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US Hammer Thrower Gwen Berry Explains Why The National Anthem Does Not Speak For Her

Photo: Bob Ramsak, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Gwen Berry

Team USA Olympian hammer throwe Gwen Berry, 32, has responded to both the backlash and support she received after she was seen turning away from the American flag during the national anthem this past weekend.

On Saturday, Berry, known for being an outspoken activist as well as an accomplished track and field athlete, earned a bronze medal in the hammer throw at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, securing her trip to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

During the medal ceremony, Berry could be seen looking uncomfortable as "The Star Spangled Banner" began, fidgeting nervously before turning her back away from the American flag and covering her head with a black t-shirt that read “Activist Athlete.”

What did Gwen Berry say about her recent flag protest during the national anthem?

After the incident, Berry, who famously protested the anthem with by raising her fist as it played during the award ceremony when she won the gold medal for the hammer throw in the 2019 Pan American Games Champion in Lima, said the choice to play it while she was on the podium last weekend felt purposeful.

"I feel like it was a setup, and they did it on purpose,'' Berry told the Associated Press. "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,” she 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.”

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Susan Hazzard, a spokesperson for USA Track and Field said in a statement that the anthem was not, as Berry believes, played to rile her up.

“We didn’t wait until athletes were on the podium for the hammer throw awards, the national anthem is played every day according to a previously published schedule,” Hazzard said.

It had been scheduled to play at 5:20 p.m., as it had every other day of the event, but did not end up playing on Saturday until 5:25 p.m. for reasons Hazzard did not specifiy.

Berry clarified her statements in response to the backlash.

On Tuesday, Berry, who is sponsored by online racial justice advocacy group Color of Change, spoke to the Black News Channel about the backlash she received following her protest.

“I never said that I didn’t want to go to the Olympic games,that’s why I competed and got third and made the team,” Berry stated. “I never said that I hated the country. I never said that. All I said was I respect my people enough to not stand for or acknowledge something that disrespects them. I love my people. Point blank, period.”

She also explained that she takes offense to the often forgotten third verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which references slavery.

“If you know your history, you know the full song of the National Anthem, the third paragraph speaks to slaves in America, our blood being slain... all over the floor. It’s disrespectful and it does not speak for black Americans. It’s obvious. There’s no question,” Berry said.

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What is the third verse of "The Star Spangled Banner" and how does it reference slavery?

While the first verse may be the one most Americans are familiar with, the song is actually composed of four verses, with one — the third — referencing slavery.

The lyrics of the third verse of "The Star Spangled Banner" read:

"And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,

That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."

During her interview with BNC, Berry explained that the lyrics above reference the catching and beating of slaves who ran away.

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Berry has contiinued to face backlash online, including criticism from some conservative figures.

Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw said Monday that he believed Berry should be removed from the US Olympic team, noting, "If you’re going to represent the Team USA, you should, well, you should like the USA."

Ex-Wisconsin governor and former Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker also took a shot at Berry on Twitter.

“What is wrong with people?” he wrote. “Growing up, everyone stood for the American flag. Didn’t matter your politics, race, sex, income, religion; everyone stood for the flag. It was one of those civic rituals that brought us together. It still should today.”

Although Berry has received lots of criticism, she has continued to stand by her actions.

On Monday, Berry posted her own response on Twitter.

“These comments really show that: 1.) people in America rally patriotism over basic morality 2.) Even after the murder of George Floyd and so many others; the commercials, statements, and phony sentiments regarding black lives were just a hoax,” she wrote.

She then responded to a comment supporting her right to protest directly on Twitter saying, “Thank you! I never said I hated this country! People try to put words in my mouth but they can’t. That’s why I speak out. I love my people.”

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When asked about the controversy, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended Berry’s peaceful protest.

“I know [President Joe Biden is] incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents, especially for our men and women serving in uniform all around the world,” Psaki said.

“He would also say, of course, that part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we are, as a country, haven’t lived up to our highest ideals. And it means respecting the rights of people granted to them in the Constitution to peacefully protest.”

As a result of her 2019 protest in Lima, Berry received a 12-month probation from the International Olympic Committee. It was later overturned, and her actions eventually led to a decision by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to "issue new guidelines in order to allow peaceful expressions of protest 'in support of racial and social justice for all human beings.'"

Berry’s father defended her demonstration in Lima, saying, “For her to do that on the podium is more American than anything, if you ask me, because that’s what our country is founded on: freedom of expression, freedom of speech.”

Berry said on Saturday that she will continue to use her platform to advocate for racial justice in America.

“My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports,” she said. “I’m here to represent those… who died due to systemic racism. That’s the important part. That’s why I’m going. That’s why I’m here today.”

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Livvie Brault is a writer who covers self-love, entertainment and news and relationships.