A group of young black women poised to graduate from the United States Military Academy gathered on the steps of West Point’s oldest barracks last week in traditional gray dress uniforms, complete with sabers, for a group photo. Known as an “Old Corps” photograph because it mimics historical portraits, it was nearly identical to thousands that cadets have posed for over the decades, with one key difference: The 16 women raised their clenched fists.
The gesture, posted on Facebook and Twitter last week, touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.
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. But the Army has long tried to play down race and gender to create a force where “everyone is green.”
John Burk, an Iraq veteran turned blogger who lives in Georgia, said he was sent the photo by a concerned person at West Point. On Tuesday, he wrote a post saying that by raising their fists, the women were identified with Black Lives Matter activists “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.”
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. “The fact that it could offend someone by its usage qualifies it as a symbol that goes against Army policies,” he said, adding, “It’s not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs, it’s the fact they did it while in uniform.”
Gestures of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, which seeks to bring attention to the killing of African-Americans by the police, are hardly uncommon among college students.
But others who have spoken with the cadets said that evoking Black Lives Matter was not their intention, and that the raised fist that was once a sign of militant uprising is now often a pop culture symbol of strength and pride that has been hoisted in such mundane settings as this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé,” said Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate of West Point and an Iraq veteran who is a mentor to some of the seniors and has talked with them about the photograph.
“For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood. That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.”