 

But diplomatic experts stress that her sentence is the only hope that remains to Griner for returning home. Without it, negotiations with Russia for any potential prisoner swap could not proceed. It was also the only reasonable move strategically: Less than 1 percent of criminal defendants in Russia receive acquittals. And, in the Russian justice system, even an acquittal can later be overturned. The odds that an acquitted Griner could avoid rearrest in the country seemed small. 

The Russian government has confirmed its strong interest in a prisoner exchange that would free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently serving out a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans. Russian officials have stated that they are working with their American counterparts behind the scenes to reach an agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly said that his government is prepared to offer a “substantial proposal,” and will “pursue” a prisoner swap. 

The most likely exchange involves Griner, ideally together with her fellow imprisoned American Paul Whelan.  

Paul Whelan’s ordeal 

Whelan, a former Marine and most recently an international advisor on security issues, was arrested in Russia on New Year’s Eve in 2018 on charges of espionage. He has consistently said he traveled to Russia simply to attend a friend’s wedding, and he and his family have strenuously denied the allegation of spying. After a brief, and completely closed-door trial, he was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison. He remains in a harsh Russian labor camp about an eight hours’ drive from Moscow, alongside murderers and thieves.  

Whelan has told media that at the very beginning of his detention, the Russians were telling him the plan was to use him in a prisoner swap. He heard two names consistently: Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot imprisoned in the U.S. after a conviction for drug smuggling, and Viktor Bout. In April 2022, a deal with the Americans led to Yaroshenko’s release in exchange for Trevor Reed, another American ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia.  

Political pawns 

It’s likely, according to many informed observers, that Griner’s severe sentence was also a calculated move by Russia to use her as yet another political pawn to secure Bout’s freedom. 

Now, after months of wondering why he wasn’t also freed in exchange for Yaroshenko, Whelan has to be hoping he’ll be released alongside Griner in exchange for Bout. 

Russian prisons and penal colonies are grim places. Prisoners often receive harsh, physically and emotionally abusive treatment from guards, and have access to only the most basic food and sanitary conditions. They typically work for long hours at forced labor. In the case of Griner, who speaks no Russian, the social and cultural isolation has been especially demoralizing. 

Holiday celebrations in 2022? 

By the first part of August, the U.S. had already been waiting weeks for a definitive answer from Russia after laying down Blinken’s “substantial proposal.” On August 11, Russia did publicly confirm its interest in a swap that would give them Bout for Griner and Whelan. 

Both prisoners’ loved ones have been working steadily toward their release and are trying to stay positive. 

Whelan family members have expressed that they are “cautiously optimistic,” his brother, David, said. But David Whelan also expressed a well-earned skepticism. He is afraid that any deal freeing Griner would again leave Paul Whelan behind, either due to “Russia’s bad faith” or to the chance of “the U.S.’s bad hand.”  

Here’s to hoping the U.S. this time has a good hand and plays it well. 

My Black vote matters equally whether I cast it in my white lab coat or in a hoody

politics

By Jason L. Campbell Special to The Seattle Times, Oct. 31, 2020

I voted in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008, and in Washington, D.C., in 2012. I voted in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016 and this year, I will vote in Portland. The years and the cities may change, but my dreams and racial identity do not. The first time I voted, I remember hearing the voice of my grandmother, Florence E. Adams, who as a Black woman spent many years of her adult life dissuaded to vote through tactics and barriers still seen today. Even now, her words echo every time I see a ballot box: “You can never be too tired to vote.”

Today, a Black man in a white coat, I walk the hospital corridor in Portland. A stethoscope is in my left pocket and a pager fastened to my right hip. A hands-free communication device is pinned to the collar of my light blue scrub top as the nurse calls, “Dr. Campbell to come to the patient’s bedside.” Later today, when I cast my vote, I will not be wearing my white lab coat but rather a hooded sweatshirt. The difference in how I am treated in a hooded sweatshirt compared to my white lab coat is a necessary reminder of why this vote matters.

In 2016, I was a medical student in Columbus, Ohio. Politically, Ohio is a puzzle mixed equally with progressive and conservative pieces. A few weeks before the 2016 election, I attended a Buckeyes football game at Ohio Stadium. It was a significant game I had been excited about the entire week. Yet, my enthusiasm diminished as the national anthem began when a white man wearing a MAGA hat mocked Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest of police brutality. Only a few short breaths after, he cheered for the young Black men on the field wearing his beloved scarlet and gray. His view of Kaepernick as a Black man was different from how he viewed the players on the field. The contrast reminded me how much further we have to go and how unattainable the target we hope to reach is without voting.

In 2012, I started a premedical program in Manassas, Virginia, less than an hour from my hometown of Washington, D.C. A different political climate greeted me in Manassas. Mitt Romney signs were prominently displayed on nearly every street, adorning the lawns of many homes. I sat next to three classmates — Black men — as we closed our textbooks to watch Bill Clinton take the stage to make the case for the incumbent, President Barack Obama.

“I want to nominate a man cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside. I want a man who believes with no doubt that we can build a new American dream economy driven by innovation and creativity …,” Clinton said. On that evening, Clinton was addressing our country, but it felt as though he was speaking directly to us. Four Black men aspiring to be doctors, we burned with the same ambition that inspired a young Obama.

I recall in 2008 often wearing a hoody to class, hoping one day to exchange my sweatshirt for a white coat. I was 19-years-old, one year older than the minimum age required to vote. While this was the first time I had lived away from the safety of my Washington, D.C., home, Atlanta was considered to be a haven for Black people, a proud pocket of Black America deep in the conservative South. Long lines greeted me that warm November day as I approached the polling place with my breath half held at the possibility of electing the first Black president of the United States of America. My strongest memory from the election was observing my friend, standing on the stairs leaning against the banister, with tears streaming down her face. We all watched as our country elected the Black junior senator from Illinois president of the United States.

This was a moment of celebration, but more importantly a moment of reflection. I reflected back to images of my grandmother from the 1950s; the fortitude with which she stood hours in line to cast her vote for issues similar to the ones many Black people still face today. Like my friend on the stairs, I know on that election night my grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair wiping away her own tears in disbelief. 

Whether cast wearing a hoody or a white coat, there is power in every vote, if only we believed it.

From Beacon to Shadow: The African-American Community is Waiting…

adversity, medicine, politics, Race, Uncategorized

“‘More blood! Stat!’” I read. The first line in “Gifted Hands.” As a 15-year-old African-American student aspiring to one-day practice medicine I could barely put down the book my mother gave me. The story of Ben Carson MD—many believed to be the guiding light if you were poor or African-American or academically challenged—was the beacon illuminating a journey from adversity to achievement. The first words in “Gifted Hands” by Ben Carson, MD sets the scene within an operating room in 1987 at the Johns Hopkins Institution in which a medical milestone occurred. Two 7-month-old conjoined twins requiring copious amounts of blood, twenty-two hours of procedure time, a seventy-member team led by him and gifted hands resulted in a successful separation of two Siamese twins—Patrick and Benjamin.

 For Dr. Carson—one of the most academically impactful members of the African-American community—the fall from grace has been anything but subtle. When questioned on May 21st, 2019 by Congresswoman Porter he was asked to define a basic housing term—an REO (Real Estate Owned)—a term used to describe a class of property owned by a lender after an unsuccessful sale at a foreclosure auction. Seemingly unknowing of the term he responded with “Oreo?” at first to which he needed clarification—a surprising response in his position as Secretary of the United States Department of Urban Housing and Development (HUD). Dr. Carson once pillared his accomplishments on the power of knowledge. Now—dismissivae of a fundamental term a person in his position should use commonly this is in stark contrast to the image the black community grew up honoring. One contemporary of the once-esteemed surgeon noted he knew firsthand what Dr. Carson went through and it was nothing short of incredible. But watching his devolution has been a pitiful sight to see.

This playbook has not changed and still illuminates the story of a poor black kid from Detroit overcoming multiple barriers—poverty, academic strife, and a system constructed against him—to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and perform the successful separation of 7-month-old Siamese Twins when others said it could not be done. Few African-Americans, in any field, have come from very little to achieve such success. In the last chapter—entitled “THINK BIG”—Dr. Carson writes how each letter illustrates an important piece to success. The ‘K’ stands for ‘Knowledge’ which he defines as “‘… the key to all your dreams, hopes and aspirations. If you are knowledgeable, particularly more knowledgeable than anybody else in a field, you become invaluable and write your own ticket.’” Where have these words now gone? Once so important he wrote them in a book to inspire generations to come.

A man who once changed lives with words and saved lives with actions has now perished to an online trend seemingly devoid of the basic knowledge required in his current position. The surgeon who changed history in 1987 in that operating room in Baltimore, Maryland will forever be remembered by the African-American community, but the man we see today appears to be a shadow of his former self—at best.

This is a perpetual discussion intertwining history, race, culture, politics and medicine. Some of my colleagues may not agree but I desire a return from the former Ben Carson MD.

I declare to you Dr. Carson it is never too late to give a young woman of color, who once wrote to you because her mother like yours was a maid, hope and promise that she too can make something out of very little. I declare to you Dr. Carson that there is a young black male facing academic hardship who needs you now. I declare to you Dr. Carson that the African-American community is waiting…