Black Female Cadets at West Point Under Fire for Photo

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WEST POINT, N.Y. — Wearing their ceremonial high-collared uniforms and posing in small groups for photos outside historic Nininger Hall is tradition at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.  The typically stern and stoic poses date back to the 1800s and mimic the early sepia-toned images — but one of the latest has something different. A raised, clenched fist from each subject in the picture.

So when the photo of 16 female, African-American cadets making the gesture was posted online last month, it raised eyebrows at the elite training academy, which produces many of the nation’s future military leaders.

The photo circulated among students over social media, said a school representative. Soon, it grew into an on-campus controversy — a potential break in the taboo against advocacy by military personnel.

The photo gained national attention last week when a blogger popular among some in the military wrote about it after multiple cadets sent in the photo, according to the blog’s author. In posts on his blog and on his Facebook account, John Burk called the image a “completely unprofessional” reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Facebook post drew hundreds of comments and was shared more than 1,400 times.

In days since, scores of alumni have lined up in support of the young women, who have not spoken publicly about the photo or been identified by West Point. Meanwhile, the school said it is investigating whether the photo violates the military’s restrictions on political expression.

Mary Tobin is a graduate of the academy who said she is a mentor to some of the women in the photo and has spoken to them since the inquiry was launched. She said the pose had nothing to do with politics.

“They weren’t doing it to be aligned with any particular movement or any particular party. It was, ‘We did it and we did it together,'” Tobin said, referring to their completion of four years at West Point.

“This is about their personal triumph, not about politics,” Tobin added.