A fist raised and a knee taken: US gold medalists Gwen Berry and Race Imboden protest racism, social injustice

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” said hammer thrower Gwen Berry

Olympic fencing medallist Race Imboden took a knee in protest during his team’s foil medal ceremony at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru on August 9, 2019

American gold medalist fencer Race Imboden took a knee and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist – as other politically-engaged athletes have done in the past – during the playing of the US national anthem at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, to protest social injustice and to call attention to their country’s racism, mistreatment of immigrants, and ongoing gun violence epidemic.

The political stand of the American athletes broke the marginalization of the Pam American Games by the monopoly media.

Mr Imboden won a bronze medal in the individual men’s foil event and then took gold in the team competition with Gerek Meinhardt and Nick Itkin.

“We must call for change,” wrote the 26-year-old fencer on Twitter as he shared images of his protest which took place Friday, August 9 on Day 14 of the international games in Lima, Peru.

“This week I am honored to represent Team USA at the Pan Am Games, taking home Gold and Bronze. My pride however has been cut short by the multiple shortcomings of the country I hold so dear to my heart. Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list. I chose to sacrifice my moment today at the top of the podium to call attention to issues that I believe need to be addressed. I encourage others to please use your platforms for empowerment and change.

The 26-year-old competed in London 2012 and Rio 2016, where he won the team bronze medal. Mr Imboden previously knelt during the anthem at a World Cup event in Egypt in 2017.

Race Imboden and Miles Chamley-Watson took a knee during the anthem ceremony at the Pharoah’s Challenge men’s foil fencing World Cup in 2017 | Devin Manky/Getty Images

Imboden later told the New York Times that he asked both of his teammates if they would be okay with his protest, and both gave their approval.

Mr Imboden wasn’t alone in protest at the games as his protest on Friday was followed Saturday by hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who raised her fist in protest on the podium as the Star Spangled Banner played following her Gold Medal win.

US hammer thrower Gwen Barry raises fist during medal ceremony at the Pan-Am Games on August 10, 2019

USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour points out:

The life of an Olympic athlete is one of endless sacrifice.

For hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden, their principles won’t be among them.

Berry and Imboden are almost sure to be disciplined for their protests on the medals stand at the Pan American Games. Berry raised her fist during the Star-Spangled Banner after winning gold Saturday, one day after Imboden took a knee during the men’s team foil medals ceremony.

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry told USA TODAY Sports on Saturday night.

“It’s too important to not say something,” Berry added. “Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

Mr. Imboden, who was born in Florida and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., is ranked first in the United States and third in the world in his sport, according to U.S.A. Fencing. Ms. Berry is ranked fourth in the world among women hammer throwers, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Right of conscience

Despite the predictable backlash from the U.S. Olympic Committee and reactionaries who accused both athletes of being insufficiently patriotic, Ms Armour argues such sentiments clearly miss the point.

“We praise athletes from foreign countries for their courage when they protest against their broken and corrupt governments,” she wrote. “Is the America of 2019 so much different?”

It is to be anticipated that the athletes will be sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOPC) on the road to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for exercising their right of conscience. The USOPC blamed the athletes for a lack of loyalty in a statement on Saturday.

“Every athlete competing at the 2019 Pan American Games commits to terms of eligibility, including to refrain from demonstrations that are political in nature. In this case, Race didn’t adhere to the commitment he made to the organizing committee and the USOPC,” Mark Jones, Vice-President of Communications, USOPC said. “We respect his rights to express his viewpoints, but we are disappointed that he chose not to honour his commitment. Our leadership are reviewing what consequences may result.”

Fifty one years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sanctioned by the USOPC for their protests on the medal podium in the 1968 Olympics, the USOPC is still committed to upholding this 19th century stand depriving athletes of the right of conscience. Athletes are expected to perform as “good old boys” and not think or express themselves.

Resistance by U.S. athletes

American athletes have a long history of staging such protests, dating back to the 1960s civil rights movement, such as Mt Carlos and Mr Smith on the medal podium at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 with the support of the Australian Peter Norman (pictured, below right), but they have grown in recent years following NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision – joined by his then team-mate Eric Reed (pictured at left) – to start taking a knee in 2016. Mr Kaepernick, for four months straight, every game, refused to stand for the national anthem, opposing police brutality and killings of unarmed African Americans, and impunity for these crimes.

Following his actions, many college students, high school and little league teams, women’s soccer players and others, joined in refusing to stand for the U.S. anthem. Nevertheless, the San Francisco 49ers released both players at the end of the season. At the same time the quarterback, who still remains unsigned three years later, has been recognized by his peers, voted the NFL Players Association most valuable player, in part for his work among young minority youth, providing Know Your Rights seminars. DeMaurice Smith, president of the Players Association said at the time, “We will never back down. We no longer can afford to stick to sports.”

The protest by NFL and other athletes spread even further following derogatory remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump, referring to players who protest as a “son of a b–-” and calling for them to be fired. The essence of his remarks were for all to “respect our flag,” that is the U.S. empire, or be punished.

Recently nine-times Olympic champion Carl Lewis branded U.S. president Trump a “racist” and a “misogynist” during a press conference at the Games. On August 3, the “latest inductees to the US Pro Football Hall of Fame condemned injustices.

Why the U.S. anthem?

Olympic Project for Human Rights button, worn by activist athletes in the 1968 Olympic games, originally called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games. The iconic photo appears in many history textbooks, stripped of the story of the planned boycott and demands, creating the appearance of a solitary act of defiance.

While those joining in protest have various reasons for doing so, what is common in the collective action is use of the U.S. anthem as their symbol, which focuses blame not on individual police or individual issues but on the U.S. state as the source of the problem.

However, there has been little discussion on the significance of Trump’s remarks being a demand for loyalty, not only from athletes but from the public in general. An article from the U.S. Voice of Revolution reposted on this blog in 2018, “Trump comments on NFL players are a demand for loyalty,” underlined the issue succinctly:

“The common feature of these various actions is using the national anthem, which is a symbol of the U.S. state, one that endures from one government to the next. It represents the state and its actions, at home and abroad, just as the flag does. Indeed, the U.S. anthem is one of the few national anthems worldwide that is about the country’s flag. The protests objectively target the state and its character as a racist state with impunity to kill and to disregard the rule of law, at home and abroad. This is a just and significant stand by all the athletes and the millions of Americans and people around the world who have joined in expressing support for them.”

With files from Common Dream, London Guardian, Reuters, New York Times

– Tony Seed

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