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Gwen Berry joined George Floyd’s family in the streets of Houston on Tuesday for the same reason she once raised her fist alone. Amid unrest and anger across America, she pulled a black bandana up over her nose and an Emmett Till T-shirt down over her chest. She and 60,000 others marched toward City Hall. As they did, she looked around. She saw humans of all races, crying or shouting or silent, united by a demand for justice. She got emotional. Then she got a text from her coach.
And another one, and more texts from others.
She stepped away from the protest. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, she soon learned, had released a statement about “solidarity” and “equality” and “change.”
Berry, an Olympic hammer thrower, read it, then read it again, more thoroughly.
“And I was in shock,” she says. “It was ridiculous.”
Anger simmered inside of her, because last summer she’d tried to draw attention to the same issues millions of Americans are now decrying. Atop a podium at the Pan-American Games, her right fist rose toward the sky. Two weeks later, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland issued her a “formal reprimand” and one year of probation.
Ten months later, Hirshland wrote to athletes to “condemn the systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans” – the same systemic inequality Hirshland told Berry she couldn’t protest on a medal stand.
Meanwhile, “I was in the midst of walking, and standing, and protesting with my people, with the folks who are in distress like me,” Berry says, making the contrast explicit.
“I could not believe that they did that,” she says of the USOPC, distress seeping into her voice. “It’s insane. Because most of these companies, most of these establishments, it’s obvious and blatant that they are only [putting out statements about racism] because it is the thing to do now. That’s what hurts my feelings the most. It’s the disrespect and disregard for the sincerity of what’s actually going on in this world. For you to be so hypocritical … it’s just disgusting.”
She feels “personally insulted,” and wants an apology. “But an apology,” she later adds – “that’s not enough.” She wants accountability, and actions, and meaningful change.
“I want to make sure that people understand how imperative it is for this not to just be a moment, or a fad,” she says of the nationwide protests and the conversation they’ve sparked. “This has to have a lasting impact.”
‘A statement is not enough’
Berry is also angry at corporations. Brands. Athletic sponsors. The ones who have released carefully worded and artfully crafted messages a week after Floyd’s death. The same ones who dropped her last year after she silently protested the system that would ultimately cost Floyd his life.
Berry won gold at Pan-Ams. She was ranked top-five in the world. Still, she says, she lost 80 percent of her income. It wasn’t difficult to connect the dots. She had death threats and hate mail in her inbox, from Americans who felt her raised fist was an affront to the national anthem and the country and the flag. Never mind that her father served in Iraq, and that he felt her protest was an extremely “American” thing to do.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that you can be mad at me for a song, but you can’t be mad that innocent lives are being taken,” she says of the criticism. “That’s insanity to me.”
Nonetheless, sponsors left. Some $50,000 in endorsement money and “grant opportunities” disappeared. Berry went back to her family, including her teenage son, forced to explain: “I probably won’t be able to do the things that I’ve done for you in the past, because of my stance.” But also to explain why she took that stance. To explain racial injustice. To explain why she felt compelled to fight it.
In response, from the USOC, she got probation. From the International Olympic Committee, she got a policy restricting protest. She never got engagement with the specific reasons for her raised fist. “They took everything away from me, therefore taking everything away from my family,” she says of the Olympic organizations. And the IOC, she clarifies, is where the problem begins. “They really make it hard for different countries, corporations or institutions to speak and help the athletes,” she says.
(The IOC responded to questions about protest and efforts to fight injustice with a statement that did not answer the questions or outline specifics. The USOC did not respond to a request for comment.)
The way Berry sees it, they must either allow protest or actively effect change. Doing neither upholds white supremacy. “A statement is not enough,” she says. “What are you willing to do to back those statements? That’s what I want to know.”
It’s the question she’ll take to USOPC leadership. “They should’ve reached out to me before they made the statement,” she says. They still haven’t. But they have organized a Friday virtual town hall, which Berry plans to participate in.
“I’m joinin’,” she says. “And I’m giving ’em hell.”
Berry’s call to action
Berry has also been talking with fellow Olympians about future demonstrations. Some, over the past week, have contacted her via email or Instagram to ask how they can help. A few – including Race Imboden, who knelt on a podium at those same Pan-Am Games to protest “racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate” – have been plotting in more detail. She hopes the IOC will “take the rules away” and let athletes express themselves.
“We’re not asking them to fight a system they support,” she explains. “We’re just asking them to give us the ability to take a stance for what we believe in.”
She is asking her teammates, meanwhile, to stand with her and amplify her voice, no matter their race. “A retweet, or something as simple as a heart, or a fist, anything,” she says. It all helps.
And she is asking American citizens to “please, please, please register to vote in your local and state offices. Reach out. Know who the representatives are. Know how they can impact you.”
“We need to have conversations about the racial wealth gap,” she continues. “Because that is the thing that is killing our black communities, our children do not have opportunities, and they do not have relief. They cannot just be students, or concentrate on school, because they have a thousand other things that they have to battle with in everyday life.”
The lack of progress, at times, can be dispiriting. Berry marched with protesters in her hometown of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown. Six years later, the streets are full again. “It’s going to be really, really, really hard for this system, which is a white supremacy system, to change in my lifetime,” she says. “Because it has been embedded in our American culture, in our American life, for so long.” To think about that big picture, she admits, can be overwhelming.
To think about future generations, though, is inspiring. Knowing her son, and his children, and their children, can grow into an incrementally changing world is why she fights.
“The only reason why it is not draining, to me, is because you have to plant the seed,” she says. “If you don’t plant the seed, nothing will grow.”
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