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After Her Anthem Protest, Gwen Berry Is More Determined Than Ever to Fight Racial Injustice

U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist in protest atop the podium in Sept. 2019 and was handed a 12-month probation that threatened her career. But she won't be silenced.

Last September, U.S. Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry bowed her head and raised her fist in protest atop the podium of the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, as an instrumental version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. For her demonstration against racial injustice and police brutality in America, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee put her on a 12-month probation for breaking rules on political protests at a global championship.

Berry’s probation expires in a summer when the Olympics have been postponed, but also in a time when the country is in a state of national unrest and anger following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Protesters nationwide were outraged after a video was released that showed an officer pressing his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes, even as Floyd said he couldn't breathe. Officer Derek Chauvin, who was fired from his job, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday. The three other officers present, also fired, have not been arrested.

Much of it is all too familiar to Berry, who grew up in Ferguson, Mo., and marched with protesters in St. Louis in 2014, after Michael Brown was shot and killed by former police officer Darren Wilson. The death ignited weeks of unrest and conversation about race relations, but Wilson was never prosecuted.

“Our country is going against a corrupt system,” Berry says. “The system has been corrupt for a very long time. I know that in my lifetime, there probably won’t be too much change. I hope that this is the year that we never forget that going forward, something can be done. It’s not the Targets and the Walmarts that need to be burned to the ground. It’s the system. The police act like this because of the system. The president acts like this because of the system. I feel like that’s the thing people need to realize. Until everyone gets on one accord, we’re going to keep seeing these things happen. We have to burn down the system.”

Berry plans on joining the protests in Houston on Tuesday, and she discussed how she took a stand, made her voice heard and plans to continue doing so in a phone call with Sports Illustrated on Monday.

The following interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Chris Chavez: I’d ask, How are you? but no one is doing great right now, so I’d like for you to help me understand: How are you feeling at the moment?

Gwen Berry: I’m feeling anxious. I’m feeling sleepless. I just feel like everyone is on edge. No one feels safe. No one feels comfortable. Everyone is confused and angry because we don’t understand why change is so hard. Why is something so hard to grasp for people?

CC: What have you made of watching the protests on TV?

GB: I’ve been in this situation before and I’ve taken my stance before, so this has ignited me. I feel like a fire is burning in me. I’m proud of people who are protesting. I’m proud of people who are taking a stand. I feel like now, more than ever, I’m understood. When I took my stance, it was at a time when things were happening, but nothing was being done. When I took my stance, I was completely misunderstood. Now I feel like everyone feels how I felt.

CC: That protest was less than a year ago. So what changed for you to be understood?

GB: The biggest thing that has changed is just that it’s happening more times than none. Another thing that’s made people restless is the pandemic being thrown on top of things. People have been in their homes. People had their work end. That’s just one element of it. You’ve had killers of Black men and women in the past couple months and people are tired now. This is just civil unrest. I feel like Black people in America are getting hit at all ends, and they’ve had enough.

CC: Last year, you told ESPN after you protested at the Pan Am Games that after you’ve spoken your peace, you wanted to “try to figure out what is my position in this country and this world.” Have you figured that out yet?

GB: My role is to educate. I have a son. I have brothers. I have cousins. I have family. I have friends everywhere in the world that don’t understand what it is like to be Black in America. They don’t grasp the concept. I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading books. I’ve been listening on YouTube to Killer Mike, T.I. and others. I’ve been doing my research so I can be an educator. I talk to numerous people about the issues going on in America. I still am a professional athlete in training, and my focus is to compete in Tokyo. My purpose right now and when I’m done with track, I can get out more and travel to get out to different seminars and be involved with more.

CC: We saw you raise your fist. It makes the news but what happened next?

GB: Life is crazy. I was getting a lot of death threats. I was getting a lot of calls and emails. More people didn’t understand me than those who did. I wouldn’t say it was bad timing but it was a time when I was preparing for a world championship so I decided to preserve my energy emotionally and not speak too much about it. I did it because it was genuine. I feel that sometimes people take a stand and then overly exert themselves to get the attention, then it’s not genuine. I was genuine about my stance. I did what I did and I didn’t speak about it too much because I wasn’t done with my mission for the year yet. I didn’t put too much attention toward it because I just needed to save myself emotionally for the world championships. After that, I’ve been doing panels and talking to a lot of people.

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CC: I see on your Instagram bio, it says you’re a free agent. When all of this was taking place, were you under contract with anyone?

GB: Yes. I was under contract and I was sponsored by several companies that give elite athletes grants for track and field.

CC: How much did that change after your protest and do you think it was related?

GB: Absolutely. I feel like 80% of my income was taken away from me. I feel like it was definitely paired to my stance because I was the highest-ranked that I’ve ever been in my life. I was ranked No. 3 in the world. I’ve never been ranked this high. I’ve never thrown this far, and this was the best season I’ve ever had. For me to get dropped by sponsors and to not be able to accumulate grants is because of the stance I’ve taken, definitely.

CC: What do you want to see from these sponsors?

GB: I want these sponsors to look at the people who they are sponsoring and who they aren’t sponsoring. Go into the neighborhoods and create programs instead of just putting money in people’s pockets. Create programs for young kids that come from horrible neighborhoods or horrible backgrounds so that they understand what financial stability is, how to buy property and accumulate more money and the right assets. They need more than just “Wear our brand. We’ll pay you millions of dollars and you go about your way.” A lot of Black people don’t understand what money can do and what generational wealth means. These companies, instead of just asking people to wear their brand and pay money, they need to do more to actually help communities. Educating communities is what helps.

CC: Ahmaud Arbery’s death made ripples in the sport because of his ties as a runner. It’s been said that running is a sport for everyone because of its simplicity and how accessible it is to many. However, I’ve also learned that it’s a place of fear for many in the African American community and not always accessible to people because of socioeconomic issues. Has the sport always felt safe and welcoming to you?

GB: The sport has been safe and welcoming in its early stages. In college? Definitely. In the professional aspect, absolutely not. Track and field does not make a lot of revenue and it is not a popular sport in the United States. It’s hard for kids to transition from a collegiate to an elite. There’s no resources for us. There’s no programs for us to bridge that gap. That’s when it becomes unwelcoming.

CC: I want to learn a bit more about early on. What was it like growing up in Ferguson? It was all over the news in 2014, but what was it like when you grew up there?

GB: I was really naive because I wasn’t as educated on things that policemen can do to Black boys and girls. I can remember that we were always outside, in streets and in parks. I do remember that we were always told that we couldn’t gather in big groups or that we couldn’t walk the streets in big groups. Normal things that kids could do, we couldn’t do. My uncle would go out with his friends—they were all males—and he would always come home and say, “The police was harassing us.” I never really understood why the police were harassing them or why no one ever said or did anything about it. I was really naive to the fact that my uncle could’ve been a Michael Brown and I would’ve never known. It was just different. People struggled. We had 13 people in a house. My grandmother was trying to protect us, so she never really spoke to us about it. We were naive to the system. We were naive to what was going on in the world. She always told us to try to behave and make good decisions.

CC: When did your eyes open up to the rest of the country and world?

GB: I figured out what was going on when I was in college. My college [Southern Illinois] was predominantly white, but there were a lot of Black people from Chicago there. I could see how things were different even down to the smallest things like fraternity houses. The white people would have fraternity row but Black people wouldn’t have fraternity houses on campus at all. Black fraternity or sorority parties would get shut down. We couldn’t have parties at all, but white fraternities and sororities could party all the time. Those small things gave me an inkling that something was different.

CC: You grew up with your father, who as a football player in college also studied race relations and Black history. What were some of the early lessons that were passed onto you?

GB: My father always told me that I needed to be strong. I grew up strong-willed and strong-minded. He always told me, “Never let people see you cry, because when they see you cry it’s a sign of weakness and never let people get to you.” One thing he taught me pertaining to black history and culture is that he would always tell me I’m beautiful. “Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not beautiful.” Black girls sometimes think they’re not as pretty as other girls. Pertaining to my hair, he’d say it was beautiful. He would point out those things so that when I got older, I wouldn’t feel inferior to people who were different than me.

CC: And those conversations get passed down. I understand at some point “The Talk” happens between Black parents and kids. It’s the discussion of how to interact with cops and white people in a country where police kill more Black people than anyone else. How did you have that conversation with your own son?

GB: Me and my son are extremely close, even though I’m away from him at times because of training. Any time I go home or when we’re on the phone, I always give him quizzes or something to read and ask him about it. I remember one particular time, especially after the Michael Brown situation, I flew home and sat down with him and my two younger brothers. I asked them, “Do you guys have any questions?” It was my first time doing it, which is crazy because at the time they were between 10 to 12 years old. Imagine being a kid and seeing this and not really knowing what is going on. I made sure to ask them first, “How do you guys feel? Are you confused?” My little brother said, “I don’t understand why they are killing us.” That did it for me, right there.

Ever since that day, we have those conversations. My thing is—No. 1: Make good decisions. No. 2: I have locations on devices because I need to know at all times where you are. No. 3: I’ve had to tell them that when they’re riding around with their friends, maybe you’re young and want to do whatever, but Black men in a car riding around with their music loud is a target. I have to remind them that when you go to places, turn your music down. Don’t be too rowdy and don’t bring unnecessary attention to yourself, because you’re a target at all times. It’s a hard conversation to have, but it’s necessary. I’ve told them what to do when a cop pulls them over. Make sure you put your hands on the dashboard. Make sure that you talk loudly so the cop can hear you. Don’t reach for anything, and if you reach for something, make sure you tell the cop that you’re reaching for something because you asked me to reach for it. Those are just things you have to have.

CC: I feel like a lot of people right now who aren’t Black are looking for ways to navigate those hard conversations. I know I can do better and we can all be that change. What’s your message for those who want to engage?

GB: They already know how or they’re scared to and don’t know where to start. A good start is to always ask, “What can I do?” Most people who don’t understand or haven’t lived in those situations are too scared to because of the answer that they’re going to get. They’re scared to get out of the perfect life that they have. They’re scared to use their privilege because they don’t know what can happen to them. I feel like first and foremost, our allies do not need to be scared. If you are truly an ally, be on the front lines. You’ll be taking bullets. You’ll be taking hits. You’ll be standing with your Black brothers and sisters and say, “I’ll take this hit for them.” Go to the front lines. Talk to your friends. Expose people. Have these tough conversations with your children and make sure they know that this is no way to be toward other Black children. They have to be brave, but they know. If you ask anyone who is not Black in America if they want to be Black in America, they would say no. So they know. They just have to be brave enough to do something.

CC: The Olympics are next year. The IOC has its strict policy on athlete protests. Do you want it to see reversed, and would you protest again?

GB: I don’t know how I would do it, but I would definitely make my stance heard. As far as the policy from the IOC, they have to do anything to protect their investment. They put billions of dollars into the Olympic Games, and they treat athletes like puppets because we don’t get paid. They want us to do what they want us to do and go home. I don’t need it to be reversed because they won’t have the Olympics this year. They gave me 12 months, and 12 months will be over in August, so I’ll be a free bird next Olympics.