Sixteen young Black women set to graduate from the United Sates Military Academy at West Point are in hot water for their class portrait. West Point is investigating whether these cadets violated rules against political expression by taking their “Old Corps” photo with their fists in the air, The New York Times reports.

The photo, which was posted on Facebook and Twitter, received criticism as commenters on social media interpreted the gesture as support for the Black Lives Matter movement. An investigation was opened on April 28th into whether the women violated Army rules that prohibit political activities while in uniform.

There are currently 17 Black women in this elite public military academy’s 1,000-student graduating class; 16 of whom appear in the photo.

Powerful Photo of Woman Raising Black Power Fist in Front of Neo-Nazis Goes Viral

“For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood. That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country,” said Mary Tobin, a 2003 graduate of West Point and an Iraq veteran who has mentored some of the seniors in the photograph.

John Burk, a former drill sergeant and Iraq veteran disagrees with Tobin, and states that by raising their fists, these students were identifying with Black Lives Matter activists. 

Loading the player...

“The fact that it could offend someone by its usage qualifies it as a symbol that goes against Army policies. It’s not the fact that they are wrong for having their beliefs, it’s the fact they did it while in uniform,” he said.

Jonathan Pulphus, a junior at St. Louis University explained that raising the fist was a way for a younger generation of blacks to pay respect to civil rights accomplishments and create “a space for themselves in institutions where they tend to not have a sense of belonging.” 

He tells the Times that a failure by West Point to recognize this could discourage Black students from applying.

“If you want to make an institution appeal to a certain kind of crowd, you don’t stigmatize some of the more important cultural pieces to a student’s background.”

The Times also notes that students making a statement in an Old Corps photo isn’t a first. In 1976, the year before women were admitted to the academy, male cadets referred to themselves as “the last class with balls.” Seniors that year posed for their Old Corps photo holding armloads of basketballs, footballs and baseballs.

They were not punished.

WANT MORE FROM ESSENCE? Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the latest in hair, beauty, style and celebrity news.