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This Is My Activism

by Simone Askew
September 28, 2018

It was the night of the Presidential Election, and my roommate and I were watching on our government-issued computers as the results were updated. The next President of the United States was announced and immediately there were thunderous cheers and yelps throughout the barracks. Two cadets on scooters pushed their way up and down the hallways making known their enthusiasm with the results. At the same time, shreeks with more depressing undertones filled the already crowded airspace. As I remained silent and observant, I struggled to find my own voice in the midst of these two dichotomous responses.

The Department of Defense outlines strict guidelines that uniformed service members must follow in Directive Number 134.10. This fifteen paged document lists everything that is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of political activities. Of these, the rules concerning prohibited political behavior are perhaps the most relevant in today’s politicized environment. These guidelines and their justifications have always been clear to me. They exist to ensure that an officer’s personal beliefs do not get in the way of her duty, and that her loyalty to the military surpasses all political differences.

Since our responsibility is to defend the United States Constitution, we can not allow the dynamic fluctuation of politics to influence our commitment to our mission or ability to defend our nation’s people. Therefore, remaining apolitical when in uniform is fundamental to maintaining professionalism and respect within the Armed Forces. This clarity, however, does not mean that execution of these requirements is as simple. The struggles that I often face come not when I am in uniform, but when I am out of it.

As an Army Officer, a Christian, a woman, an African-American, and so much more, I have a hard time finding my voice in this era of activism. I see friends marching in seas of passionate protestors. I see my church preaching the necessity of love and compassion. I see my younger sister struggle with racism in the world she sees around her. I see my friends leave on deployments and hope that care packages are enough to make them feel closer to home. I see, and have seen, all of these things from my isolated barracks room and wonder how I am making a difference. How can I be an activist in the 21st century?

While not all of the central issues today are at first glance political, a majority of them have been woven into political campaigns, political statements, and even political social media. It is virtually impossible to separate social issues from political ones and even harder to have an opinion without appearing partisan. So, as a black woman who considers the Army profession a guiding force in her life, how do I express my beliefs without leaning toward one side of the isle?

I battled with this question ever since the night of the election, wondering how I would handle myself in a time like this. Since then, answering it has only become harder. From Charlottesville to the National Anthem, the Second Amendment to immigration reform, incarceration to abortion, there is no shortage of multifaceted concerns in today’s world. What makes it even more difficult is that, while my inclusion in the military demands that I express no political opinion while in uniform, my gender and race often beg me to take a stand. The easy solution might be to simply obey the military guidelines that restrict me only when I am in uniform and then flip the switch after the duty day when the uniform comes off, a modern version of Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana. If only putting on a blonde wig and jamming out to “Nobody’s Perfect” was all I had to worry about.

One way that I have answered this question is by reconciling that activism has and still does come in so many forms. There are political leaders, community volunteers, university clubs, donating couples, praying men and women, public servants, and so many more profiles of people defending what they believe in. At West Point, I felt as though my inability to mirror these profiles of activists that I saw most meant that I could not be one myself. That could not be further from the truth.

I believe that the way that I embody activism is by protecting the space it exists in. The purpose of the U.S. military is to support and defend the freedom and security of the American people. This freedom makes it possible for people to disagree, it makes it legal to march for what you believe in, and it makes it normal to vote in democratic elections. This freedom allows us to struggle and progress through the American experiment, to fail in so many ways but to succeed in so many more. Though we are a work in progress, it is our Constitution that gives us this liberty to try toward a better tomorrow. Regardless of the ebbs and flows of American politics, it is this Constitution that I fight to defend.

This profession defines my distinctive form of activism and enables me to safeguard the space for others to fight their fight. A sense of duty to the American people and a commitment to protecting and bettering this country: these are the ways that I live out my activism. Trust that I will forever pursue these principles, and hope that my unique form of activism is remembered as one that matters too.