Following backlash, South Carolina lawmaker apologizes to military cadets for comments about use of 'OK' hand sign
By MAAYAN SCHECHTER | The State | Published: December 24, 2019
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — A South Carolina lawmaker who tweeted criticism this month at U.S. Military Academy cadets for flashing the “OK” hand sign on TV during the Army-Navy football game is apologizing after a review found the cadets and midshipmen were playing a game, not displaying a “white power” symbol.
State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat, issued a public apology to the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy and private apologies to the cadets involved in the incident after facing backlash for her comments.
Monday night, she posted on Twitter a two-page letter with the S.C. House of Representatives’ seal addressed to Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams of the U.S. Military Academy and Vice Adm. Sean Buck of the U.S. Naval Academy.
In the letter, she said the Dec. 14 tweet directed at the cadets and the institutions they were representing was typed “in the passion of the moment and without proper reflection.”
“I hope they can learn from this moment — as I have — that words, gestures and symbols matter, and that they may mean different things to different people,” Powers Norrell wrote. “Also, I want to take this opportunity to earnestly apologize to your institutions for some of the words I used in publicly describing the environment surrounding the incident as potentially ‘cruel and disrespectful’ to minority members of the service,” she said.
Powers Norrell told The State Monday night she also sent personal letters to the cadets, whose names she does not know.
She has chosen, however, not to make those letters public.
“My hearts goes out to them as young adults,” said Powers Norrell, the daughter of a U.S. Navy sailor. “As soon as the results came back with the investigation, ... I felt like I needed to make it right.”
What is the ‘Circle Game’?
In a tweet that Powers Norrell has since deleted, the legislator criticized West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen. They were seen on an ESPN College GameDay broadcast of the U.S. Army-Navy football game this month flashing hand gestures in the shape of an “OK sign” — a symbol that has been appropriated as a sign for white supremacy, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“Three separate candidates making the white power symbol on television,” Powers Norrell first tweeted. “Wonder what the culture is like for the cadet in the front. There’s no excuse and he and other minorities there shouldn’t have to deal with such a cruel and disrespectful environment.”
Friday, a military investigation concluded the gesture was not in fact meant with racist intent, but what is known as the “circle game.”
The circle game, around for generations, was featured in the early 2000s sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” and has made a resurgence as a photo bomb prank in sports team photos — along the same line as “bunny ears” fingers. In more recent years, it became an internet meme in a 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 that the gesture came to be used semi-sincerely by Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white nationalists to signal sympathizers in public places.
In 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended an officer who appeared to be making the hand sign during a Hurricane Florence television broadcast.
Powers Norrell told The State she deleted the tweet roughly 24 hours after she originally posted it.
But a reporter with The Daily Wire took a screen shot of the tweet, and then it went viral, even drawing a retweet from President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr., who has more than 4 million Twitter followers.
In the days that followed, Powers Norell said her family, including her 17-year-old daughter, were harassed on social media, and her House offices in Columbia and Lancaster have fielded non-stop calls — most coming from people who live outside of South Carolina, she said.
“I just felt the need to communicate with them” Powers Norrell said of the letters she wrote. “As a mom, I just felt that as a mom, ... because I feel like it’s the most sincere way to communicate with a person is directly. The direct communication feels more sincere.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.