Former Midshipman and TV Host Montel Williams Has ‘Different Take’ on Service Academy “OK” Hand Gestures

Following the launch of an investigation by military officials into what some have interpreted as “white power” hand gestures made by cadets and one midshipman during Saturday’s 120th Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, former midshipman and TV talk show host Montel Williams says that if military officials find a racial motive behind the symbol, their punishment should be “swift and severe” but he’s also calling for the media to not label these students racists until we have all the facts.

Williams, who was the first enlisted Black Marine to complete and graduate from the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, told The North Star in a statement that he has a “different take” on the hand gesture that was made at the football game.

“I have a very different take on the ‘incident’ that occurred before the Army-Navy game. I saw several hyped-up cadets and at least one midshipman flash a sideways ‘okay’ sign during a sideline reporter’s stand-up report. Nothing about that video establishes these kids harbor any racial animus and the coastal political media needs to slow down. Both West Point and Annapolis are investigating, and it strikes me as defamatory that some in the media have branded these young people as racists without a shred of evidence,” said Williams. “I understand that a handful of racists (perhaps living in their parents’ basements) attempted to co-opt the ‘okay’ sign as a symbol of white power on 4Chan in 2017 but that is not evidence that these kids were motivated by racial animus.”

In the video that went viral on social media, it shows ESPN college football “Gameday” host Rece Davis standing in front of a group of West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen. While Davis is talking, several students can be seen behind him pressing their thumbs and forefingers together to make a circle with their other three fingers extended. Some have said the hand gesture, which looks like the hand gesture for “OK,” is a white power symbol.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) labeled the “Okay Hand Gesture” as a white power symbol in September. The sign is “formed by “the thumb and forefinger joined together in a circle, the remaining three fingers splayed out behind,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt, a West Point spokesman, told The Wall Street Journal that military officials were investigating the matter, saying that he doesn’t know what the students intentions were when they flashed the hand gesture.

Williams, 63, who went on to become a lieutenant commander of the U.S. Navy, said in his statement that if the investigation reveals that there was a racial motivation behind the use of the hand symbols, the students should be punished. But, Williams said, the public should stop labeling the students as racist until the investigation is complete.

“How do we call these kids racists based on these facts,” Williams told TNS. “I think there’s evidence they acted immaturely and they will likely face discipline for that even if there was no racist motive.”

“There is zero tolerance for racism at the service academies and if an investigation reveals a racial motive here punishment will be swift and severe,” Williams said in a statement. “Until the investigation is complete, we should all pause and realize that branding someone a racist is an indictment of their soul. We owe these young people, who had the courage to sign up to be part of the 1% who defend this democracy, better than that.”

Williams posted his statement to Twitter and was immediately slammed for his response.

“Why would these cadets just randomly flash the "okay sign", especially behind a black cadet. I get there's no evidence to say it had a racist origin, but there's no evidence to say it's not. When there are cops flashing it, should it really be a surprise that cadets would?” one user wrote. “We live in a society now where that sign is strongly associated with the white power movement, and to act like it's just some random guys who live in their parents basement that use it is just naive.”

“Why would they be flashing an OK sign & why do it in such a sneaky fashion? Why not make it obvious? I'll tell you why - [because] it's not the OK sign. Come on Montel - being politically correct doesn't mean being oblivious to the obvious,” another user wrote.

How the Look-alike “OK” Hand Gesture Became a Symbol of White Supremacy

  • The ADL states in 2017, a hoax began on the website 4chan stating that the “ok” hand gesture was a hate symbol, with the “WP” the gesture makes standing for “white power.”

  • The league states that some white supremacists began using the hand gesture to troll right-leaning individuals online.

  • “By 2019, at least some white supremacists seem to have abandoned the ironic or satiric intent behind the original trolling campaign and used the symbol as a sincere expression of white supremacy, such as when Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant flashed the symbol during a March 2019 courtroom appearance soon after his arrest for allegedly murdering 50 people in a shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand,” the ADL wrote.

  • The SPLC wrote: “there are white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen who have increasingly begun using the use of the symbol both to signal their presence to the like-minded, as well as to identify potentially sympathetic recruits among young trolling artists flashing it.”

  • The ADL also notes that the hand gesture has been mistaken for using the actual “okay” symbol and the “Circle Game,” where people try to trick each other into looking at an okay-like hand gesture made below the waist. The league states “because of the traditional meaning of the “okay” hand gesture, as well as other usages unrelated to white supremacy, particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture.

What is “The Circle Game”?

  • The game, which reportedly dates back to the 1980s, is mostly played by teens. The object of the game is to make a circle with your thumb and forefinger, placing it below your waist and then draw someone’s attention to it. If you’re able to get someone to look at the circle, you then get to punch that person.

  • According to VICE, the person who reportedly created the game is a man named Matthew Nelson from New Bremen, Ohio. Nelson told the publication the game was something he and his friends used to play when they were in elementary school back in the early 80s.

  • The game was also featured in season 2 of “Malcolm in the Middle”, according to Vice. The episode aired in November of 2000.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.