— -- West Point has decided that no punitive action will be taken against 16 black female cadets who posed in a photo with raised fists.
The photo had been criticized by some who said it violated rules against political expression while in uniform, but the U.S. Military Academy concluded that no Army or Defense Department regulations were violated by the cadets who posed in the graduation picture. The raised fist, which has long been a symbol of unity for African Americans, is also associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
"The U.S. Military Academy announced today that no punitive action will be taken after an inquiry concluded that 16 cadets who appeared in a photograph with raised fists did not violate Department of Defense or Army regulations," said a school statement issued late Tuesday night.
"The inquiry concluded that the photo was among several taken in the spur-of-the-moment," said the statement. "It was intended to demonstrate 'unity' and 'pride,' according to the findings of the inquiry.
The statement adds, "that based upon available evidence none of the participants, through their actions, intended to show support for a political movement.”
“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,” said Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr., academy superintendent, wrote in a letter to cadets. “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.”
The school had launched an investigation into the photo after it drew criticism that it violated rules against political expression in uniform.
The photo in question is known as an “Old Corps” photograph.
“There’s a tradition at West Point for seniors where they pose and they have a very stoic look on their face intended to be a throwback to the old days,” Anthony Lombardo, editor of the Army Times told ABC News. “What makes this photo different is everyone is kind of doing the pose but then there is the clenched fist in the air. If these men and women are in uniform, and they’re making a political statement, they could afoul of the Defense Department regulation, and they could be in serious trouble for that.”
The New York Times reported that the 16 cadets in the photo represented all but one of the black women in West Point's 2016 graduating class of about 1,000.
Defending the young cadets is Brenda Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate, former Army captain, and chairwoman of the U.S. Military Academy’s Board of Visitors.
“When I spent time with these cadets and heard them tell their stories and laugh and joke with each other, there’s no doubt in my mind how much they love West Point, they love the Army and they support each other,” Fulton told the Army Times.
She tweeted out a different photo of the women without raised fists with the caption, “THIS. Fearless, flawless, fierce. Ready.” That tweet was then retweeted by Patrick Murphy, acting secretary of the U.S. Army.
“I would not have re-tweeted the raised-fist photo because I am well aware that our culture views a black fist very differently from a white fist,” she said. “I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers. Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, it appears they didn’t stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph.”
Graduation for the West Point class of 2016 will take place on May 21.