A photo in New Paltz Times caused controversy last week when residents complained that a hand gesture made by a village employee signified “white power.” After looking into the matter, Mayor Tim Rogers says the village concluded the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that no village employee was trying to start a race war in a weekly paper.
A statement released late Friday read in part, “After our review, we concluded that the DPW worker in the photo was completely unaware that he was making a hand gesture that could be interpreted as racist or bigoted. We believe he thought he was making the ‘O.K.’ symbol or the ‘circle game’ gesture that people have been playing for decades. It is clear that he is mortified, deeply sorry, and would undo the photo in a heartbeat if he could. We believe and support this DPW worker wholeheartedly. He has now learned, like many of us, that this hand gesture that had been innocuous has, unfortunately, been recently co-opted by hateful white supremacists.”
When asked to pose for a picture to accompany the annual “looking ahead” piece about the village, Rogers wanted to include some of the village employees who, in his mind, are the people who make the village a community that’s desirable and appealing to residents and visitors. This reporter heard him remark upon the strategy more than once, and with pride in his voice. Members of the public works department posed with Rogers and KT Tobin, his deputy mayor, in front of a village truck. In the photo, one of the employees, Matt Tompkins, had his arms spread as if he was speaking in an animated fashion; one of his hands was low in the shot, with the tips of thumb and forefinger touching.
A casual scan might lead one to conclude that Tompkins’ gesture is the symbol for “okay,” an expression which dates back to a joke published in 1839, when many initialisms were being coined, including some that were intentional mistakes, such as “o.k.” standing for “oll korrect.” It was picked up by supporters of presidential candidate Martin van Buren, called “Old Kinderhook,” who also adopted the gesture because it was seen as representing both of those letters. It then became a succinct way for telegraph operators to confirm receipt of a message, and later on scuba divers adopted the gesture to communicate “all is well” while underwater.
Years later, a schoolboy in 1980s Ohio reportedly adapted the symbol to a new purpose, the “circle game.” The rules are simple: display the gesture below one’s waist, and wait for a friend to look directly at it. When that happens, the unlucky person who noticed it gets punched in the upper arm. The game lived among middle-schoolers alone until it was featured in a 2000 episode of Malcolm in the Middle and became more widely known. It migrated into online memes by 2011, with users forgoing the punching but still attempting to trick others into seeing the gesture.
Users of the site 4chan selected the symbol in 2017 as part of an experiment in trolling journalists and, by extension, liberals, to whom these users believe reporters tend to cater. In an effort dubbed “Operation O-KKK,” they flooded Twitter and other sites with claims that rather than standing for the letters “O” and “K,” the gesture actually represented the “W” and “P” of the phrase “white power.” Another hoax incubated in this site around the same time “was the concept that white supremacists were drinking milk to show ‘the superiority of the white race’ and the ‘purity of white milk.’ One hoaxer trying to convince the Anti-Defamation League ‘explained’ that ‘they are chugging milk in front of people of color, quoting racist books and phrases and supposed statistics about people of color being lactose intolerant.’ A number of media websites bought into the milk hoax.”
It appears that in this case, 4chan users were even more successful; although this connection remains unfamiliar to many people, others now identify it by that racist association alone. According to a piece about it written for the Anti-Defamation League site, “Reaction to the ‘OK’ symbol hoax was so widespread in the spring and summer of 2017 that a number of people on the far right began deliberately to use the gesture — typically making the sign while posing for photographs uploaded to social media — in order to continue the trolling and spread it further.” Some white supremacists have taken to using the symbol without irony, but others continue to use it as a dog whistle to elicit reactions because they’re familiar with its origins.
The connection of this gesture to white supremacy is not yet widely known. Following a somewhat vague post on the village’s Facebook page about the image to announce an investigation, much of the commentary made by locals was people trying to identify what the problem with the picture might be.
“It is important to realize that the ‘OK’ gesture is a nearly universal hand gesture and most usage of it is completely innocuous,” according to writers for the ADL. “Even when used as described here. . . one cannot assume that anyone who poses with such a gesture is intending or exhibiting an association with white supremacy. Only if the gesture occurs in context with other clear indicators of white supremacy can one draw that conclusion.”
While the public works superintendent did not allow a reporter to ask Tompkins if he wished to comment for this story, the only context present in the image itself is that fact that the gesture was made below the waist.