Officials at the West Point military academy in New York have said an investigation will be launched in regards to a photograph that surfaced showing 16 black cadets posing with raised fists. Critics claim the stance is in violation of policies governing political messages as it depicts support for the Black Lives Matter campaign.
"We can confirm that the cadets in this photo are members of the US Military Academy's Class of 2016," West Point's director of public affairs, Lt. Col. Christopher Kasker, said in a statement sent to Army Times on 5 May. "Academy officials are conducting an inquiry into the matter."
As the Army Times report noted, the raised fist is a symbol that has long been associated with a wide range of groups over the years, from labour unions to sports teams. In any case, some "active-duty officers" and veterans said the stance breaches Pentagon rules on avoiding "partisan political activity".
John Burk, an Army veteran who has completed tours-of-service in the Iraq War, has previously accused the 16 cadets of aligning with the Black Lives Matter movement and said that, if found to be true, it would be "completely unprofessional".
On his website, Burk wrote: "This overt display of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, in itself, wrong per say [sic], but to do so while in uniform is completely unprofessional and not in keeping with what the USMA [United States Military Academy] stands for."
In an additional statement uploaded to his website on 7 May, Buck addressed criticism he had received since making his initial statements and accused a New York Times report of "twisting his words" in its coverage of the incident. He wrote: "Civilians, and some military personnel, continue to voice the idea that it's their freedom of speech and they have that right; you're wrong. You give up your rights once you sign the dotted line. You wave your ability to do what you want, and say what you want."
As reported by Sky News, former US congressman and ex-Army Lt Col Allen West has also addressed the contentious issue in a blog post, claiming the cadets in the picture should apologise to the academy.
"[The cadets] need to make a public statement of apology to their class, and to the United States Military Academy," West wrote. "They worked hard over the past four years to earn that degree and commission, but they need to come the realisation of just how stupid their action was… yes, it was stupid. Why? Because the 16 female cadets will be called upon to lead, and leadership isn't based on colour. They'll be leading soldiers of all different backgrounds."
Meanwhile, a former graduate of West Point called Sue Fulton has defended the women in the photo and said the image was "just one of dozens of images the women took as part of a long-held West Point tradition".
Fulton, who graduated from the academy in 1980 and knows some of the women involved, added: "When I spent time with these cadets and heard them tell their stories and laugh and joke with each other, there's no doubt in my mind how much they love West Point, they love the Army and they support each other."