The U.S. Military Academy at West Point announced Tuesday that it would not punish 16 cadets who posed for a photograph last week with raised fists, saying the gesture was intended to show unity and pride, and did not violate Army regulations that prohibit engaging in partisan political activities while in uniform.
The photograph shows all but one of the black female seniors in the largest such group to ever graduate from West Point, wearing traditional gray uniforms with sabers and arranged on the steps of the public military academy’s oldest barracks – a tradition of generations of seniors.
Their version, with raised fists, fueled a storm of criticism as it circulated on social media. A number of current and former members of the military said the raised fists were an inappropriate and divisive sign of allegiance with the Black Lives Matter movement. Some called for the cadets’ punishment or dismissal.
But an Army inquiry concluded that the women intended to demonstrate “unity, solidarity and pride,” and that while what they did was “inappropriate,” it did not violate regulations.
“I find that, based upon available evidence, none of the participants, through their actions, intended to show support for a political movement,” said the investigator, whose name was redacted in a public copy of the inquiry finding released by West Point.
In a letter to cadets, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., the academy’s superintendent, agreed that the women should not be punished, but stopped short of absolving them of responsibility.
“As members of the Profession of Arms, we are held to a high standard, where our actions are constantly observed and scrutinized in the public domain,” the letter said. “We all must understand that a symbol or gesture that one group of people may find harmless may offend others. As Army officers, we are not afforded the luxury of a lack of awareness of how we are perceived.”
In deciding its response, West Point, which is 80 percent male and 70 percent white, had to balance its desire to increase diversity with its need for uniformity among leaders, said Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate active in minority recruiting.
“It’s hard; these young cadets have a lot of demands put on them,” Tobin said. “You have to manage perception and be very careful in ways other students their age don’t.”
”It’s not fair, but when you are a leader, you have to make challenges that others don’t,” she said. “I am more than confident there will be a lot of cultural training on this issue because of the photo.”
The photograph was one of three poses the women took in dress uniforms, the inquiry said, adding that the women said their intent was to “showcase the awesome black women in our class.” After taking a serious photograph, and one making silly faces, two cadets proposed raising fists.
Other women were hesitant, the investigator found. They said, “Are we really doing this?” But one cadet assured them, “We won’t get in trouble,” according to the inquiry’s findings.
The photograph, which circulated via Facebook and Twitter, angered some at West Point who found the raised fist – long associated with black power movements – offensive and divisive. Several members of the military alerted military newspapers and bloggers, saying the women had violated Army regulations.
Many West Point graduates responded that they had raised fists as part of chants at football games and other celebrations without scrutiny, and questioned whether the women were being held to a different standard.
In his letter, Caslen echoed this sentiment, saying: “Last December, on the night before the Army-Navy game, I joined hundreds of staff and graduates in raising our fist in support of the Army football team during the Army-Navy pep rally video. The time, place and manner of a symbol can also hold significant meaning and influence perception.”
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