A Cincinnati police officer filed a lawsuit against four people, alleging their social media posts and complaints to the Citizens Complaint Authority falsely portrayed him as a racist and white supremacist after he made the "OK" gesture in public at City Hall.
The suit, filed July 22 in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, says police officer M.R. (who filed under a pseudonym) had been working crowd control in a noisy hallway during a Budget and Finance Committee meeting on June 24. A large number of protesters, fueled by outrage over the killing of George Floyd, had gathered to express their opinions about the city budget. Some wanted to defund the police.
And the hallway was noisy, according to the suit. Someone asked M.R. about another officer who recently left the scene; he made the “OK” sign by touching his thumb and index finger together.
NPR reported the Anti-Defamation League added the “OK” gesture to its "Hate on Display" database in 2019, saying some people associate the symbol with white supremacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted that the association started on the online imageboard 4Chan, where far-right users announced a coordinated hoax meant to bait left-leaning portions of the internet into embarrassing themselves by misidentifying the OK gesture as one linked to white supremacists.
Then real white supremacists started to use it. The SPLC report the gesture, although not exclusively or even mostly used by white supremacists, can be an effective public dogwhistle for some on the far right because it is so commonplace — like the original hoax, "what it’s about most of the time is a deliberate attempt to 'trigger liberals' into overreacting to a gesture so widely used that virtually anyone has plausible deniability built into their use of it in the first place."
Tuesday morning Judge Meghan Shanahan postponed the trial until next month. An attorney for one of the defendants requested the delay to review an order they received earlier that day.
Judge Shanahan also granted anonymity to the officer who filed the suit while proceedings continue. A series of restraining orders will prohibit those named in the lawsuit from "doxxing" the officer, which means releasing his name or personal information with malicious intent. The officer's attorneys said releasing that information puts the officer and his family in danger.
Iris Roley, with the Cincinnati United Front, is following the case and said M.R.'s requests go against the First Amendment.
“Any public employee, especially in the realm of public safety, that wouldn’t want a citizen to be able to identify, talk about, complain or report is outrageous,” Roley said. “As taxpayers, they should be able to do that. We created the whole entity, the Citizen Complaint Authority, just to be able to receive these types of complaints. And then to have officers retaliate against citizens makes it even worse."
The lawsuit names four people as defendants: Julie Niesen, James Noe, Terhas White and Alissa Gilley.
Niesen and Noe posted false content about the plaintiff on social media, according to the suit.
White, who was present at the June 24 meeting, was “seeking to create conflict” by asking the plaintiff a series of questions, the lawsuit said. The next day, White filed a complaint with the Citizen Complaint Authority, in which White “falsely accused Plaintiff of using the ‘white power’ hand signal,” the suit said.
The lawsuit said Gilley also filed a complaint to CCA on June 25, in which Gilley said the plaintiff was “throwing up a white supremacy hand signal towards citizens of color.”
The next hearing is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 1.
Niesen worked as a freelance food writer for WCPO from 2014 to 2018.