White Supremacists at a Sounders Match And Why the League and the Team Front Office is Responsible
A group of white supremacists showed up at last night’s Sounders match vs. Sporting Kansas City. Troubling as that situation is, the fact that a group of Nazis* felt the need to cause trouble at a soccer match can be laid directly at the feet of the Sounders Front Office and MLS.
First, let me give a short account of what happened. A small band of the right-wing extremist group Proud Boys — some of them armed — arrived a couple hours before the match and tried to enter Fuel, the primary pre-match meeting place of Seattle’s largest supporters group Emerald City Supporters. Luckily, members of ECS and the security staff at Fuel kept cool heads and prevented any violence from breaking out despite attempts to incite a bigger conflict by the racists. The incident was captured on video by Athletic reporter Miki Turner.
Later during the March to the Match one of the Proud Boys threw a punch at a Sounders fan after harassing him for wearing an Iron Front logo shirt.
The police had an increased presence at the match, though, as can seen in the above video, they were incredibly ineffective when actual violence broke out. As far as I’ve found, no other incidents happened, and the extremists left on their own shortly after kickoff.
Their presence alone, though, created an atmosphere of intimidation. Just walking by a group of white supremacists is an unsettling experience. I can say that because, at the time of this writing, I did exactly that less than a day ago. When you add the context that there were two mass shootings in the 24 hours leading up to the match, and another one less than a week before that, the sense that fatal violence could break out was all too real. And let’s be clear, that’s the intention. These extremist groups know that they don’t actually have to do anything. Their presence alone creates fear. That tension was so palpable that my wife broke out into tears after hearing the cannon the stadium fires off at the moment of kick off in each match. What is usually a fun and celebratory atmosphere suddenly had a much darker connotation. And my wife wasn’t the only one who felt it.
So the question is, why did the Proud Boys suddenly decide that a Sounders Match was the place to spread their specific brand of hate and intimidation? The reason can be found in a conflict between the Sounders Front Office and ECS following the previous match between the Sounders and the Timbers two weeks ago.
During the latest derby match between the Northwest rivals, ECS flew a large banner featuring the Iron Front logo. Iron Front was a paramilitary group in Germany during the rise of Hitler who opposed the Nazi party. While there is no Iron Front group anymore, their symbol — A circle with three arrows pointing southwest — has come to represent opposition to fascism.
After the match, the Sounders Front Office sent a letter to ECS demanding that they refrain from any displays featuring the Iron Front logo (the entire letter and ECS’ response can be found here. The team cited the league’s policy banning political banners from the stadium. The letter was a shockingly tone-deaf expression of cowardice. While giving some lip service to their commitment to the “values of inclusion and acceptance,” the team said they would not allow political signage from groups, “including but not limited to Antifa, Iron Front, Proud Boys, and Patriot Prayer.”
Let me take a moment to briefly explain what’s wrong with that statement. By putting those four names in a single sentence, the team endorses the fallacious idea that hate groups and people opposed to hate groups are the same. They are not. Advocating for discrimination and exclusion is, by its very nature, the opposite of fighting against discrimination. Also, groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer are actual associations with specific aims and agendas, and leaders who direct them in furtherance of those agendas. Antifa and Iron Front are not actual organizations. There are no leaders. To say you’re Antifa or to wear an Iron Front logo is just an expression that you are against fascist ideas. (For a more in-depth discussion on these issues, listen to episode 102 of Hands Free Football).
The team eventually apologized for the language used in the letter, but did not change their position banning the Iron Front logo on displays.
The Sounder’s and the league’s stance is so wrongheaded that ECS, Gorilla FC and other Seattle Supporters Groups are uniting with the Timbers Army, Rose City Riveters and other Portland Supporters groups to call for changes in the leagues policies. Think of how bad things have to be for Sounders and Timbers supporters to unite in opposition of the league’s position. And the policy changes they’re demanding aren’t even that extreme. The statement calls for three simple and reasonable actions by the league:
MLS rescinds its ban on flying the iron front flag.
MLS removes the word "political" from its fan code of conduct as it is inherently arbitrary.
MLS works with international experts on human rights to craft language in the fan code of conduct that reflects and supports radical inclusion and anti-discrimination.
This conflict between ECS and the Sounders Front Office isn’t even the first time the league has dealt with these issues. Earlier this year Huffington Post printed an in-depth look at the ways in which white supremacist groups were infiltrating the NYCFC fan-base. The article outlines the anemic response by the team and the league to respond to the concerns of intimidated fans who don’t want to watch the game in the presence of right-wing extremists. Rather than taking action to make the fans and the league safer, Commissioner Don Garber gave a weak statement about how it wasn’t the league’s responsibility to police the actions that fans outside the stadium. (For a further discussion on this, listen to Hands Free Football episode 95)
But that’s exactly the problem. As I pointed out above, these extremists know that they don’t actually have to act to intimidate other people. We know who they are and what they believe, and we know they’re willing and capable of committing violence. Their very presence is intimidating to people. If the league isn’t willing to make the actions of extremists outside of the stadium their problem, they are effectively endorsing them and helping creating that intimidating atmosphere.
One of the main problems is that the league bans “political speech” from supporters, but doesn’t do a good job of defining what that is. In 2017, an ECS member at an away match in Vancouver carried a banner with the words “Anti-Racist, Anti-Fascist, Always Seattle.” While security originally let the banner into the stadium, they later asked the fans to take it down and then kicked the ECS members out of the stadium when they refused. Reports are that security demanded they remove the banner after the league contacted the stadium. To credit the Sounders organization, the team opposed the leagues stance in that instance, and have allowed Sounders supporters to display the message in CenturyLink Field.
The league’s stance against political speech is not only confusing, but it is applied at almost random. It defy’s credulity to say calling oneself anti-racist or anti-fascist is political. Similarly, displaying symbols of an anti-hate ideology also isn’t political. Particularly considering the league’s endorsement of things like Pride Night, and their Don’t Cross the Line and Soccer for All campaigns. The ambiguous standard forces teams and the league to try to walk an impossible line between inclusivity and allowing discrimination.
Walking that line is what creates the space that encourages hate groups like the Proud Boys to bring their brand of intimidation to our stadiums. White Supremacists know exactly how to leverage the confusion of ineffective policy to spread fear. And the worst part, is that the league doesn’t even have to take any proactive steps to put a stop to it. All they have to do is allow supporters to express their anti-fascists sentiments. If the league and the supporters presented a unified front that hate is not welcome in this league, then hate groups won’t bother to come.
It’s time for Don Garber and the league to accept that opposition to hate isn’t political. They should immediately adopt the changes suggested by the combined statement of Seattle and Portland fans. Making our league and our stadiums unwelcome to those who advocate discrimination and fascism is how we make our homes and our fans safe.
* An argument could be made that the Proud Boys aren’t actual literal Nazis, but I have no intention or interest in splitting hairs when it comes to defining hate groups. An alt-right militant fascist hate group gets the title of Nazi in my column.