After a Lithuanian protester was seen showing the ‘OK’ – or ‘White Power’ – sign behind a counter-demonstrator with a kippah, the international controversy surrounding the reappropriation of a hand gesture seems to have arrived in Lithuania.
For most people, a circle formed with a thumb and index finger merely means ‘OK’. The idea to use it as a way to troll the media, politicians and activists by convincing them that there’s something more behind the previously inconspicuous gesture originated from the notorious 4Chan forum.
However, the joke is starting to lose its comedy value, as the symbol is becoming increasingly used by the far-right.
“Any symbol can receive an added meaning if it’s used by specific groups,” Tomas Janeliūnas from Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI), told LRT.lt.
“They use a well-known sign, a symbol, and present it as their own with an added message,” he explained. Now, the ‘OK’ symbol has been reappropriated “by nationalist-leaning groups, their representatives, and it’s becoming somewhat of an identification sign among them”.
Politicians in Estonia, France, and the US have used the hand gesture, while the Christchurch shooter also displayed it in the courtroom after killing 51 people in two New Zealand mosques.
The symbol is also used by one of the main white power idelogues in the US, Richard Spencer, and a former journalist at the far-right media outlet Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos.
In Lithuania, a man displayed the sign behind a lone counter-protester during a rally to reinstall the memorial plaque to the controversial Lithuanian WW2 officer Jonas Noreika.
Read more: Protesters reinstall controversial Noreika plaque in Vilnius
The US baseball club Chicago Cubs banned a supporter from its stadium for life for displaying the same sign behind a black man during a game. The US Coast Guard has also reprimanded one of its employees after he displayed the same sign during a TV broadcast.
Dovilas Petkus, a former Seimas candidate and an activist at the Lithuanian nationalist movement Pro Patria, also displays the symbol on his Facebook account. He has been photographed showing the hand gesture during an event marking the formation of a new political movement in Lithuania.
Petkus told LRT.lt that he did not attach any additional meaning to the gesture, which according to him, simply means ‘OK’. “I was happy that a new Christian democratic force has been established, I was happy [...] that’s it,” he said.
Context plays a role
The US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which combats anti-semitism, reported that, in 2019, some supporters of the white power movement have started using the symbol in earnest.
The ADL stressed that accusations against people displaying the gesture should be backed by other contextual evidence. “Since 2017, many people have been falsely accused of being racist or white supremacist for using the ‘okay’ gesture in its traditional and innocuous sense,” the organisation wrote.
During a visit to Estonia, the leader of France’s National Rally, Marine Le Pen, met Ruuben Kaalep from the youth division of EKRE, a far-right party currently part of the ruling coalition in Tallinn.
After being photographed together with Kaalep, both displaying the hand gesture, Le Pen said that she had "never heard of the second meaning of this trivial gesture".
However, critics have pointed at the context – Le Pen displayed the symbol when meeting with a member of the EKRE party. Leaders of this political group, Mart and Martin Helme – a father and son – have caused a scandal when they both displayed the symbol during the swearing-in ceremony at the Estonian parliament.
According to the New York Times, Le Pen previously told AFP that this sign was a way to troll and humiliate the media which fell into the trap.
The Estonian politicians rejected the accusations. “No one will tell us what words we can say or what signs we can make,” Marin Helm told Politico. Previously, he also claimed that local Estonians were being “replaced” by immigrants, and his son Mart said that he wanted “Estonia to be a white country," according to the BBC.
Copy-cat behaviour in Lithuania
Dovilas Petkus, Lithuania’s Pro Patria member, told LRT.lt that he might have heard about the scandal in Estonia, but he was not interested and had not been in touch with members of other political parties abroad.
Far-right forces in Lithuania, according to Tomas Janeliūnas from VU TSPI, are copying the behaviour of far-right groups elsewhere in Europe and the US, where nationalist movements are much larger.
“Our far right is still in the early stage of development. This copy-cat behaviour is necessary if they seek to capitalise on the rising wave [of nationalism] in Western Europe.”
By displaying the gesture, the far right in Lithuania could be aiming to identify itself, said Janeliūnas, “or annoy the media, political opponents, and the public by saying it is nothing more than the traditional ‘OK’ gesture”.
“But it’s a question, why they’re doing it. Are they ashamed of the sign itself [...] or is it a message to a specific audience which knows more and can read the sign differently than the broader segment of society.”
After its initial use for trolling the media, the sign has spread among the far-right. Today, those who display the symbol assume that its real meaning will be picked up by those in the know.