When is OK not okay?
Some West Point cadets and U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen flashed what looked like a sideways OK finger gesture during a live television broadcast over the weekend at the Army-Navy football game. Now military officials are probing their intentions. Was it an affirmation? An innocent made-you-look “circle game?” Or a sinister white supremacy signal?
Screenshots and clips of the hand gestures captured by cameras at Saturday’s game in Philadelphia went viral on social media. Some Twitter users condemned the gesture as a “white power” sign. Others called it the “gotcha” or “circle game” popular with children, where someone flashes an upside-down OK sign below his waist and punches in the shoulder anyone who looks at it.
The circle game, around for generations, was featured in the early 2000s sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” and has made a resurgence as a photobomb prank in sports team photos--along the same line as “bunny ears” fingers. In more recent years, it became an internet meme in a online game of “gotcha."
But the Anti-Defamation League said the gesture, with the thumb and forefinger touched in a circle and the other fingers outstretched, has also been appropriated as a signal for white supremacy. That started as a hoax perpetuated on the online message board 4chan. The original idea was to take an innocent and common gesture and arbitrarily transform it into something that would enrage liberals.
The campaign was so successful, the gesture came to be used semi-sincerely by Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white nationalists to signal sympathizers in public places.
Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist accused of killing 50 people at two New Zealand mosques, flashed the sign to reporters at a court hearing last March.
Mini-scandals involving the hand gesture have become regular media fodder. In 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended an officer who appeared to be making the hand sign during a Hurricane Florence television broadcast. A high school in a Chicago suburb yanked all copies of its yearbook from distribution amid concerns about a photo in which students displayed the gesture. The Chicago Cubs last May banned a fan from games after he flashed the symbol behind a broadcaster.
The true intentions of the cadets and midshipmen who were recorded making the gesture while smiling and laughing during Saturday's game are unclear.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's intelligence project which investigates hate groups and extremism, said it was important that the military schools investigate to find out the context for the students and future active-duty military members using the symbol.
“Do the investigation, find out if it was harmless or not,” she said.
“If these people are influenced by white supremacy, they can't be allowed to continue in the military."
There have been longstanding concerns about white supremacists in the military. In 2008, an FBI report found white supremacist leaders were making a concerted effort to recruit active-duty soldiers and recent combat veterans. A Military Times poll in 2017 found more than 30% of service members saw white nationalism as a significant threat to national security.
The Pentagon reaffirmed military policies forbidding extremist advocacy in 2017, after the Anti-Defamation League reported a Marine staff sergeant was the leader of the white supremacist group Vanguard at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Against the backdrop of concerns about hate groups in the military, both the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, said they have appointed officers to investigate the motivations behind the hand signals flashed by their students.
Lt. Col. James Sink, professor of military science at Arizona State University and a 2000 graduate of West Point, said it may turn out the actions were innocent, if ill-advised.
“Honestly, it looks to me like they’re playing the game we used to call the circle game,” Sink said Monday. “I think the Army’s done a lot since the 1990s when I came in to rid our ranks of white supremacists.”
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said people should let the investigation run its course and not jump to conclusions about the motivations behind the students’ gestures.
Segal said even if the motivations turn out to be innocent, the public discussion generated is a victory for white supremacists.
“This was started as a way to troll the media, to think something as simple as an OK symbol is representative of hate,” Segal said. “Every time there’s a public discussion like this, white supremacists who use this symbol for nefarious purposes are celebrating the fact that people are talking about them.”
“If nothing else, the public scrutiny of this latest controversy demonstrates these gray areas that extremism and hate operate in,” Segal said. “It’s an area that makes use of pop culture, day-to-day symbols, and tries to co-opt them for hate.”
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela in New York City contributed to this report.