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SC Coast Guard officer censured for flashing white supremacy sign on TV

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Coast guard OK symbol (copy)

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a letter of censure to a member of its Hurricane Florence emergency response team in Charleston after he flashed an "OK" hand symbol during an interview on MSNBC on Sept. 14, 2018. Please note the culprit is not the man in the foreground, but the guy in the back. Screenshot. MSNBC.

A Charleston Coast Guard officer has been reprimanded for intentionally flashing a hand gesture he knew is associated with white supremacy on live TV during a hurricane last year.

On Oct. 5, the Coast Guard issued an administrative letter of censure to the officer, who officials declined to identify citing a privacy exemption.

The letter would not be reviewed should the officer seek a future promotion. However, the actions would be outlined in an explanatory document that would be reviewed, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Kelley said. 

"His actions will be reflected in his annual officer evaluation report, which is a document that is a primary consideration in future promotion panels or career opportunities that the member may apply for or be subject to in the Coast Guard," Kelley said in a statement.

Should the officer stay in the Coast Guard, the annual officer evaluation report and its findings would follow him.

The letter was obtained this week by The Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The document also serves as a one-page summation of the findings of the Coast Guard's investigation into the incident that occurred during the emergency response to Hurricane Florence.

It was signed by Capt. John W. Reed, who commands the Coast Guard's Charleston station.

"While your actions may have seemed funny and playful to you, they clearly showed a lack of maturity and an inability to understand the gravity of the situation, namely the preparation and response to Hurricane Florence, a declared disaster," Reed wrote.

"Furthermore, you were directly cautioned by a Public Affairs Specialist about the controversy surrounding that symbol just prior to the live interview being conducted, yet you went ahead and decided to play a game as a leader in our Service," it continued.

The Coast Guard refused to identify the service member, citing an exemption that protects "personnel and medical files."

The officer found himself thrust into the national spotlight on Sept. 14 when he was working on the emergency response team to Florence at the command post in North Charleston.

While Reed gave an interview on the "Live with Ali Velshi" program on MSNBC, the officer in question sat in the background.

He looked directly at the camera before he quickly looked away and flashed the "OK" sign by forming a circle between his thumb and index finger, and keeping the rest of his digits raised. 

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization focused on combating anti-Semitism and bigotry, notes that the gesture has been used by known white supremacists and members of the alt-right movement to covertly signal each other.

However, the latest assessment from the ADL has found that the otherwise innocuous hand sign is largely used as a "trolling gesture" and its meaning is continually evolving.

The Charleston incident received national attention, and the Coast Guard issued a swift statement via Twitter afterward noting the service member had been removed from the emergency response team.

"His actions do not reflect those of the United States Coast Guard," the tweet said.

In the letter released this week, Reed warned the officer that he must reevaluate his thinking and behavior. 

"You alone own what happened and need to fix the internal filter that would cause you to think that this type of behavior is appropriate and to prevent it from happening again," Reed wrote.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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