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VICTOR JOECKS: Woke-ism runs amok in Henderson

What’s happening in the city of Henderson sounds like a conservative parody of woke-ism run amok.

On Feb. 8, Henderson City Manager Richard Derrick emailed city police officers with a sober message. A former city employee had taken a picture with a family member who had graduated from the police academy and Chief Thedrick Andres. Andres is African American. Derrick claimed the former employee displayed an “offensive and racist hand gesture” and attached a photo. That’s a serious, reputation-ruining charge.

It was also extremely dubious. The man, who previously worked at the Henderson jail, was making an upside down “OK” sign. That’s when you make a circle with your thumb and pointer finger. Your other three fingers point up.

If you’ve ever heard of the circle game, you’ve probably already guessed what he was doing. In the game, you make an upside-down OK sign below your waist. If someone looks, you get to hit them.

The man, who requested not to be named, said he used to play the game with his co-workers at the jail. It built a “sense of camaraderie between the troops,” he said. He made the symbol because he thought, “I can get everyone at the jail one more time.”

That may appear juvenile to those who haven’t had to endure the monotony of being in law enforcement or the military. But most consider it as innocuous a joke as giving someone “bunny ears” in a photo.

Derrick and other city officials could have found this out by talking to the man. They didn’t bother. No interview was necessary, the city claimed, because the man didn’t make the symbol when taking another photo with just his family member.

There’s a logical explanation for that, too. He wanted his buddies at the jail to see it, and “I figured they’d send out the one with the chief,” he said.

City officials couldn’t be bothered to let inconvenient facts ruin their rush to judgment. In an interview, Derrick said, “Folks at the event were impacted” by seeing it. He worried about coming across as if the city didn’t believe them, saying we’d “put ourselves at risk.”

Someone’s feelings don’t determine another person’s intentions when using a common hand signal. The Anti-Defamation League reports people have used the “OK” symbol to mean “OK” for around 200 years. A few years ago, a group of internet trolls decided to falsely claim the gesture represented “wp” or “white power.” That hoax gained traction, and a few white supremacists have used it.

The ADL states, “Particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture.” It lists the circle game as an example of something that has been “mistakenly assumed to have white supremacist connotations.”

Henderson officials didn’t exercise that care. The man in the photo now says he’s thinking about suing — and for good reason.

“I believe everybody has used the OK sign,” Derrick said when asked.

He’d better hope no one felt offended when he used it innocently. By his own standard, if that happened, the city could tell its employees that he used a “racist hand gesture.”

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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