Three days after Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the U.S. flag while the national anthem played at Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Trials, right-wing politicians and talking heads are continuing their dehumanizing tirade against her political protest, weaponizing her actions into their latest attack on Black athletes and their freedom of speech.
After earning the bronze medal in the hammer throw, Berry stood upon her podium as the American national anthem played, turning to face the stands instead of the flag, with her hand on her heart, like the other two athletes that joined her on the podium. Near the end of the song, she gathered a black T-shirt she had with the phrase “Activist Athlete” on it, and put it over her head.
“I feel like it was a setup, and they did it on purpose,” Berry said about the anthem being played while she was on the podium, according to an article from ESPN on her protest. “I was pissed, to be honest.”
“They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there,” Berry continued. “But I don’t really want to talk about the anthem because that’s not important. The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.”
This is what Berry has promised she would do, as other Black athletes including tennis champion Naomi Osaka and the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown have done in the past year — use her position at the Olympics in Tokyo to “keep raising awareness about social injustices in her home country,” the ESPN article states.
And she’s done this before, long before last summer’s worldwide uprisings against police brutality. In 2019, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee punished her after she raised her first while she stood on the podium after winning gold at the Pan American Games, as the U.S. national anthem played.
“I knew that anthem did not speak for people like me in America,” Berry said in an opinion video with The New York Times about her punishment from September. “The freedom, ‘Liberty, Justice, for all,’ it is not for Black people.”
Of course, right-wing reactionaries who wouldn’t dream of a world without the national anthem being played at each and every sporting event in the country have turned Berry’s protest into their own personal cable news fodder. From Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw and Sen. Ted Cruz, to Meghan McCain, the worst people, most disingenuous commentators on political activism are portraying Berry’s fight for racial justice as un-American.
This isn’t much different than the attacks we’ve previously seen on Black athletes who’ve brought their politics to the center stage, and so it’s unsurprising that amid the GOP’s attacks on the concept of systemic racism, they’re employing this line of fire once again — praise Black athletes for their entertainment value, then demonize them once they display any act of civil disobedience. This sentiment seeped into Berry’s inbox too, with racists emailing her hateful and threatening messages.
Perhaps it was always going to play out like this, that Berry’s protest was always going to be picked apart by these people as a “radical act of the left,” despite it being something that shouldn’t be radical to do at all. It shouldn’t be radical to call out your country for its continued offenses and violence against people who look like you, especially when you have an international platform to do so.
But regardless of the backlash she’s gotten, and despite whatever punishment she may receive from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Berry is right. In every sense. She’s right to protest as she has, and she’ll continue to be right in whatever protest she may conduct once she’s in Tokyo. She’s right in her criticisms of the United States that she repeated after her win on Saturday— that even after the murder of George Floyd, everything that followed last summer, the verbal and financial commitments delivered by individuals and institutions to “do better” on race and racism, was a sham. These conservative ghouls can get as mad as they want about the ways that she’s using her platform to show what a disgrace this country continues to be for Black and brown marginalized people — they’re only proving her point.