Major League Soccer has suspended several members of the Portland Timbers fan group Timbers Army, according to a report from ESPN. It is not known how many members have been punished, but they are banned from attending the next three games at Providence Park, the Timbers’ stadium.
The fans are being punished for flying the Iron Front flag during a game on August 31, which violates the league’s rules on political signage or symbols. The Iron Front was an anti-Nazi and anti-fascist organization founded in Germany pre-World War II and banned by the Nazis in 1933. The insignia of the Iron Front has continued to be a symbol for those who oppose fascism and totalitarianism, as the original Iron Front did.
The Timbers Army confirmed the bans on Twitter.
We can confirm that bans are being issued to multiple individuals who flew the iron front flag at the match last Saturday 8/31. Watch for a statement from @107ist tomorrow. We are disappointed but remain #AUnitedFront. #RCTID— Timbers Army (@timbersarmy) September 5, 2019
Following a 33-minute silent protest staged by the Timbers Army on August 23, the Timbers released a statement explaining why the Iron Front symbol is against the rules, claiming that it’s become associated with the Antifa movement. This is the solution the team proposed in the statement:
"A supporter at a Timbers match can continue to hoist a banner or display specifically denouncing fascism (e.g. “anti-fascist”) while they wear a T-shirt, pin and scarf with the Iron Front symbol on it.”
That “solution” seems a little silly, especially since the Timbers Army has argued that the Iron Front flag promotes anti-racism, anti-fascism, and general inclusion. Being anti-racist and anti-fascist are not inherently political positions.
The fan code of conduct is what has whipped up this unrest. It was revised just before the start of the 2019 MLS season, and has been deeply unpopular. Fans and groups like the Timbers Army have been calling for the word “political” to be removed due to it being "inherently arbitrary,” and Timbers Army has called for MLS to “consult with supporters, representatives from marginalized groups, and with experts in human rights to craft a fan code of conduct that reflects and supports radical inclusion and anti-discrimination.”
Fan anger about the ban on “political” symbols isn’t going away, and is likely to intensify if MLS doesn’t address it properly. ESPN spoke to Laurent Dubois, a history professor at Duke University and author of the blog Soccer Politics, about the issue, and said that you only have to look at the NFL to see where this might lead.
"MLS is stepping into exactly the same trap that the NFL did with Colin Kaepernick. After he kneeled for the anthem, if the NFL said, 'We respect people's right to free speech. That's great, and he's an individual who has opinions,' the whole thing would basically have gone away.
"In [Portland's] case, it's only going to raise the stakes for this, and I think MLS is only going to have more confrontations because I think it's very unlikely that fan groups will easily relent on this point."
According to ESPN, the fans who were suspended can appeal their punishments and possibly have their bans reduced. A statement from 107 Independent Supporters Trust, the group behind Timbers Army and NWSL supporters group Rose City Riveters, is expected in the next few days.
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