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Public Outrage Over Gesture in Photo of Black Women at West Point

PHOTO: NPR

(Update, May 11) -Westpoint has decided not to  punish the 16 black West Point cadets who posed with raised fists for a pre-graduation picture that sparked an investigation into whether they violated rules against political expression at the school. 

(From May 10) – A photo of 16 black female cadets in uniform at West Point is the subject of an investigation by the military academy as to whether or not they violated rules against political expression.

The photo shows the women, all of whom are about to finish their final years at the academy, posing in their dress uniforms in front of the oldest barracks on West Point’s campus.

While photos of this ilk are pretty common at the Academy, as an homage to old-fashioned military portraits, this particular photo was distinguished by the fact that the women were raising their fists. Social media commentators saw this as a direct reference to support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which they felt was inappropriate for the cadets.

Public outrage was caused in part by the fact that the Department of Defense forbids all active duty military personnel, including students at elite military colleges, from participating in “partisan political activity” while representing the U.S. Military.

The women were defended by Mary Tobin, an alumna of West Point, who told The New York Times “These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers. They were raising it to say Beyoncé.” In other words, their gesture was a sign of pride rather than political expression

The Black Lives Matters movement, along with corresponding efforts to specifically empower black women (such as Beyonce’s new album “Lemonade”), signals a rise in women challenging the status quo. Women now file for the majority (two-thirds) of divorces, perhaps signifying a growing unrest with the traditional norms presented as options for women of all races and classes.

Defenders of the women also noted that the young women are being held to a double standard — a raised fist is an accepted gesture used to cheer on West Point sports teams.

The raised fist salute, which is most closely associated with the Black Panther movement, is also an emblem of solidarity and activism — the young women in the photo are 16 out of 18 female African-Americans set to graduate this year out for a class of more than 900.

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