Why did West Point cadets pose with raised fists?

A photo of 16 black female cadets at the US Military Academy raising their fists has sparked a debate over whether the gesture is a symbol of unity or a political act.

Obtained from Twitter/AP
The US Military Academy has launched an inquiry into this photo of 16 black, female cadets posing in uniform with their fists raised at United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Is a raised fist a sign of exuberance — akin to tossing a graduation cap — or is it a political act?

That question has become central in a debate over an image circulated online showing 16 black female cadets from the US Military Academy at West Point in uniform with their fists raised. In response to concerns about the image, West Point officials have launched an investigation.

Some online commenters have questioned whether the photo is a show of support for the Black Lives Matter Movement and could violate a Defense Department policy barring political activities in uniform, but some West Point graduates and school leaders say the students were simply celebrating their upcoming graduation in a common campus tradition known as an “Old Corps” photo.

“For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood,” Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate of West Point and an Iraq veteran who has mentored some of the cadets and talked with them about the photograph, told The New York Times. “That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country,” she added.

Questions about the photo come as the military has announced several milestones for women in the military in recent months, including allowing female soldiers to serve in combat roles and appointing the first female commandant of cadets, who is in charge of discipline, at West Point in December.

Some school leaders have suggested that the reason this particular photo stood out may have more to do with the demographic makeup of the subjects rather than their gestures, considering the relative rarity of black female cadets at the academy; about 70 percent of students at West Point are white, and about 80 percent are men.

“I would not have re-tweeted the raised-fist photo because I am well aware that our culture views a black fist very differently from a white fist,” Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate who chairs the academy’s Board of Visitors told the Army Times. “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.”

The photo was one of several others taken by the cadets in a common tradition to echo historical portraits of cadets at West Point in their full dress uniforms, Ms. Fulton said.

In these photos, “Different teams and groups get together on their own to mimic the high-collar, ultra-serious, photos of 19th century cadets,” she told Army Times. She had tweeted out a different image of the cadets without raised fists, which was later shared by Acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy, the paper reports.

Raised fists have long been a controversial symbol of power and resistance for several political movements, particularly those on the left. During World War I, the Industrial Workers of the World, an anarchosyndicalist labor union in the United States, became among the first to adopt the symbol, and in the years that followed was quickly adopted by communists and socialists before becoming associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists and bowed their heads in a black power salute that led the two men to receive death threats, Time reports.

“I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative,” Mr. Smith said later in an HBO documentary, “There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag – not symbolizing a hatred for it.”

Some critics of the West Point photo say the raised fist was a political symbol linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and could potentially violate West Point’s honor code, including a violation of conduct unbecoming to an officer, Army Times reports.

“The fact that it could offend someone by its usage qualifies it as a symbol that goes against Army policies,” John Burk, a former drill sergeant and Iraq War veteran, told The New York Times. “It’s not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs, it’s the fact they did it while in uniform.”

But Fulton, the first female West Point graduate to serve as chair of the Board of Visitors, said she was dismayed to read negative comments, including Mr. Burk’s post that took the photo out of its context, which was a celebration of the cadets’ upcoming graduation.

It’s unclear how officials at West Point may interpret the gesture, which might seem mild by the standards of many college campuses but carries more weight at the military academy, where political activism is expressly forbidden.

“Leaders have a duty to say to themselves, 'do we want to create a problem for these young female officers that they're going to have for the rest of their careers?' ” Greg Greiner, a military law expert and partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey told Army Times.

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