The protester who filmed a NSW police officer flashing a hand symbol often associated with the white power movement has labelled the department’s response to the incident a “straight out lie”.
After Jen Atherherton filmed the officer making the ‘Okay’ hand gesture – a sign frequently used by members of the far-right, including the Christchurch mosque mass murderer – New South Wales Police said the officer had made an innocent gesture to a group of women.
“The officer has been spoken to and did not intentionally make a gesture that could be deemed offensive,” a spokesperson for NSW Police said in a statement.
“Further, the officer indicated he was responding to a group of women about the night being ‘okay’ and used a hand symbol as he was wearing a face mask,” the spokesperson said.
“He did not know the gesture had any other meaning.”
But Atherherton, who identifies as non-binary, questioned the response, saying the officer made the gesture while looking directly at the camera.
“There were no women there at all and I think they are just saying that because my name is Jen, but I have a beard,” Atherherton said.
He saw me, looked at me and raised his hand, and then straight after, a pedestrian laughed at them.”
The New Daily raised Atherherton’s claims with NSW police, but they refused to comment further.
The controversy comes just months after Victoria Police was forced to express “extreme disappointment” over one of its officers when he used the same hand gesture at a Melbourne protest in November.
Victoria Police initially claimed the officer was asking if protesters were okay, before screenshots of his Facebook page revealed he had shared alt-right material.
On Saturday, Victoria Police confirmed no action was taken against that officer for his behaviour.
“The actions of a senior constable, following a complaint that he used an improper gesture at a rally on 30 October 2019, has been investigated,” a Victoria Police spokesperson told The New Daily.
“The matter was investigated by an independent officer and overseen by a senior officer from the Professional Standards Command. The investigation found that the allegation was not substantiated.”
The ‘OK’ sign took on significance with the far-right in 2017, after members of notorious internet message board, 4Chan, promoted the gesture as a false white pride symbol, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
But by 2019, the “trolling campaign” had turned the gesture into a legitimate racist symbol, the ADL explained, with many now using the gesture as “a sincere expression of white supremacy”.
Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner and University of Sydney Professor Tim Soutphommasane said police could no longer claim ignorance as an excuse.
Given the gesture’s notoriety, and the history of controversies over it in Australia, no officer can pretend they don’t know the sign’s double meaning, Professor Soutphommasane told The New Daily.
“I’m not sure there’s a good excuse for this any longer,” he said.
Police officers in Australia can’t pretend they don’t know that the ‘OK’ gesture has been appropriated by white supremacists.
“This has been well documented and has been the subject of controversy here in Australia,” Professor Soutphommasane said.
“You’d have thought that NSW Police, at a time of protests about institutional racism, would ensure their officers aren’t sending signals that undermine trust in policing,” he added.
The gesture was co-opted by right-wing extremists precisely because of its double meaning, Professor Soutphommasane explained.
“It’s true that not all uses of the gesture have a sinister character. The gesture has a history long before it got co-opted by extremists,” he said.
“But that’s a big part of the reason extremists have taken to using it. There can be plausible deniability about its use as a racist, white supremacist gesture.
If police want to use a hand gesture to reassure members of the public, it’s not hard to think of alternatives.
And for those who are asking how else you can non-verbally communicate “ok” or “it’s good”, try this 👍🏽 pic.twitter.com/8g7VStemC4
— Tim Soutphommasane (@timsout) June 13, 2020
In February, Australian soldiers we were warned they would be immediately suspended from active duty and possibly kicked out of the Army if they were caught making the gesture.
The warning, which was leaked to the ABC, came after 51 people were murdered at mosques in Christchurch by an Australia white supremacist.
“To date, two soldiers in the last week have made a white supremacy symbol in photographs,” the directive sent in March 2019 revealed.