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Montel Williams defends Army, Navy students: ‘Branded racists without shred of evidence’

Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 26 commanding officer, Col. Mark J. Desens, speaks with Montel Williams, host of the radio broadcast Montel Across America, which aired live from the flight deck of USS New York Nov. 4, 2009. (Cpl. Jesse Johnson/U.S. Marine Corps)
December 17, 2019

Former Marine and TV host Montel Williams said some news media figures have unfairly “branded” West Point and Annapolis students as “racist” over an incident at Saturday’s Army-Navy football game.

Williams urged public patience over investigations of students who made the hand gesture – a thumb and forefinger formed into a circle – during the rivalry football game, Business Insider reported. The gesture in question has been described as a “white power” gesture, though it has also been recognized as the “okay” sign and a gesture commonly used in the “circle game.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has warned that the hand gesture has been adopted as a “White Power” gesture. The gesture is also used in the “circle game,” wherein if one person can get another person to see the circle, the first person gets to punch the second in the arm.

“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,” Williams said Monday. “I understand that a handful of racists (perhaps living in their parents’ basements) attempted to co-opt the ‘OK’ sign as a symbol of white power … but that is not evidence that these kids were motivated by racial animus.”

Both academies have announced investigations to determine whether the hand signals displayed during a live broadcast shot of the game were intended as racist signaling or a more innocuous meaning.

In a tweet, Williams added that he believes the students displayed immaturity in their actions and should be held accountable, but the important question is if they will be held accountable for racism or “garden variety immaturity.”

Williams, who served as an enlisted Marine before attending the Naval Academy to become a Navy officer, extended the benefit of the doubt to the cadets and midshipmen and described them as being “hyped-up” over the rivalry football game. He said it is unfair to assume ties to white-supremacist groups without knowing the results of the Army and Navy’s investigations into their respective students.

“Until the investigation is complete, we should all pause and realize that branding someone a racist is an indictment of their soul,” he said. “We owe these young people, who had the courage to sign up to be part of the one percent who defend this democracy, better than this.”

The gesture has brought negative scrutiny to others in recent years. The Coast Guard reprimanded one of its service members last year after his decision to make same symbol in the background of a television broadcast brought criticism to the service.

The origins of the gesture’s more recent association with white supremacy follow a 4chan internet prank, in which users of the internet forum tried to get people to believe the three splayed fingers of the signor’s hand form a “W” while the thumb circle forms a “P” to mean “White Power.”