As Timbers defend MLS ban of Iron Front symbol, fans continue to criticize and push back

Portland Timbers fans cheer during an MLS soccer match between the Timbers and Atlanta United in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP)
Portland Timbers fans cheer during an MLS soccer match between the Timbers and Atlanta United in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. (Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP)

The Portland Timbers are standing by their support and enforcement of Major League Soccer’s ban of the “Iron Front” symbol at matches as fan groups continue to push back on the regulation.

The Timbers offered a lengthy explanation about the symbol, “politics at stadiums” and human rights in a press release on their website Monday. Other teams around the league, namely the Seattle Sounders, have dealt with the issue recently as well.

How did the Timbers/Iron Front issue start?

MLS reportedly changed its Fan Code of Conduct in March ahead of the 2019 season to dub the Iron Front flag political, meaning it was banned in signage at stadiums. According to a Twitter reply by the Timbers, some clubs were “unaware” of the rule or “even the issue itself” until recently.

The Iron Front symbol, an emblem with three arrows pointing downward, was used by an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization in Germany in the 1930s. It’s generally used as an anti-fascism symbol.

In their statement Monday, the Timbers stood behind the MLS ban because “despite its origins” the symbol is “widely associated with its frequent use by Antifa.” The Antifa movement denounces fascism and has sometimes been involved in violent protests.

The Pacific Northwest is at the forefront of the issue. Portland has become a “flash point for far-right violence,” as described by The Intercept, with rallies and riots that include far-right groups Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.

Timbers issue statement defending policy

Timbers Army, the team’s fan group, has been vocal about the issue all month, but the flames were fanned further when the club released a letter to fans explaining its stance.

The ban is for anything larger than a banner with the Iron Front symbol. It still allows, according the Timbers, for fans to wear the symbol on their T-shirt, pin and/or scarf and hold up a banner “specifically denouncing fascism,” for example “anti-fascist.”

The solution that allows for specific denouncement of fascism on banners (as well as continued acceptance of personal apparel choices), in lieu of the Iron Front symbol, is more than fair. It clearly allows for those wanting to decry fascism at games to do so. Some rooted in this issue simply focus on the Iron Front banner ban as censorship and others look at it as an opportunity for protest. We believe if you step back and understand the issue, we are on very firm and equitable ground that achieves the desired approach to clearly denounce fascism. And the risk of a slippery slope of more prohibited expression is not a course we will allow. We didn’t make the rule banning the Iron Front on signs but we understand it and support it.

The Timbers wrote they had heard from fans who were uncomfortable with Antifa symbols at games, and that it is their responsibility to promote safety for all guests. They also noted they “100% oppose fascism and steadfastly stand against violence.”

Fans allege Timbers side with fascists

Fans within the Timbers Army are fighting the enforcement, claiming the club is using “alt-right talking points” to ban the symbol. They are accusing the Timbers of supporting fascism and giving the “people who complain” a voice to spread fascism.

Opponents argue that since the Timbers made note that “most of the broader public” doesn’t know the historical meaning of the Iron Front, the club could instead “educate its fans.”

People within Timbers Army are also noting on Twitter that enforcement is not consistent. It’s notable that Portland was recently the site of nine hours of protests and counter-protests between the far-right Proud Boys and anti-fascist activist organization Rose City Antifa. It drew Twitter commentary from President Donald Trump and “monthly rallies” have been promised by the Proud Boys, per USA Today.

Fans: Is anti-fascism not human rights?

The Timbers argued they have always taken a “particularly liberal view of what are human rights” and were the first professional team to support Oregon’s marriage equality laws in 2014. Per the letter, the team now believes gun control is a human rights issue.

Fans on Twitter are questioning why the club would write its support of these things while standing with a policy to ban the Iron Front flag. It asks that the Timbers “start proving” that they are against fascism.

Sounders apologize to fan group for flag ban

The Sounders’ front office held a press conference Aug. 2 to issue a public apology to its supporters regarding the Iron Front flag ban. It insisted, per the Seattle Times, it’s still proud of being “Anti-racist/Anti-fascist/Always Seattle,” a nod to a 2017 incident in which Seattle supported members of its fan club.

The club cited Antifa and equated the Iron Front with far-right groups while explaining the violation in a letter, per the Seattle Times. It wrote that banners and flags representing a political group, including but not limited to those above, were not allowed at CenturyLink Field.

Taylor Graham, Sounders vice president of business operations and marketing, said of the letter’s construction, via the Times:

“For that, we first and foremost want to put our hand up and say, ‘That’s not fair, and we apologize for those words,’ putting them in that context.”

Fan group Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC, Sounders FC Alliance and Portland’s 107 Independent Supports Trust have joined together to fight the ban. They’re asking that MLS remove “political” from its code of conduct and implement rules for inclusion and anti-discrimination.

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