The United States Military Academy is investigating 16 black female cadets after a photo of the women in front of a West Point barracks with raised fists was posted on social media.
Following a story by the Army Times about the growing controversy over the photo, readers began to complain that the cadets were making a statement in support of Black Lives Matter or, perhaps, were mimicking a Black Power gesture.
A gesture of that nature could be in violation of a standing Department of Defense rule that says active duty military personnel – which includes students at military academies – may not engage in partisan political activity while in uniform.
The women, seniors at the academy, took dozens of photos to celebrate their graduation, according to an ABC News story, and many of them have been posted on social media. The photos were posted weeks ago, the story said.
“There’s a tradition at West Point for seniors where they pose and they have a very stoic look on their face intended to be a throwback to the old days,” Anthony Lombardo, editor of the Army Times told ABC News. “What makes this photo different is everyone is kind of doing the pose but then there is the clenched fist in the air. If these men and women are in uniform, and they’re making a political statement, they could afoul of the Defense Department regulation, and they could be in serious trouble for that.”
Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate, former Army captain, and chairwoman of the U.S. Military Academy’s Board of Visitors defended the cadets in the Army Times story.
“When I spent time with these cadets and heard them tell their stories and laugh and joke with each other, there’s no doubt in my mind how much they love West Point, they love the Army and they support each other,” Fulton told the Army Times.
She tweeted out a different photo of the women without raised fists with the caption, “THIS. Fearless, flawless, fierce. Ready.”
The clinched fist gesture, which dates back to ancient Assyria, has been used by many movements through the centuries. In recent times, it is generally associated with black nationalism and was widely used by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s.
The gesture caused controversy before when U.S. Olympic medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave a raised-fist salute during the National Anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The two explained that the gesture was a protest on behalf of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The Olympic committee banned the two from any further Olympic activities.
West Point’s director of public affairs, Lt. Col. Christopher Kasher, said the inquiry is ongoing. The women are set to graduate from the Academy on May 21.