US Military Academy investigates black female cadets for 'Black Power' gesture in photo

Critics of the gesture say it violates Armed Forces guidelines; supporters say the women are expressing solidarity with each other

Feliks Garcia
New York
Saturday 07 May 2016 22:25 BST
Carrie Morgan/Twitter
Carrie Morgan/Twitter

The US Military Academy, commonly known as West Point, launched an inquiry into a group of 16 black, female cadets set to graduate after they posed in a traditional group photo raising their fists - a gesture historically associated with black resistance.

The image prompted an investigation on 28 April to determine whether or not the women broke any rules, West Point spokesperson Lt Col Christopher Kasker said in a statement. Department of Defence guidelines prohibit soldiers and cadets from making political statements while in uniform or on military grounds.

Criticism of the gesture flooded social media streams accusing the women of aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, which rose to public consciousness after the high profile killings of unarmed black men by police officers.

Army Times, a weekly newspaper that serves active and retired US Armed Forces personnel, said that numerous readers sent in letters that the gesture was, in fact, in violation of the DOD guidelines.

One critic cited by the weekly paper - white Iraq War veteran, former drill sergeant, and fitness blogger John Burk - said the women identified with “a group known for inflicting violent protest … calling for the deaths of police officers, and … white Americans" in a blog post on his fitness website.

Mr Burk told the New York Times that because the fist-up gesture could cause offence, it breaks Army policy. “It’s not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs,” he said, “it’s the fact they did it while in uniform.”

However, Mary Tobin, a 2003 West Point graduate and Iraq veteran, told the Times that the women were simply expressing solidarity with each other.

“For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood,” said Ms Tobin, who also serves as a mentor at West Point, and has spoken with some of the women in the picture. “That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.”

Indeed, the Times reported that the picture included 16 of the 17 black women enrolled in the class of 1,000 — or 1.7 per cent. West Point remains 70 per cent white and 80 per cent male.

As a tradition, outgoing graduates of West Point pose in what is called an “Old Corps” photos, a mimicry of the historical group portraiture featuring cadets in traditional grey uniforms and holding sabres.

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