By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: The photo shows a group of black female West Point cadets standing on the steps of a campus barrack looking sternly into the camera their hands raised in clenched fists.
Were it not for those clenched fists, the photo would be unremarkable, one of hundreds taken during a tradition known as “Old Corps” where seniors strike a serious pose reminiscent of early 19th century cadets.
But the photo went viral when it was posted on Facebook and Twitter in early May provoking a controversy at the U.S. Military Academy and beyond over whether the cadets were making a political statement in uniform, a violation of Defense Department rules.
Some West Point alumni and others outside the military apparently felt the 16 graduating seniors had broken ranks with their fellow cadets and aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. The group was accused of making a political statement about race and gender division, discrimination and segregation at West Point and within the military.
The Army Times which first wrote about the photo last Thursday reported that several readers had written to say they believed the cadets had breached Defense department policy that states: “Members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity” except for voting and other sanctioned activity.
John Burk, a blogger, former drill sergeant and Iraq War veteran, wrote a post suggesting the cadets’ gesture linked them with Black Lives Matter activists “known for inflicting violent protests throughout various parts of the United States, calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going so far as to call for the deaths of white Americans.”
Officials at West Point opened an investigation on April 28 to determine if the cadets should be disciplined for what military officials viewed as a lapse in judgment and “inappropriate” behavior.
On Tuesday, the military academy concluded the group did not violate any Defense department rules even though some of the cadets pictured knew what they were doing was controversial, according to West Point investigators. Prior to their graduation, the cadets were ordered to receive additional instruction from the academy’s Commandant.
Instructions on what exactly? When a member of the military can and cannot exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly?
I acknowledge that I’m not well versed on the Defense Department’s codes of conduct for enlisted service men and women. But I didn’t realize that members of the military gave up their rights as American citizens when they raise their right hands to swear an oath to defend the nation.
The investigator recommended that the cadets be allowed to graduate with their class on May 21 “provided they display an understanding of how their actions as Cadets and future Officers were inappropriate, at the conclusion of the instruction.”
West Point Superintendent Lt. General Robert Caslen said himself that it’s not the first time that clenched fists have been used at the academy in recent years to convey a sense of pride for the Army and the nation.
“For instance, last July, the class of 2019 spontaneously raised their fist in pride upon the playing of the Army Strong song during the Fourth of July concert,” Caslen wrote in a letter to the Corps of Cadets. “Last December, on the night before the Army-Navy game, I joined hundreds of staff and graduates in raising our fist in support of the Army football team during the Army-Navy pep rally video.”
But that, according to Caslen, was different because the “time, place and manner of a symbol can also hold significant meaning and influence perception.”
Caslen and West Point officials believe the raised clenched fists of cadets in the photo was somehow different. Even though investigators concluded the gesture was spur of the moment, they said cadets should have understood “that a symbol or gesture that one group of people may find harmless may offend others.”
“While the inquiry did not find that these cadets violated policy or regulation, it did determine that they demonstrated a lapse of awareness in how symbols and gesture can be misinterpreted and cause division,” Caslen said in the letter. “The impact of this photo, regardless of its intent, is evident. It is unfortunate that this perception brought attention to our Alma Mater for all the wrong reasons.”
He’s right but not in the way he may think.
The raised fist or clenched fist has been a symbol of solidary and support for decades. The salute dates back to 1917 when it was used as a logo by the Industrial Workers of the World. It was used in 1948 by Taller de Grafica Popular, a print shop in Mexico that used art to advance revolutionary social causes. The symbol became popularized in America during the 1960’s as part of the Black Power movement. Groups as varied as the Jewish Defense League, Food Not Bombs, the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society and the United Farm Workers have embraced the symbol as cause celebre.
The West Point cadets’ graduation photo was one of nine taken during the shoot. Three of the poses were referred to as “serious,” “raised fist” and “silly,” according to the investigation. I doubt the cadets ever thought their photo would cause such a stir. Had they, knowing the discipline required of cadets at the elite military academy, they never would have struck such a pose.
West Point may have forgiven their indiscretion but it’s not likely to be forgotten any time soon. That was made clear by West Point officials who said the controversy has tainted “the Old Corps” tradition and led them to rethink its use.
“I recommend all future ‘Old Corps’ photographs be reviewed by the West Point affairs office prior to release to any Cadet or outside agency,” the investigator wrote in a memo.
Anywhere else in America, that could be viewed as an infringement on freedom of the press and free speech. But this is the military where limits can apparently be placed on Constitutional principles other Americans take for granted.