ABOVE PHOTO: Members of the 2016 West Point Military Academy class. (Photo: Military Academy)
The 16 black female cadets who posed for a photo with their fists raised and sparked a nationwide debate will face no punitive action, West Point officials announced Tuesday. The women will, however, receive additional counseling prior to graduating this month.
The image was taken April 26 during an “Old Corps” photo shoot, a tradition where seniors strike serious poses reminiscent of early 19th Century cadets who attended the U.S. Military Academy.
After the photo went viral online, the women faced accusations they were trying to make a political statement in uniform and were violating Defense Department rules. Some noted that raised fists are associated with Black Lives Matter, the grassroots organization that seeks to expose police brutality. Others saw it as an imitation of Beyonce’s nod to the Black Panthers during her Super Bowl performance.
Many others vehemently defended the cadets, arguing the photo was nothing more than a display of triumph and pride.
The academy opened an investigation on April 28 and interviewed the cadets involved as well as the photographer. There was no evidence these cadets intended to make a political statement, according to a memo that summarizes the inquiry’s findings. The investigator also concluded there were no violations of Defense Department Directive 1344.10, which spells out the rules for service members engaging in political activities. Instead the photo was deemed a “spur of the moment” pose with the intent, as one cadet put it, to “showcase the awesome black women in our class.”
Even so, the photo pose was “inappropriate,” according to the major who conducted the official inquiry.
West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen agreed.
“While the inquiry did not find that these cadets violated a policy or regulation, it did determine that they demonstrated a lapse of awareness in how symbols and gestures can be misinterpreted and cause division,” Caslen wrote in a letter Tuesday to the Corps of Cadets. “The impact of this photo, regardless of its intent, is evident. It is unfortunate that this perception brought attention to our Alma Mater for all the wrong reasons.”
Based on the inquiry, some of the cadets involved knew what they were doing could prove incendiary.
Two cadets reportedly proposed the “raised fist” stance during the shoot and two others immediately expressed concern, according to the investigator. They asked, “Are we really doing this?”
A cadet defended the photo, telling the other women, “This isn’t an [equal opportunity] violation and we won’t get in trouble for it.” The cadet’s name is redacted in the report.
There were nine photos taken during the shoot and three poses, referred to as “Serious,” “Raised Fist” and “Silly” in the report.
Prior to their graduation, all 16 cadets will receive additional instruction from the academy’s Commandant, Caslen said.
“As members of the Profession of Arms, we are held to a higher standard, where our actions are constantly observed and scrutinized in the public domain,” he said. “We all must understand that a symbol or gesture that one group of people may find harmless may offend others.”
Caslen did note, however, that clenched-fists have been used in other ways at West Point in the past year as a display of pride for the Army and nation.
“For instance, last July, the class of 2019 spontaneously raised their fist in pride upon the playing of the Army Strong song during the Fourth of July Concert,” he wrote in his letter. “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.”
The investigator recommended no delays to the women’s May 21 graduation, provided “they display an understanding of how their actions as Cadets and future Officers were inappropriate, at the conclusion of the instruction.”
This controversy could complicate the “Old Corps” photo tradition.
“I recommend all future ‘Old Corps’ photographs be reviewed by the West Point public affairs office prior to release to any Cadet or outside agency,” the investigator wrote in his memo.
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