Is a raised fist a sign of free speech or subversive political expression?
United States Military Academy officials are weighing that question after a group of female African-American senior cadets at West Point took a photo last month showing the soon-to-be graduates posing in uniform with a raised fist salute.
After it was posted to social media, the photo drew the ire of critics (particularly former soldier John Burk) who accused the cadets 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, prompting an investigation by USMA officials.
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 leaders have said little about the incident publicly, aside from announcing an investigation.
Still, USMA has also been criticized for taking the photo out of context, as pointed out by West Point alumna Brenda Sue Fulton, who is also the first openly lesbian chair of the USMA board of directors.
"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," Fulton 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 have not been charged with anything, but the Army Times reports that any possible charges could dampen their careers just as they're beginning.
In the meantime, as USMA investigates the situation, the scrutiny calls attention to how people of color in the military face degrees of scrutiny unmatched by their white peers.
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. 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 isn'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 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 is that association enough to accuse the cadets of engaging in political speech?
Activists in the current movement for black lives have 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.
"Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, it appears [the cadets] didn't stop to think that [the raised fists] might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph," Fulton said.
But the question remains as to whether it's fair to assume the cadets are guilty by any imaginable association, particularly the most political, without also giving them the same benefit of the doubt that they might have used the clenched fist in its most innocuous context.
The armed forces have a marred track record for some black women
Officials will decide whether the 16 cadets violated policy while in uniform, but the military has had policies in the past that have unfairly singled out black women members.
For example, black women are increasingly choosing to wear their natural hair, often in the form of braids, twists, and locs, but that doesn't mean the military's rules have automatically kept up.
In April 2014, the Army sparked controversy after updating its hair grooming rules in Army Regulation 670-1 to specify that only smaller braids and twists were allowed aside from chemically straightened hair. Dreadlocks and Afros were prohibited, and unacceptable styles were described in loaded terms like "matted and unkempt." An Army spokesperson said the goal was to have standards that were "necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population," but women members of the Congressional Black Caucus argued that the rules singled out black women with natural hair.
"African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace," members of the caucus wrote in a letter to the Department of Defense. "Understand that these standards should shift based on each community's unique and practical needs. New cultural norms and trends naturally change, ensuring that no person feels targeted or attacked based on his or her appearance."
After three months of review, the Army, Air Force, and Navy revised their policies. Women could wear slightly larger braids and twists. Women service members were no longer required to show less than one-eighth of their scalp with braided hair. Cornrows no longer had to be in a straight line, but the styling needed to be uniform. The document also removed the term "matted and unkempt" as a descriptor for dreadlocks.
Military members are trained to act of one accord, and in the strictest sense, these 16 black women cadets didn't exactly fall in line. But the controversy around the hair grooming policies shows that there is also a fine line between what does and doesn't count as acceptable behavior that changes as the military adapts standards to better reflect the growing diversity of its service members.
The armed forces don't exist outside of society. And 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 braids, twists, and, perhaps, for these cadets, a clenched fist.