On a chilly Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, the cameras cut to former outfielder Doug Glanville, now an analyst for NBC Sports Chicago. As Glanville praised Chicago’s resurgent offense, a bearded fan in the background mugged for the camera.
Then the fan in a Cubs hoodie formed his hand into an upside-down “OK” sign, holding it next to Glanville’s head until the camera cut to a graphic.
To many viewers, the gesture was reminiscent of one recently adopted as a symbol of white power flashed by far-right militia members and by the terrorist who killed 50 Muslim worshipers in New Zealand. The Cubs say they’re investigating what they called the “offensive hand gesture,” and threatened to ban the fan for life.
“Such ignorant and repulsive behavior is not tolerated at Wrigley Field,” Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president of business operations, said in a statement released early Wednesday. “We are reviewing the incident thoroughly because no one should be subjected to this type of offensive behavior.”
The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.
The “OK” hand gesture as a symbol of white intolerance apparently started as a joke by trolls on the 4chan message board in early 2017, as The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg and Abby Ohlheiser reported. The idea, according to message boards uncovered by BuzzFeed News, was to trigger liberals and trick the media by pretending the widely used hand signal had a secret racist meaning.
But as the tongue-in-cheek movement grew, the gesture was appropriated by those who really did use it as a sign of white supremacy. It’s now become ubiquitous at far-right gatherings, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, making it nearly impossible to untangle its ironic use from those meaning it as a straightforward slur. That’s actually the idea.
“The point of the stunt would be to get liberals wound up, so they can then claim that liberals are just imagining things,” Salon writer Amanda Marcotte noted in September. “That was what the OK symbol was literally invented to do: Both serve at a white supremacist symbol and also one that is just ordinary-enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”
Even that level of nuance, however, seemed lost in March when the hand gesture was flashed in a New Zealand courtroom by Brenton Tarrant, the Australian terrorist who attacked two mosques and espoused a racist, Islamophobic worldview.
The fact that the fan on Tuesday used the symbol behind Glanville, who is black, only adds to the suggestion that it was meant as a racist gesture. It comes at a delicate moment for the Cubs, who have faced backlash after racist and Islamophobic emails sent and received by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the family who owns the franchise and Wrigley Field, were published in February. Ricketts has since apologized and his family has noted that he plays no active role in team management.
In his statement, Kenney pledged that the team would take the on-air gesture seriously.
“Any derogatory conduct should be reported immediately to our ballpark staff,” he said. “Any individual behaving in this manner will not only be removed from the ballpark, but will be permanently banned from Wrigley Field.”