On Saturday, during the medal ceremony for the US Olympic track and field trials, hammer thrower Gwen Berry faced away from the US flag during the national anthem. She did so, she said later, in protest against systemic racism and police brutality.
Berry also claimed that although she requested they play the anthem after the athletes left the podium, it was played while she was still there, forcing her to make a choice between her principles and inciting public and racist outrage against her. Referring to the anthem playing as a “set-up,” the 31-year-old athlete said, “I was thinking about what should I do. Eventually, I just stayed there and just swayed. I put my shirt over my head. It was real disrespectful. I know they did that on purpose, but it’ll be all right. I see what’s up.” The shirt that she raised over her head read “Activist Athlete”.
This isn’t the first time Berry has used her platform to advocate for racial justice. In 2019, she received a 12-month probation and lost some of her sponsorships after she raised her fist — a tactic first used by Black US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the October 16, 1968 Olympic medal ceremony in Mexico City — in protest against racism in the US at the Pan-American Games in Peru.
“For me, it was extremely devastating because they cut off all my revenue,” Berry told CNN in 2020 of the punishment she received resulting from her protest in Peru. That loss of revenue prevented her from “competing, going overseas, going to competitions [and] getting prize money,” she added, saying that the Olympic team itself ended up having to “help me, help my family, help my community” because of the wide-ranging impact of that loss of earnings.
Black athletes who stand up for themselves — whether it’s taking a knee like football player Colin Kaepernick or advocating for their own self-care like tennis champion Naomi Osaka — almost always receive intense backlash after they protest racial injustice or exercise their right to refusal.
“I think it’s a terrible thing. And you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen,” said Donald Trump of Kaepernick in 2016, before winning the presidential election later that year.
In May 2021, when Naomi Osaka made it clear that invasive press questions were detrimental to her mental health, white former tennis star Billie Jean King responded that all athletes “have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media.” Like Berry, Osaka was punished — this time with a $15,000 fine and a threat of suspension from the tournament, which Osaka later withdrew from willingly.
And after Berry’s recent demonstration, Republican legislators came after her. During an interview on Fox & Friends, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) said, “We don’t need any more activist athletes. [Berry] should be removed from the team.”
“The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America. That’s the entire point… They should be removed,” Crenshaw continued, referring not only to Berry but to all the American “activist athletes” he so clearly disdains. “That should be the bare minimum requirement is that you believe in the country [you’re] representing.”
But how can Black athletes believe in this country wholeheartedly? How can they believe in a country that allowed 1 in 800 Black and Indigenous people die from Covid-19 between March and December in 2020? How can they believe in a country that incarcerates Black people at hugely disproportionate levels, in cruel conditions, separating families and destroying lives? How can they believe in a country where police can shoot a sleeping Black woman like Breonna Taylor, or a mentally ill Black woman like Pamela Turner, and face little to no consequences?
When Crenshaw called for Berry to be removed from the Olympic games due to her alleged lack of “belief” in this country, she tweeted: “At this point, y’all are obsessed with me.” And she’s right. Those opposed to racial justice in the US are obsessed with Black athletes like Berry, Kaepernick, and Osaka because they are threatening the status quo. That status quo demands Black athletes put their bodies and minds on the line again and again because they should simply be grateful to be there. Berry and her compatriots are disrupting the idea that Black athletes should just smile and sign autographs while their people are killed, starved, denied healthcare, and exposed to all manner of indignities and violence.
And most importantly, in the cases of Berry and Kaepernick, they’re disrupting the pervasive idea that this country is infallible, that it is inherently good, and that it represents freedom to the rest of the world.
Berry and Kaepernick clearly believe in freedom. Otherwise, why would they risk their careers to speak out against the system stripping it from Black Americans? No, their detractors aren’t upset because “activist athletes” don’t value the supposed American values of freedom and liberty. They’re furious because these athletes, by refusing to revere our country’s anthem, are pointing out what has been clear for a long time. The US is hypocritical every time it claims to be a shining light of liberty. And until it becomes one for real, we must all bend our knees towards freedom and turn our backs against injustice, facing the dream of true liberty with open hearts and courageous spirits.