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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Lessons Learned From Brittney Griner's Case

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

By: Donald V. Watkins

July 31, 2022

An Editorial Opinion

Americans have been dismayed by WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention and imprisonment in Russia since mid-February 2022. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after police found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage as she was departing for the United States. This substance is legal in the United States in states that allow the use of medical and/or recreational marijuana. Griner says she had a doctor's prescription for the cannabis, which is illegal in Russia.

On the advise of her Russian attorneys, Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling charges and is facing up to 10 years in prison.

President Joe Biden is under intense political pressure to bring Griner home. In June, Biden privately offered the Russians a prisoner swap for Griner and former Marine Paul Whalen, who has been held in captivity in Russia for more than three years. In exchange for their freedom, the United States would free Victor Bout, a convicted Russians arms dealer known as the "merchant of death." Bout is nearing the end of a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.

On Friday, Russian officials countered Biden's prisoner swap offer by asking for the release of a covert Russian operative who murdered his target in Germany in 2019. The assassin was charged with murder, tried in a Germany court, convicted, and imprisoned in Germany. The swap would include this assassin's release in addition to Bout's.

Lessons Learned from the Brittney Griner Ordeal

As an African-American who has worked in 47 countries since 2007, there are three important lessons in Brittney Griner's case. Please pay attention to them. Your freedom may depend upon it one day.

Lesson One: Know the Drug Laws of the Country You Are Visiting

When you are traveling and working abroad, you should take the time to learn the drug laws of the country you are visiting. This is particularly true if you use marijuana, cannabis vapes and oils for medicinal purposes, and hardcore narcotics like codeine, OxyContin, and Vicodin. What is legal in America with a doctor's prescription, may not be legal in the country you are visiting.

If you are in doubt about the legality of your actions and/or the products you are carrying, please visit the State Department's website for this important information on each country before leaving America. The CIA also publishes an online "Fact Book" on each country that contains helpful information on this subject. These government agency websites will make you smarter on the subject of international travel.

I spend a lot of time covering this subject with my five adult children, all of whom have traveled extensively on the international scene for several decades. Two of them live and work in foreign countries.

Lesson Two: Celebrity Status Does Not Equate to Real Power

In America, star-power will often earn celebrities or professional athletes a pass in situations exposing them to legal jeopardy. They typically get preferential treatment in American's court systems and in life.

However, in foreign countries most celebrities and professional athletes are viewed as affable entertainers and modern-day "court-jesters." While they enjoy the perks of celebrityhood, these individuals are not viewed as real power-players by the ruling governmental and business leaders of major nations.

Wealthy oligarchs and titans of top international business are the ones who hold the real power in most of the 208 countries recognized by the United Nations. In Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, respectively, hold a firm dictatorial power over all of the levers of power and wealth in their countries. All celebrities and athletes are dispensable in these countries.

Barring issues with his health, Putin will be Russia's president until 2036. Jinping is China's president for life. Both men rule their nations with an iron-fist.

There is very little public or economic pressure that the United States can put on Vladimir Putin/Russia to release Griner and Whalen. As we learned from the five months of the Russian-Ukraine War, America's so-called "crippling sanctions" have meant nothing to Russia. However, these economic sanctions have been very successful in crippling America and her allies.

Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer and notorious killer. Putin commits the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children in Ukraine, Syria, or other places of strategic interest to him as a course of conduct.

In the summer of 2021, Vladimir Putin personally met with President Joe Biden in Switzerland to size him up as a man and a U.S. president. After their meeting, Putin concluded that Biden was too old, too low-energy, and too weak to match up to him as a national leader on the world stage. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan did in August 2021, Putin started running roughshod over America and its allies after this meeting.

President Jinping is following Putin's lead. Last week, Jinping accused America of "playing with fire" if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi follows through on her plan to visit Taiwan on her trip to Asia this coming week. Instead of standing up to Jinping, Biden has suggested that Pelosi not make the Taiwan visit. Again, America is showing weakness in the face of a bullying threat from a ruthless dictator.

Lesson Three: Black America is Impotent in Geopolitical Affairs

For the first time ever, we have entered an era where black America is impotent in geopolitical affairs. There is no African-American on the world scene today with the juice and credibility to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whalen back home.

We have plenty of black celebrities who get mobbed by autograph seekers when they stroll through the mall. However, these individuals have no power and influence with the world leaders of Russia, China, India, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Iran, and a host of other influential countries.

Our celebrities and professional athletes, who are great people and very accomplished in their craft, do not own or run any Fortune 500/New York Stock Exchange companies. They are not major defense contractors. They do not own Wall Street banks or accredited financial institutions. They do not own Silicon Valley-based international technology companies. They do not own international multimedia empires like Rupert Murdock and John Malone.

They do not manufacture airplanes, trains, trucks, buses, cars, or yachts. They do not own or run any major international oil and gas companies. They do not own or run global telecommunications companies.

They do not own major retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, H&M, the Gap, and DSW. They do not own Cisco, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, PayPal, Cash App, and other Internet-based infrastructure and social media companies.

They do not own or run any major airlines, or space exploration companies. They do not own or run international solar, wind, and hydrogen powered clean energy companies.

They do not set monetary policies or the price of gold each day. They do not own skyscrapers in any of the world's major cities. They do not serve on the board of directors for the SWIFT organization that oversees international transfers of money between banks.

Except for one black (Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets basketball team), they do not own major league football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, rugby, NASCAR racing, or yachting teams. They do not own any venue where major professional sports are played.

There is no Frederick Douglass, who was outspoken, universally recognized, and respected by European, Caribbean, African, and American leaders in his day as a powerful voice for people of color. There is no Adam Clayton Powell in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Powell did not bite his tongue when forcefully advocating for the civil rights of black Americans in an all-white Congress. Yet, Powell passed more legislation than any member of Congress today, whether black or white, and was respected by world leaders.

There is no Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is the only non-U.S. president and black American with a memorial on the National Mall in Washington and a national holiday named after him. Dr. King, who was disliked by 75% of white Americans at the time of his 1968 assassination, was the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Today's black preachers mostly push personality-based ministries, mega-churches, and their personal enrichment. They are viewed by many world leaders as "hustlers."

The last African-American who had the clout needed to go and bring captive Americans back home was Rev. Jessie Jackson. On January 2, 1984, the iconic civil rights leader traveled to Syria to bring home Lt. Robert Goodman, a black Navy pilot who had been shot down on a bombing mission over the rogue nation. On May 2, 1999, Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic freed three captured U.S. soldiers in response to a personal plea by Rev. Jackson, who brought them back home.


If Brittney Griner and Whalen are to come home anytime soon, I believe America will have to enlist one of the presidents of a major African nation to go and get them. These presidents deal with Putin/Russia on massive oil and gas deals and mineral rights concessions all of the time. They have the kind of backbone and confidence that is sorely lacking in black American politicians. They are also accustomed to dealing with thousands of African businessmen/women and other people of color who are established multi-billionaires in mainstream businesses and political power-players in the region.

Marrying our hopes for Griner's and Whalen's safe return home and our future as a nation to Joe Biden's frail and weak leadership is a strategic mistake. I am not alone in this view. An independent poll released last week showed that three out of four Democrats DO NOT want Biden to seek a second term.

In an article published on March 29, 2020, I urged Democrats to draft a new presidential nominee because he was too old and too weak to hold the presidency. Joe Biden secured his Party's nomination, anyway, and won the November 2020 election solely because a majority of voters viewed Donald Trump was a self-centered buffoon and national embarrassment.

IMAGE: Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan

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Jul 31, 2022

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