In shocking videos that flooded users’ Twitter feeds yesterday, a number of West Point cadets flashed what appeared to be hand gestures appropriated by right-wing extremists to symbolize white power and white supremacy while in the background of a live segment by one of the hosts of the Army-Navy annual football showdown.
The egregious act was made even worse by the fact that some of the racist hand signals were displayed directly over the head of an African American cadet seated in the front of the group of fellow West Point students.
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The footage raised a considerable amount of outrage on social media along with calls for the offenders to be punished for their clear break with the standards of their military education and the requirements of discipline and order that accompany their admission to the Army’s top training institution.
Once the extent of the public reaction to the incident became clear, Army officials announced that they had launched an investigation into the display of the offensive hand gestures.
“West Point is looking into it and we do not know the intent of the cadets,”Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt told NBC News.
Even though the cadets participating in the hand signal stunt were all part of the Army’s West Point contingent at the game, the Navy brass also announced that they would be instituting an inquiry as well.
“We are aware and will be looking into it,” Cmdr. Alana Garas of the Naval Academy said to NBC.
In stressing that the Pentagon would be examining the cadets’ intent in making the gestures, Lt. Col. Ophardt is acknowledging the ambiguous nature of the gesture, a circle made with the thumb and index finger with the other three fingers extended, which can also be interpreted as a simple sign meaning “OK.”
The very ambiguity of the gesture made it a perfect in-joke with plausible deniability for the alt-right white supremacists who began using the hand signal because it resembles the letters W and P, standing for white power.
In certain cultures, the same hand gesture can also be interpreted as a vulgar insult — equivalent to calling someone an “asshole” — because the shape of the “O” created by the hand resembles a rectum.
Exactly how the Army intends to discern the intent of the cadets in making the gestures remains unexplained, but hopefully, any investigation will look into the offenders’ social media posts for signs of visits to right-wing extremist web sites and message boards as well as interview their fellow cadets to see if they have expressed any racist sentiments in the course of their army careers.
If they are found to have intended the hand signals to be as the majority of people have interpreted them, then hopefully they will be expelled from West Point for espousing values incompatible with the mission of our nation’s armed forces.
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Original reporting by Cody Fenwick at AlterNet.