Naval Academy midshipmen and West Point cadets seen flashing a hand signduring a broadcast of the Army-Navy football game on Saturday are still under investigation by both academies.
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.
Matthew Fomby, who graduated from the academy in 1999, said he initially thought the midshipmen and cadets were playing the circle game, and doesn’t want people to make assumptions that the hand signs are sinister.
“There was a rush to judgment that disturbed me. …because I know my son has played that before. If someone saw my son playing that I wouldn’t want them to jump to the assumption that he’s a white supremacist,” Fomby said.
“I totally understand what the academy’s doing. I know they have to do an investigation to see if it’s there, but we’ve lost our sense of nuance. We’re responding in a knee jerk fashion to condemn these students.”
Fomby also said he understands the perspective of his classmate, Cozy Bailey Jr., another member of the class of 1999. Bailey said he’s proud his alma mater is taking the situation seriously.
“When something like this comes up and the Naval Academy takes proactive steps to be sure of the nature of this incident, it’s much more encouraging than what we see in the country at large, which is people saying it’s not racism and trying to blow it off,” Bailey said.
“That would have been disconcerting.”
As both midshipmen prepare for winter break Wednesday and the cadets’ break starting Saturday, officials at both academies did not provide updates on the investigation.
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, according to the Associated Press. In more recent years, it became an internet meme in an 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.
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 banned a fan for life from Wrigley Field earlier this year for flashing the sign during an NBC broadcast.
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.By
By SELENE SAN FELICE/baltimoresun