West Point is investigating a photo that shows 16 black female cadets in uniform displaying raised fists outside a U.S. Military Academy barracks.
The image has been shared widely in military circles, with claims the women are making a political statement, which would be a violation of military restrictions on political activity.
“We can confirm that the cadets in this photo are members of the U.S. Military Academy's Class of 2016,” said West Point’s director of public affairs Lt. Col. Christopher Kasker in an emailed statement. “Academy officials are conducting an inquiry into the matter."
The raised fist is a symbol associated with Black Lives Matter, although it’s been used for centuries to symbolize resistance by a number of groups, from labor unions to suffragists to socialists to the Black Panthers.
Army Times received the photo last Wednesday from several readers who are concerned the women violated Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces. The policy provides a list of political do's and don’ts for service members and cautions against "partisan political activity" when in uniform.
John Burk — a motivational coach, online firebrand and former soldier — criticized the image Wednesday via his fitness website In The Arena.
He said the women may run afoul a section of the policy that says troops may not “Display a partisan political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one’s residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development.”
His post on Facebook was shared more than 1,200 times, which helped to fuel speculation and raise concerns.
According to Brenda Sue Fulton, who chairs the U.S. Military Academy’s Board of Visitors, the controversial photo was just one of dozens of images the women took as part of a long-held West Point tradition.
The women were posing for an “Old Corps photo,” Fulton told Army Times, “a long-held tradition at the Academy.”
“Different teams and groups get together on their own to mimic the high-collar, ultra-serious, photos of 19th century cadets,” she explained of the tradition.
Fulton knows some of the women personally.
“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.”
But would Fulton, a former Army captain and long-time diversity advocate for the military, have tweeted the raised-fist 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 fist,” she said. “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.”
Will the women face repercussions?
The women may have run run afoul of West Point's Honor Code, or Department of Defense Directive 1344.10, Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces, said Greg Greiner, a military law expert and partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm.
Even if the intent was not to make a political statement — for example, if "group think" set in or the cadets were just "messing around" — they could still be in trouble, Greiner explained.
"My experience with military justice and the way discipline is handled, is that intent doesn’t always matter 100%," he said. "Sometimes the actions themselves are enough to bring discredit."
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, cadets could face charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, Greiner said. It depends on how much leadership felt "good order and discipline" had been violated, if at all.
"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?" he said.