The United States Military Academy at West Point is looking into whether 16 black female cadets violated rules against political expression by taking a photo in uniform with their fists in the air, an academy official told the Army Times.
The photo features the women, all of whom are on the verge of completing their final year, posing in front of the campus’ oldest barracks building in dress uniforms. Photos like this are apparently common at West Point as an homage to old-fashioned military portraits.
They chose to raise their fists, however, which angry commenters on social media interpreted as support for the Black Lives Matter movement and an inappropriate gesture for cadets.
But news of the investigation has inspired a wave of solidarity from sympathetic Americans.
The Department of Defense forbids active duty military personnel, which includes students at elite military colleges, from participating in “partisan political activity” while in uniform or otherwise representing the U.S. military.
Mary Tobin, an alumna of the school who knows the students, told The New York Times that the young women raised their fists as a sign of pride, not political expression.
“These ladies weren’t raising their fist to say Black Panthers,” Tobin said. “They were raising it to say Beyoncé.”
There are 17 black women in West Point’s 1,000-person graduating class, according to the Times; 16 of them were in the photo.
West Point has not said what the consequences will be if it finds the women guilty of violating the rules.
The raised fist is a gesture of political protest associated with a wide variety of causes. In the United States it is often identified with the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended after they posed with raised fists and bowed heads during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
West Point has drawn scrutiny in recent years for other student impropriety — albeit of a less political variety. Twenty West Point cadets received an unknown punishment in October 2014 for trying to woo prospective football team recruits with a boozy bus trip. In addition, the military academy’s annual freshman pillow fight last September resulted in 30 concussions and many other serious injuries. No students were reprimanded.