It is tradition for West Point seniors to take a photo in their formal uniforms on the verge of graduation, reenacting a bit of history before leaving the historic military academy. That’s exactly what this group of cadets did when they posed in front of the school’s oldest barracks last month, their fists held high.
The image is rife with symbolism. Exactly what kind is the question now.
The cadets are dressed in grey uniforms, reminiscent of those of Confederate soldiers in the US Civil War. But their black fists look a lot like those of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and ’70s—and of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which has made use of the gesture as part of its campaign to reform police treatment of black Americans.
West Point is now investigating the intention of the students, who may be in trouble if they are found to be channeling the #blacklivesmatter message. Participation in any activist cause considered to be political, like #blacklivesmatter, while dressed in uniform is forbidden at West Point. It’s a rule of the US Army, and Westpoint students are considered to be active members of the Army, according to lieutenant colonel Christopher Kasker, the director of US military academy public affairs.
A former Army drill sergeant, John Burk, told the New York Times that he had disciplined soldiers for making Nazi salutes in photos, and that he feels the students’ raised fists in this photo are not much different.
“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,” Burk wrote on his blog.
Two female West Point alumnae are defending the students, saying the raised their fists are meant to convey pride in their achievement of graduating from West Point, which has an overwhelmingly white and male student body. Black female students made up just 1.7% of the graduating class this year.
Brenda Sue Fulton, a West Point alumni from 1980 and now chairwoman of the US Military Academy’s Board of Visitors, told VICE News, “They’re celebrating the completion of a very difficult course of study. The pride and sense of triumph that cadets feel as they set out on their army careers. There was nothing political about this photo.”
“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé,” Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate of West Point, told The New York Times. “For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood,” she added.
The raised fist has had many meanings throughout history, including solidarity among workers’ rights groups. More recently, it was used by Beyoncé in the choreography to her song “Formation” in the Super Bowl half-time show this year.
And it is, of course, frequently thrown into the air in the service of good, old-fashioned pride and celebration.
An example of the latter can be found in the video below (0:57), in which a sea of white, male cadets raise their fists as the West Point band performs a song called “Army Strong.”