Okay or not okay? Allegedly racist hand gesture in newspaper photo causes controversy in New Paltz

The original photo that ran in New Paltz Times last week. New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers wanted to be photographed with the staff of the Department of Public Works because he wanted the staff to be recognized for the hard work they do this time of year. Top row left to right: Joe Granieri, Deputy Mayor KT Tobin, Mayor Tim Rogers, Art Decker, Patrick Murphy and DPW Supervisor Bleu Terwillger. Bottom row, Left to right: Kyle Roberts, Gordon Pine, Matt Tompkins (making the gesture in question) and Nick Coddington.
(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

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.”

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How the symbol can signify white power (courtesy ADL)

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.

There are 16 comments

    1. It’s sickening

      Same gesture I give to the Facebook warriors who accused & convicted before any fact finding was done. Actually called for him to be fired. A giant middle finger goes out to the guilty ones.

  1. Grow up people

    This should not be published. I feel so bad for this guy, whoever he is, his name is getting dragged through the mud. This story is completely blown out of proportion. Grow up and worry about bigger issues going on in the world!

  2. Joe Walsh , not the guitar player

    Lol who makes up this stuff? White power? Super secret sign. Rocky where is Boris he knows the Russian who let this sign origin come to light.

  3. Lea Cullen Boyer

    Hmmmm… Love that folks are reviewing intent. LOVE that the employee did not intend to send an ugly message. Really glad that folks are on point and that we have positive and kind county employees!

  4. LVL

    Sorry, but the ‘Okay’ hand sign is traditionally used with the hand raised up. I live in this area and white is right is present here. Not one person of colour in the picture. That should tell everybody something. I don’t expect it will.

    1. Tired

      Oh God…you are part of the problem! Obviously no one wanted to play with you in school or you would know what the circle game is. Hop off your soapbox and get a white friend, you’ll learn something about us.

  5. Ringo, not the drummer

    Also, did anyone notice the truck that they carefully planned this picture around?
    A white truck!
    Wow! That’s the case cracker.

  6. FedupAmerican

    Just because someone says it somewhere, doesn’t make it so! In middle school we made that sign and if the person looked they got a punch in the arm! It was a game. It has nothing to do with race! GTF over yourselves! Pretty soon you won’t be able to lean your head or snap your fingers without an all out protest. What the hell happen to the backbone of this country? Everyone is a cry baby. It scares me to think about what the world will be like for my kids 20 years from now!

  7. Tom T

    4Chan creates a fake story about the wold being controlled by an elite pedophile ring run out of a pizza parlor to troll conservative media. Some conservative media outlets fall for the hoax. Big liberal media makes fun of the few conservative media outlets that fell for the hoax and continue to use pizzagate to denigrate all conservatives.

    4Chan creates a fake story about the okay symbol being a white power “jester” to troll big liberal media. All liberal media outlets and NGOs fall for the hoax. Big liberal media refuses to admit they were hoaxed. Instead they decide to use their immense power of the press to literally reshape reality to make it true.

    These people are crazy and pure evil!

  8. Dont Read Into Things

    The circle game

    “The circle” positioned below the waistline as it appears in the circle game.
    Since the 1980s, the OK gesture has been the key feature of the popular school prank, “the circle game”. A person initiating the game makes the gesture palm-inward below their own waistline and tries to trick an opponent into looking at it. If the person looks at it, the maker of the gesture punches the opponent in the arm.[37] Variations exist where a player who can insert their own index finger into the circle without looking at it may punch the circle-maker.[38] In November 2000, the gesture gained widespread use when the circle game was a plot feature in an episode of the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.[39] In a much earlier version (1950s), the circle was placed over the maker’s elbow, or any body part.
    Source – Google Search of OK Hand Gesture Game – This came from Wikipedia

  9. JaneR

    It was rather witless to make any manner of sign at all. As to this “circle game?” never saw it, never heard of it, until now. Never heard of the white power “sign.” I know the “ok” sign. This isn’t it. Ok?

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