US military officials are investigating an image of 16 black female cadets in uniform with their fists raised, which some say is a political act associated with African-Americans' quest for fair treatment under the law in the United States.
The photo came under scrutiny when concerns were raised that the pose violates West Point's honor code, which mirrors the Defense Department's federal Hatch Act, in that it prohibits members of the military to participate in political activities while in uniform.
The raised-fist image is now closely associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which swept the country in the wake of several high-profile police killings of unarmed black men. The image picked up some traffic online, and drew criticism that the woman were expressing support for the movement, which is critical of law enforcement. For example, one twitter user under the slogan "BlueLivesMatter" — a counter slogan supporting police — was incensed. "Expel them and force them to repay their tuition" she wrote.
John Burk, an Iraq war veteran, former drill sergeant and self-described "fitness motivator," wrote in a blog post that "this overt display of the black lives matter movement is not, in itself wrong, but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA stands for."
"No one dares speak up in public against them due to being accused of being racist," Burk went on. "What happens when... cadets identify with a group that has been known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States, calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going as for to call for the deaths of white Americans."
Burk added, in an email to the New York Times, that he had disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos in the past, and that he couldn't see how the raised fist was any different.
"The fact that it could offend someone by its usage qualifies it as a symbol that goes against Army policies," Burk wrote. "It's not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs, it's the fact they did it while in uniform."
West Point Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Kasker told the Associated Press on Saturday that West Point is investigating whether the photo broke rules, and that it's too soon to say what consequences could be in store for the cadets. All 16 are set to graduate later this month on May 21. Kasker could not say how long the inquiry will take.
Brenda Sue Fulton, a West Point alumni from 1989 and now chairwoman of the US Military Academy's Board of Visitors, told VICE News that the "old corps photo" is a long-held tradition at the academy. Different groups of cadets get together on their own and pose for photos to "mimic the high-collar, ultra-serious photos of 19th century cadets." Fulton added that she was not speaking as a representative of the US Military Academy, but as a West Point alum who knows several of the women in the picture.
"The context that people place on this photo has more to do with who they are than who these women are," Fulton said. "They're celebrating the completion of a very difficult course of study. The pride and sense of triumph that cadets feel as they set out on their army careers. There was nothing political about this photo." She added that the women took "dozens" of photos — and she tweeted her favorite, with the tagline "Fearless, flawless and fierce."
Fulton also points out that there's another tradition at West Point, wherein cadets raise their fists whenever the "Army Strong" theme from the recruitment commercials is played (as demonstrated in the video below). "It is unfortunate that a black first has a different connotation to a white fist," Fulton said. "It's not what these young women intended."
Fulton acknowledges that she, too, recognizes the symbolism separating white fists from black fists, and that's why she chose not to tweet that photo. "I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers. Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, they didn't stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph."
Mary Tobin, another West Point graduate, Iraq War veteran, and mentor for the students, told the New York Times that "These ladies weren't raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé." But Beyoncé, too, recently landed in hot water after her performance at this year's Super Bowl halftime show. Critics of the performance were outraged, and accused the singer of using the show to make a "racist" political statement, listing as evidence: That Beyonce and her dancers gave the Black Power salute onstage, were dressed in costumes reminiscent of the Black Panther movement, and her music video for "Formation" taps into some of the issues at the the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tobin dove a little deeper into the issue in a personal essay posted on Facebook.
"When I first saw the photograph a few weeks ago" Tobin wrote, "I put my face in my hands and thought to myself, "Why would they do this?""
"I simply thought, "if this gets out, it could threaten their graduation dates or hurt their careers. No matter what way we slice it, if a black person displays 'the fist,' it is immediately associated with being a symbol of either pride or racism."
No amount of education, op-eds, or documentaries about what "the fist" means to the black community, she goes on, has been able to absolve it of "the perception that it means 'Black people hate white people.'"
Tobin, also a black woman who graduated from West Point, urges readers who are neither black nor female to understand "how it felt to be a double minority in a white male dominated institution that didn't even allow women to attend until 1976."
"And even now, I cannot explain what it feels like to stand with 15 of your sisters out of a class of 1,000, knowing that you did it... You are going to graduate despite the sexism, the racism, the classicism, and the ignorance you experienced and you did it — together."
Greg Greiner, a military law expert, told the Army Times that the women could be disciplined, even if they were just "messing around" or if the photo was an example of "group think."
"My experience with military justice and the way discipline is handled, is that intent doesn't always matter 100 percent," Greiner said. "Sometimes the actions themselves are enough to bring discredit." It all depends, Greiner says, how much leadership feels that "good order and discipline" had been violated.