Sixteen black women cadets who raised their clenched fists while wearing their West Point uniforms were cleared of violating Department of Defense policy Wednesday after an investigation — even if their actions were considered slightly inappropriate.
"While the inquiry did not find that these cadets violated a policy or regulation, it did determine that they demonstrated a lapse of awareness in how symbols and gestures can be misinterpreted and cause division," West Point Superintendent Lieutenant Gen. Robert Caslen wrote in a statement. "The impact of this photo, regardless of its intent, is evident."
A probe began April 28 after a photo of the cadets surfaced on social media and subsequently went viral. Critics (particularly former soldier John Burk) accused the women of racism and speculated they were showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and, by extension, violating the academy's honor code and Army protocol.
Defense Department policy, which applies to military organizations including West Point, states that members of the armed forces may express personal opinions as long as they are not acting as representatives of the armed forces. To some, the women violated policy by saluting in uniform.
USMA officials' decision suggests the attention may have been unwarranted, but the controversy provides an example of why symbols need to be examined in a broader context.
The politics of the raised fist
With the exception of the raised fist, the style of the photo in question was not out of the ordinary. A longstanding tradition at West Point is for graduates to take group photos in the spirit of the serious Old Corps photos of 19th-century cadets. According to the Army Times, the group took nine photos total. In fact, another popular photo of the same group of cadets caused little, if any, uproar.
The black women graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2016. ✊ pic.twitter.com/V03PDNMNNO— Henry David Theheaux (@2ndClassCitizn) April 27, 2016
This also wasn't the only time that a group of cadets have made their own social statement in an Old Corps–style photo. An anonymous officer who teaches as West Point told the New York Times last week that some members of the West Point class of 1976 made a point to show they were "the last class with balls," posing with an assortment of sports balls, in response to USMA finally opening its doors to admit women.
Those cadets were not punished, but the raised fist photo carries a visible political history. Since its inception during the Spanish Civil War, the clenched fist, at a very basic level, symbolizes strength and unity.
In the US, the raised fist has become largely associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s, immortalized by the Black Panthers and black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. Black activists have evoked the symbol in the broader movement for black lives today.
But was that association enough to accuse the cadets of engaging in political speech?
Activists in the current movement for black lives noted that the photo appears to be an example of how black youth today use the fist as a general affirmation rather than as a sign of political advocacy. In fact, all but one black woman in the West Point graduating class of 1,000 cadets (where the student body is 70 percent white and 80 percent male) appeared in the photo.
"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 first," West Point alumna Brenda Sue Fulton, who is also the first openly lesbian chair of the USMA board of directors, 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 cadets were swiftly criticized publicly by some social media users and members of the Armed Forces for violating the Defense Department's policy and countering the military's prioritization of uniformity. Essentially, these 16 black women cadets didn't fall in line.
But as the military continues to broaden the scope of who can be a service member, it becomes all the more important to reevaluate the way it sees things like a clenched fist, even in its most innocuous context.