Jasmine Malone, 23, holds a sign at a vigil held for 18-year-old Nia Wilson, who was stabbed to death the night before at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland, Calif., Monday, July 23, 2018.(AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill)

In this week’s roundup: A deadly few weeks in hate, the many facets of a once-benign hand gesture, and Charlottesville 2.0.

In recent weeks, people have been injured and murdered in violent assaults that have been potentially linked to hate.

Here are some of the incidents we’ve been following:

  • MeShon Cooper, a black Kansas woman, was found dead earlier this month. After being arrested, Robert Lee Kidwell told law enforcement officials he killed Cooper because she threatened to expose his HIV-positive status. However, Kidwell’s estranged daughter, Crystal Foster, tells a different story. Foster told the Kansas City Star that Kidwell has long been active in white supremacist groups and has a history of befriending African Americans before ultimately attacking them. “He’s been a monster his whole life,” Foster said. “He’s the true definition of evil.”
  • Murder charges have been filed against John Cowell for fatally stabbing an 18-year-old black woman, Nia Wilson, at a train station in Oakland. Cowell allegedly attacked Wilson and her sister with a knife. While Wilson’s motive in the unprovoked attack hasn’t been established, there’s been widespread speculation that racism may have played a role in the slaying. “Although investigators currently have no evidence to conclude that this tragedy was racially motivated or that the suspect was affiliated with any hate groups,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement, “the fact that his victims were both young African American women stirs deep pain and palpable fear in all of us who acknowledge the reality that our country still suffers from a tragic and deeply racist history.”

    On Sunday, over 1,000 people marched from the site of Wilson’s murder to a nearby bar where members of the Proud Boys, a violent far-right men’s group, were holding an event. Video of protesters beating up a Proud Boy later circulated on social media.
  • Frederick Taft, a 57-year-old black man, was killed in a shooting in the restroom of a public park in Long Beach, California, where he was attending a family reunion. One of reunion’s other guests said she saw the attacker walk into the bathroom holding a rifle. “He came here on a mission to kill,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “We all believe it was a hate crime,” Taft’s daughter, Corie, told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, adding she thinks the attacker would have shot anyone from the family reunion who walked into the restroom, just because they were black.
  • Chad Merrill, 25, was fatally shot outside a Pennsylvania bar while defending an African American friend from another patron’s racist tirade. “I was just pretty much in shock. … He was definitely the type of person to create peace and make everyone else get along,” Merrill’s brother told CNN.

Non-lethal hate

We’ve also seen a slew of hate attacks that didn’t result in fatalities. Here’s some of what we’ve been tracking:

  • Jimmy Matta, the Latino mayor of the Seattle suburb of Burien, Washington, was physically assaulted by a man who attacked him from behind while he was hanging out at a local beer garden. Matta told the Seattle Times that, during the assault, the attacker said, “We’re not going to let you Latino illegals take over our city.”
  • A 26-year-old Latino man was stabbed outside a Georgia bar by two white men who reportedly called him “racist names and (said) he was part of the Cartel.” Police are investigating the case as a hate crime.
  • Two Illinois men have been charged with hate crimes after assaulting a female family member and her boyfriend. They were upset their relative was dating a Muslim man, which reportedly sparked the attack.
  • A Muslim street vendor was attacked in Manhattan in a hate-based attack. Hassane Elbaz charges that his attacker grabbed him from behind as he was working at his food cart, dragging him into the street, and beat him while also assaulting him with Islamophobic epithets. WABC reports that Elbaz says the same man had been been harassing him for a while.
  • An Idaho man was hit with hate crime charges for shouting racist and homophobic comments at a group of children on a trip with their church youth group. The man then physically assaulted the group’s adult organizer. The arrest came after a video of the altercation went viral.
  • A neo-Nazi ventriloquist (yes, really) was charged with a hate crime for yelling racial slurs at a Latino man in a Chicago Starbucks. The victim was sitting in his car when Andrew Angel put a flyer with a swastika on it on his car. The victim followed Angel into the Starbucks to hand him back the flyer, which triggered Angel’s verbal tirade. When police came and arrested Angel, they found a ventriloquist dummy. The neo-Nazi ventriloquist is now banned from Starbucks.

We never thought we’d ever write a sentence like, “The neo-Nazi ventriloquist is now banned from Starbucks,” but here we are.

When an OK is not OK

Four police officers from Jasper, Alabama, are under investigation for making the OK hand symbol in a photograph taken in front of a home where they had just made a drug bust.

Jasper Mayor David O’Mary told local news outlets that the officers had “used poor judgment.” The OK hand gesture has been co-opted as a symbol for white supremacy. In the topsy-turvy world of internet-generated memes, the symbol has also been used as a way of trolling “normies” (those not in on the joke) so that they are “triggered” (upset) by a gesture that is actually only being used for the purpose of upsetting them.

Confused yet?

Let’s break down the four most common possible ways human beings might use the OK gesture in 2018:

Totally innocent: Long before the internet made everything worse, joining one’s index finger and thumb to form a circle simply meant OK as in, everything is all right. The symbol, and its associated emoji, is still used in this way every day across the globe.

The circle game: Apparently there is a popular kids’ game called “the circle game,” in which the goal is to make the OK gesture and trick someone into looking at it. In at least one version of the game, if you can trick someone into looking at the gesture, you get to punch them. You might find this clip from the TV show “Malcolm in the Middle” instructive here. Half of the Hate Report team (Will) had never heard of this, but the other half (Aaron) has been playing this game with his younger brother for decades.    

Actual white power: In the wake of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, we reported on a trove of online messages leaked from the gaming and social media platform Discord, which Unite the Right organizers used to rally their troops for the Charlottesville event. Those messages included numerous examples of rally participants posting photos of themselves flashing the OK gesture: 

Trolling: As BuzzFeed helpfully explained last April, the idea of using the OK sign as a means to “trigger normies” can be traced back to the online message board 4Chan in early 2017.

A post on 4chan’s /pol/ board from Feb. 28, 2017, titled “Operation O-KKK has gained quite a bit of progress” states: “To any who haven’t seen the original thread, our goal is to convince people on twitter that the ‘ok’ hand sign has been co-opted by neo-nazis.”

That plan seems to have worked pretty well.

The whole hoax/double-hoax came to a head when commentator and troll Cassandra Fairbanks sued journalist Emma Roller for defamation for claiming in a tweet that Fairbanks had flashed a “white power hand gesture” alongside Mike Cernovich at the White House. That lawsuit was thrown out in June when a judge found Fairbanks had been unable to prove “actual malice” in Roller’s tweet.

In a Twitter message, Fairbanks said she didn’t know about the 4Chan meme when she made the gesture: “Mike and I were trolling in the ‘we support trump and are here’ way … not the white power way. It’s absurd,” she wrote.  

So all this begs the question: Were the cops in Alabama playing a childhood game? Or were they trolling? Or are they racists who hoped nobody would notice their hateful gesture?

The simple answer is that, absent further information, we don’t know.

It’s certainly relevant that the officers in question are still being questioned about the incident. It’s also notable that they made the gesture while in a large group of white men (including Mayor O’Mary) outside the home of a suspected African American drug dealer.

However, Ed Howell, the local journalist at the Daily Mountain Eagle newspaper who took the photo, told us he’s not convinced there was anything racist about what the officers did.

“I watched them for several minutes, and I saw nothing unusual in terms of statements or actions that would indicate racial hatred or bias,” Howell said. Howell confirmed that the officers in question are currently being questioned and could still be disciplined.

“These racist groups are running around, and we need to be vigilant here in Alabama,” he said.

Charlottesville 2.0 is not happening

Jason Kessler, the man who organized last year’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, has given up his plans for an anniversary event later this year in the Virginia city.

Kessler, who was denied the permit, sued the city in an attempt to force the event through. But this week, Kessler abruptly withdrew his application at a court hearing that USA Today described as “bizarre.”

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Have a hate incident to report? Tell us about it here, or contact The Hate Report team: Aaron Sankin can be reached at asankin@revealnews.org, and Will Carless can be reached at wcarless@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @asankin and @willcarless.

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Will Carless was a correspondent for Reveal covering extremism. He has worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia and South America. Prior to joining Reveal, he was a senior correspondent for Public Radio International’s Global Post team based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Before that, Will spent eight years at the Voice of San Diego, where he worked as an investigative reporter and head of investigations. During his tenure in San Diego, Will was awarded several prizes, including a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has been a finalist for the Livingston Awards for young journalists twice in the last five years. He surfs, spends time with his family, travels to silly places and pretends he’s writing a novel.

Aaron Sankin is a reporter for Reveal covering online extremism, election administration and technology policy. Before joining Reveal, he was a founding editor of The Huffington Post's San Francisco vertical and a senior staff writer on The Daily Dot's politics team. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Time, The Motley Fool, Mashable, Business Insider, San Francisco magazine and The Onion. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Sankin studied history and sociology at Rice University. His work at The Daily Dot was a finalist in Digiday's 2015 publisher of the year award, and a story he wrote about a Midwestern family being terrorized by a teenage hacker was labeled by The Atlantic as an essential piece of journalism for 2015. Sankin is based in Seattle.