West Point makes decision regarding cadets' raised-fists photo

This undated image taken from Twitter shows 16 black, female cadets in uniform with their fists raised while posing for a photograph at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Twitter/AP

NEW YORK -- Sixteen black West Point cadets who posed with raised fists for a pre-graduation picture won't be punished for the gesture.

The U.S. Military Academy said Tuesday it concluded the group photo didn't violate any Department of Defense rules limiting political activity. West Point says in a statement an internal inquiry found the picture of the 16 female cadets captured a spur-of-the-moment gesture intended to demonstrate unity and pride.

The decision comes with the seniors poised to graduate May 21.

Some observers outside the academy had suggested the cadets violated the military policy by posing with clenched fists held head high.

A raised fist has symbolized political resistance for generations. It was used by black power advocates in the 1960s.

Mary Tobin, a West Point graduate and mentor who knows the students, said they were simply celebrating their forthcoming graduation as a shared accomplishment, like a sports team raising helmets after a win.

"It was a sign of unity," Tobin, a 2003 graduate, said by phone. "They weren't trying to imply any allegiance to any movement."

By campus tradition, groups of cadets often take pictures in traditional dress uniforms to echo historical portraits of their cadets. Indeed, a different picture of the same women, without the raised fists, was tweeted out by the chairwoman of the academy's Board of Visitors, 1980 graduate Brenda Sue Fulton.

But the fists-up image, which circulated online, led some observers to question whether the women were expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of protests over police killings of unarmed black men.

The Army Times, which first wrote about the photo Thursday, said several readers had written in to say they believed the cadets were breaching a Defense Department policy that says "members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity," with exceptions for voting and certain other things.

Blogger John Burk, a former drill sergeant and Iraq War veteran, wrote a post last Tuesday saying the cadets' gesture linked them with Black Lives Matter activists "known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States, calling for the deaths of police officers, and even going so far as to call for the deaths of white Americans."

Burk posted his essay to Facebook, where it was shared more than a thousand times.

"The fact that it could offend someone by its usage qualifies it as a symbol that goes against Army policies," Burk told the New York Times by email. "It's not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs, it's the fact they did it while in uniform."

The raised fist has served as a symbol of power and resistance for various political movements and causes. The gesture has caused controversy before, including when black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos lifted gloved fists in black power salutes during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

john-carlos-tommie-smith.jpg

Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left.

AP Photo

Yet the cadets, immersed in the insulated and demanding environment of West Point, didn't anticipate how their gesture would be interpreted and the attention it would draw, said Tobin, who has spoken with them about it.

"Their frame of reference is: 'Right now, we're getting ready to graduate in three weeks, I'm standing here with my sisters.... We outlasted a lot of people, black or white, male or female,'" she said.

Black women cadets are rarities at West Point, where about 70 percent of students are white and about 80 percent are men, although the percentage of women has been growing in recent starting classes.