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West Point Cadets At Center Of Storm After Raising Fists In Photo

West Point cadets pose for a pre-graduation photo. The fist-raising is the center of an investigation by the military academy. Among the commentators on the incident is veteran John Burk, who posted this photo on his website.
John Burk/Screen shot by NPR
West Point cadets pose for a pre-graduation photo. The fist-raising is the center of an investigation by the military academy. Among the commentators on the incident is veteran John Burk, who posted this photo on his website.

West Point is investigating whether black female cadets violated any rules by raising their fists in a photo. The 16 women, following school tradition, posed in historical-style uniforms ahead of graduation later this month.

The investigation will look into whether the cadets violated the school honor code or a Department of Defense rule about political activities while in the Armed Forces.

The women in the photo have not publicly commented on why they held up their fists, but many others — including graduates of the United States Military Academy — have weighed in with their thoughts and experiences.

Here are some of the reactions that stood out to us:

'What It Must Feel Like'

Mary Tobin, who graduated from West Point about 13 years ago, wrote on Facebook about her experience as a black woman there:

"Our attrition rates are on par with the class at large, but can you imagine what it must feel like to live, train, study, eat, cry, laugh, struggle, and succeed in an environment where for 4 years, the majority of the people there don't look like you, it's hard for them to relate to you, they oftentimes don't understand you, and the only way to survive is to shrink your blackness or assimilate.

"We don't talk about the microagressions that minority cadets experience every single day. We don't talk about how many times we have to let racial slurs or crass racial jokes roll off our backs because all we want to do is graduate. I don't talk about how as a black female leader within the Corps, I was told time and time again, that I was a good leader because I was 'not like the rest of them.' "

She said the image of the cadets "wasn't a sign of formal allegiance to any political movement or party. This was an act of unity amongst sisters and a symbol of achievement."

The New York Times notes:

"The elite public military academy, which trains many of the Army's future leaders, is overwhelmingly male and 70 percent white. The 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in a graduating class of about 1,000, a meager 1.7 percent."

The Rev. Sam Jackson, who says his "proud Army heritage extends as far back as the U.S. Civil War," wrote about his experience with racism at West Point, saying he was told that the few black students were purposefully separated in campus housing to "maximize [other students'] exposure to Blacks." (CNN says Jackson attended West Point in the '80s.) Jackson wrote:

"The Army and Academy had an extra measure of expectation of the minorities of the nation who attended, to help the military to sort out their racial problems, while not so much helping the minorities to sort out theirs."

'Completely Unprofessional'

Blogger John Burk, a veteran, said the pose was an "overt display of the black lives matter movement" and doing so in uniform "is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the [United States Military Academy] stands for." The Times reports:

"Mr. Burk, a former drill sergeant, who is white, said via email that he had disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos, and felt the raised fist was not much different."

In a post titled, "Here's EXACTLY what I'd do to the West Point cadets who took this dishonorable photo," former Florida Rep. Allen West said the young women should apologize to their class and to the academy. The Fox News contributor, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, wrote on his own website:

"The obvious hypothetical question is what if these were 16 white male West Point Cadets from the south who took a picture in uniform with the Confederate battle flag? Yes, you know exactly what the story would be, and it would be plastered all over the mainstream media. And you know those white male cadets would be in serious danger of not graduating and receiving their commission as an Army officer. ...

"These young women carry on the legacy of Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point. All he wanted was to serve his nation and be an Army officer. Thanks to him, these women can be there at West Point, and I was able to become an Army officer. Someone needs to teach them a little history and get them to understand that lesson and see contriteness in their soul."

Making A Statement?

Atlas Obscura dove into the history of the raised fist — and whether it is inherently political.

"The raised fist gesture is associated with numerous political movements, and it can't be tied to any one ideology or message," the site says, noting it has been used by civil rights groups, white supremacists and recently by Beyoncé during the Super Bowl.

Atlas Obscura also nods to a Smithsonian post about "the dap," a handshake that started among black GIs during Vietnam as a "symbol of unity and survival in a racially turbulent atmosphere."

An activist in support of the West Point cadets has said that the women's pose could also be interpreted as the "Army Strong" pose, which she writes "is commonly done by the cadet corps during football games and army victories."

Potential Consequences

With the investigation continuing, military law expert Greg Greiner told Army Times that the cadets' intent may not be the deciding factor in how West Point responds:

"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 percent,' he said. 'Sometimes the actions themselves are enough to bring discredit.' "

The New York Times gave an older example of students making a statement with their pre-graduation photo:

"In 1976, the year before women were admitted to the academy, male cadets widely referred to themselves as 'the last class with balls,' according to an officer who teaches at West Point. The officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak, said that a number of seniors that year posed for a photo holding armloads of basketballs, footballs and baseballs. They were not punished, the officer said."

Greiner told Army Times the women could face charges of conduct unbecoming an officer. He added:

"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?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.