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West Point says black cadets who posed with raised fists didn’t break the rules

The 16 cadets from the class of 2016 caught in controversy over their raised fists photo were not violating academy rules, West Point officials said Tuesday.
(Twitter)

West Point officials said Tuesday that a group of black cadets at the center of a national controversy over a photo in which they posed with raised fists did not violate academy rules on student conduct.

Social media had erupted over the photo of the 16 women, which evoked black power salutes of the 1960s.

The cadets, members of the class of 2016, had worn formal gray uniforms, some holding sabers, to pose in an “Old Corps” photo -- a tradition at West Point for generations. But each woman held a fist in the air, a sign some people took for political support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Military rules bar cadets from taking part in politics aside from voting.

In an investigation, which began two days after the photo was taken on April 26, officials found that the students were not making a statement on anything other than “unity” and “pride.” Officials said the picture was one of three “taken in the spur of the moment,” including both “serious” and “silly” poses.

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Though the fists could be seen as political, the students were exonerated because that wasn’t their intention, the investigation found. The inquiry quoted an initial email from one of the women to a fellow cadet in which she asked him to take photos in order to “showcase the awesome black women in our class.”

In a letter to students, academy Supt. Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. lamented the photo causing “division” instead of “shared unity,” but pointed out that it was not the first time students had used the raised fists symbol. For example, he and other cadets raised their fists to support their football team in December at the Army-Navy game, he said.

Yet “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,” he later added.“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 investigation said the women, who are scheduled to graduate May 21, would not be barred from the ceremony. Still, they will first have to attend a class to learn about their “intent versus the impact of the photo,” Caslen wrote.

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Jaweed Kaleem is the the Times’ National Race and Justice Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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