There Is an Anti-Fascist Rebellion Brewing in the Pacific Northwest. And Soccer Is at The Center of It.
Eli Rosenber, Washington Post, August 31, 2019
Soccer officials had notified the Timbers Army, the main fan organization for the team in Portland, Ore., that the anti-fascist symbol its members had been waving on a giant banner in the north end of the stadium would no longer be permitted at games on the eve of the season earlier this year. The fan group was not happy, releasing a lengthy critique of Major League Soccer’s new rules, and working with team officials for months in meetings to change the rule.
But what began as an internal dispute between the league, the Timbers front office, and the fan group has morphed into a full rebellion in recent weeks.
The symbol, a re-purposed icon from an anti-fascist group, the Iron Front from Nazi-era Germany, has now popped up at stadiums around the country. The MLS ban of it has drawn harsh coverage from left-leaning media outlets. And a recent Timbers game became the venue for a nearly stadium wide protest, that saw two rival fan groups join in silence for more than a half-hour before openly flouting the symbol’s ban.
The Timbers Army
The Portland Timbers were incorporated into the MLS in 2010, part of a long wave of expansion for the league that continues today as the sport’s popularity grows.
The league has made relatively lenient rules in its stadiums a point of pride as it seeks to embrace a more participatory style of fandom that marks soccer in Europe and South America, where the game is the strongest. Compared to many football or baseball games, where signs are often heavily restricted, MLS games are marked by colorful signs, drummers, and gargantuan banners called tifos, which were originally pioneered by fan groups overseas.
For Portland, a famously liberal enclave that has increasingly become a staging ground for clashes between the far-right and anti-fascist activists — the city’s political leanings have been reflected by the fans.
In response to what fans say was a noticeable uptick in hate incidents in the city in 2017, the Timbers Army began to fly the Iron Front’s logo, three arrows down and to the left, in Timbers’ colors, as a banner at the game. The Iron Front was a political group of anti-fascist and anti-communist activists in Nazi Germany that was banned in 1933.
Team officials eventually asked the Timbers Army to take down the banner last year, but the fan group moved it to a flagpole instead, a compromise that seemed to be tolerated, Stephan Lewis, a co-chair for community outreach for the nonprofit atop the Timbers Army, told The Post.
Then the league told the group about the new code of conduct coming, in the offseason.
No political signage
Political signage, including the Iron Front symbol, is generally accepted on T-shirts, hats or other personal items, the MLS says. But the league ruled that the symbol would not be permitted on large signs and banners that could be seen around the stadium or by audiences watching on television because it was inherently political.
They gave a simple reason: its use by the loose collection of hard-line anti-fascist protesters, Antifa, who have made it a mission to meet right-wing and supremacist demonstrators when they show up in cities around the country, to sometimes violent results.
In an interview with ESPN soon thereafter, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was asked about the challenges of determining what was political in an era when existential questions about race, sexuality and identity drive the conversation in Washington. Is it possible to be apolitical in this environment?
“We basically have created a policy that takes any decision-making off the table,” Garber said. “Our stadiums are not environments where our fans should be expressing political views because you then are automatically opening yourself up to allowing counterviews. Then we’re getting into a situation which is unmanageable and really not why the vast, vast majority of fans go to games.”
“The truth is that there is never an absence of politics. You either allow anti-fascist imagery or you don’t, but either decision speaks volumes about the values and priorities of your organization,” Mercury reporter Abe Asher wrote in an opinion piece. “If certain other supporters are uncomfortable with anti-fascist displays in stadiums, they should take a hard look at where exactly their discomfort stems from or find somewhere else to spend their time.”
Rebellious displays of the Iron Front symbol began to spread to other teams, popping up in the stands in D.C., Orlando, Oklahoma, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and beyond, prompting the hashtag #AUnitedFront.
A silent protest gets loud
Lewis, of the Timbers Army, said the group had tried discussing the use of the symbol with the Timbers front office throughout the season, but the talks failed to yield a compromise.
“What’s ultimately important to us is that we create a safe place for all people,” he said. “By using the term political and applying that to the Iron Front image, it’s sending a dog whistle.”
So they came up with a plan with their rivals, the Emerald City Supporters and another Seattle fan club, Gorilla FC, to engage in a stadium wide protest when the Sounders came to Portland for a match on Aug. 23.
People entering the stadium were given a flier informing them of the plan: fans would be silent for the first 33 minutes of the game, to commemorate the year the Iron Front was banned in Nazi Germany. Then the stands would explode into an English adaptation of an anti-fascist anthem from Italy, “Bella Ciao.”
Video from the stands captured the protest, including the moment the stands erupted in noise and cheer after the 33rd minute. Many supporters waved flags with the Iron Front symbol in open defiance of the code of conduct.
Similar protests took place at the Portland Thorns game in the National Women’s Soccer League two days later.
The fans have drawn support from some members of the teams. Both teams took pictures with small banners affirming their “anti-fascist” and “anti-racist” bona fides.
The league declined to say how many people have been or will be disciplined for displaying the Iron Front symbol at the game last week.
But it said it stood by its code of conduct and the interpretation that the symbol was political.
“We support … basic human rights and values of inclusion and diversity – rainbow flags are an example of that,” Mark Abbott, the president and deputy commissioner of the MLS told The Post. “Signs that condemn racism are an example of that. Signs that condemn fascism. The disagreement here is not over any of those things — it’s over the signs or a banner that include association with Antifa, an outside organization. That we don’t believe should be in our stadiums.”