A controversial photo of female African-American cadets at West Point raising their fists in what appears to be a “black power” salute has prompted an investigation by school officials, as it may have violated the military’s policy against political expression.
“The photo gained national attention last week when a blogger popular among some in the military wrote about it after multiple cadets sent in the photo, according to the blog’s author. In posts on his blog and on his Facebook account, John Burk called the image a ‘completely unprofessional’ reference to the Black Lives Matter movement,” CNN reports. “The Facebook post drew hundreds of comments and was shared more than 1,400 times,”
More specifically, Burk contended in his 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, and as well as violating the DOD directive 1344.10.”
“West Point, the prestigious military academy that carries itself with honor and pride for the incredible leaders that have been produced from the rigorous academic undertaking of its cadets, yet what happens when those same 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 so far as to call for the deaths of white Americans,” Burk wrote.
The photo has generated both criticism and support, as CNN finds that “scores of alumni have lined up in support of the young women, who have not spoken publicly about the photo or been identified by West Point.”
“They weren’t doing it to be aligned with any particular movement or any particular party. It was, ‘We did it and we did it together,'” said West Point graduate Mary Tobin, who is described a a “mentor to some of the women in the photo.”
The CNN report notes that the cadets took several other, more traditional graduation photos, in addition to the one where they pose with their fists raised. For example:
— Sue Fulton (@suefulton) April 27, 2016
Sue Fulton, who tweeted the photo above, is a West Point graduate who currently chairs the U.S. Military Academy’s Board of Visitors. She told the Army Times that she would not have pushed the raised-fist photo onto social media.
“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,” said Fulton. “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, it appears they didn’t stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph.”
Fulton, who knows some of the young women personally and said there was no doubt they loved West Point and the Army, added that she did not object to West Point officials opening an inquiry into the photo.
This is the controversial photo, in which the cadets have their fists raised:
The fists-raised picture is still a matter of concern to West Point, which opened an inquiry on April 28. CNN summarizes the relevant policies, which Burk itemized in his blog post:
According to Army Command Policy, soldiers — including cadets at the academy — may “register, vote, and express their personal opinion on political candidates and issues, but not as a representative of the Army.”
Further guidelines prohibit soldiers from joining groups, deemed extremist, that “promote or threaten the unlawful use of force or violence.”
“Enforcement of this policy… is vitally important to unit cohesion and morale, and is essential to the Army’s ability to accomplish its mission,” the policy reads.
According to Burk, the cadets in the photo have been “making their voices heard more and more” on the anonymous Yik Yak app, and other cadets are afraid to speak up against them in public, “due to them being accused of being racist and risk being expelled from the academy from hurting someone’s feelings.”
While the cadets themselves have not yet been identified or quoted on the record about the intent of the photo, some of their defenders argue that they did not understand the historical significance of the raised-fist pose. That would not speak very well of the historical curriculum at West Point.
It is also difficult to believe from a pop-culture standpoint, since as CNN notes, pop singer Beyoncé caused quite a stir by flashing the Black Lives Matter salute at the last Super Bowl half-time show. The argument that none of the young women in the photo, nor the people who took the picture, understood the cultural context of the raised-fist salute is hard to make.
“Black female cadets are rare at West Point, where about 70% of students are white and about 80% are men, although the percentage of women has been growing in recent starting classes,” the Guardian added.
Military law expert Greg Grainer told the Army Times that arguments about the intention behind the photo may not matter, because under military justice and disciplinary standards, “Sometimes the actions themselves are enough to bring discredit.”
However, he also thought West Point leadership may consider whether they want to “create a problem for these young female officers that they’re going to have for the rest of their careers” before rendering a judgment.