In April 2016, a photograph showing a group of female cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point with their fists raised started circulating around the internet:
The above-displayed image was posted to several web sites along with the assertion that the pictured cadets should be punished for making a political gesture in uniform. The web site In The Arena Fitness, for instance, posted the photo under the title “Racism Within West Point” and called the gesture an “overt display of the Black Lives Matter” movement:
West Point, the prestigious military academy that carries itself with honor and pride for the incredible leaders that have been produced from the rigorous academic undertaking of its cadets, yet what happens when those same cadets identify with a group that has been known for inflicting violent protest 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.
The students below in the picture have been making their voices heard more and more behind closed doors to senior ranking officers, until now. This overt display of the black lives matter movement is not, in itself wrong, but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA stands for, and as well as violating the DOD directive 1344.10.
The above-displayed photograph is real. West Point confirmed in an email the women pictured in the photograph are cadets at the academy. Officials at West Point disagreed, however, that the gesture was politically aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and that the cadets should be punished for the photograph:
The U.S. Military Academy announced today that no punitive action will be taken after an inquiry concluded that 16 cadets who appeared in a photograph with raised fists did not violate Department of Defense or Army regulations.
The inquiry concluded that the photo was among several taken in the spur-of-the-moment. It was intended to demonstrate “unity” and “pride,” according to the findings of the inquiry.
In addition to concluding there was no violation of DOD Directive 1344.10, the findings state, “that based upon available evidence none of the participants, through their actions, intended to show support for a political movement.”
“As members of the Profession of Arms, we are held to a high standard, where our actions are constantly observed and scrutinized in the public domain,” said Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr., academy superintendent, in a letter. “We all must understand that a symbol or gesture that one group of people may find harmless may offend others. As Army officers, we are not afforded the luxury of a lack of awareness of how we are perceived.”
The raised, clenched fist has historically been used to symbolize solidarity and unity in the face of overwhelming odds. In the United States, it has been used by (among other groups) workers’ rights activists, the American Indian Movement, and — famously — by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.