MLS Rescinds Ban on Iron Front Logo
MLS has released a joint statement with a collection of Supporters Groups declaring a temporary end to the ban on the Iron Front logo. The statement also promises to work in conjunction with team leaders, supporters, and outside experts in diversity to rewrite the fan code-of-conduct before the start of the 2020 season. This action hopefully ends the weeks long standoff between the League and various team leadership and supporters groups over the anti-fascist symbol.
Let’s look at a little of the background that led us to this point. At the beginning of the season, MLS quietly released an announcement that they had updated the fan code-of-conduct which governed fan behavior in MLS stadiums. The new policy specifically banned “political” messaging in banners waved during games. While each team had some level of discretion as to what they would allow at their home stadiums, the league drew a hard line about the Iron Front logo. The justification for that stance was that the Iron Front logo was adopted by antifa, and was therefore associated with a violent group.
The first clash came after the Sounders front office wrote a letter to the Emerald City Supporters group threatening to ban any fan waving the symbol for three games after a giant Iron Front flag was waved during a match in July. In the aftermath of the letter and the response by fans, armed members of a white supremacist group showed up to the next match (you can read all about my experience at that game, and more details of why it happened here.)
The weeks following that incident saw a surprising coalition form between supporters of the Sounders and their biggest rival the Timbers. Members of supporters groups for both teams, including Emerald City Supporters, Timbers Army, Gorilla FC, and the 107th Independent Supporters Trust released a joint statement calling for three actions by the league. First, to end the ban on the Iron Front logo. Second, to remove the word “political” from the fan code-of-conduct. Third, work with humanitarian experts to craft a new fan code-of-conduct that better reflected the ideals of inclusion and diversity that the league claimed to profess.
That statement was followed up by a joint protest during match between the Timbers and the Sounders. At the beginning of the match, both team’s supporters sat quietly, refusing to wave any flags or lead any chants that create the atmosphere that MLS spends so much time promoting and advertising. For over 30 minutes, arguably the biggest rivalry match in MLS was played in an unsettlingly quiet atmosphere. Then, in the 33rd minute (to honor 1933, the year that the original Iron Front paramilitary organization was disbanded by the Nazis), cheers and flags erupted while the Timbers Army chanted Bella Ciao, an Italian anti-fascist anthem. The protest even garnered attention from major news outlets including ESPN and the Washington Post.
In the aftermath of the Cascadian match protest, supporters around the league started speaking out in support of the anti-fascist symbol, with displays in places including Minnesota, DC, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and more. The league gave a handful of fans in Portland a 3 match ban after displaying the logo during another match, and Minnesota kicked a dozen fans out of a single game as well.
Meanwhile, the league insisted on holding to the stance that the Iron Front logo was political, and refused to be budged from the ban. Supporters refused to comply. During a match in Seattle against the New York Red Bulls, a large Iron Front banner was waved by an ECS leader until he was kicked out at halftime. The entire supporters section of around 3000 people got up and left in solidarity, leaving three empty sections and a subdued atmosphere for the rest of the game.
Finally, the league agreed to meet a coalition of supporters in Las Vegas to find a solution to the conflict. The meeting ended without a definitive statement, but a follow-up phone conference the following week was planned. It’s after that phone conference that the joint statement at the beginning of this article was announced. The league also ended the suspension and refunded the fines leveled at fans for flying the banner. It seems, at least for the time being, the conflict is over.
A couple things, I think worth mentioning. The first thing I find curious is how the league’s stance on the Iron Front logo, and their insistence in keeping the ban in effect seemed to undercut their own interests. Let me pose a question: When was the first time you heard about the Iron Front logo? I can remember the exact moment. In May of this year, I was scrolling through my twitter when I stumbled upon a debate within the Timbers Army community about the Iron Front ban centered around this statement from the 107th IST. I was curious about what the whole controversy was about, and looked up the symbol. I assume I’d seen it at games before then, but there’s a lot of banners flying around at a soccer match, and plenty of them outside of my experience. This one was no different. I’m not sure when I would’ve learned about it if it weren’t for this ban. I’m willing to bet most soccer fans were ignorant of Iron Front before it became a league issue. This is a perfect example of the Streisand Effect: the attempted to hide or suppress information only increases the attention it gets. The league’s insistence on trying to stop the Iron Front logo from being flown gave supporters a huge platform to explain to people what the symbol meant and why it was important to them.
Second, I think the entire policy written by MLS was flawed in the first place. Policies that claim to be designed to protect the oppressed, yet are used only to limit the voices of inclusion must be done away with. For example, there was a policy at the US Patent and Trademark Office used to have a policy refusing to grant trademarks to terms that were considered, “scandalous, immoral or disparaging.” This policy was used to refuse trademarks for things like a band of Asian Americans called The Slants, or a lesbian charity bike ride called Dykes With Bikes, but allowed the blatantly racist name “Redskins” for the Washington DC NFL team to stand. Similarly, the MLS policy banning “political” speech was ostensibly to protect inclusiveness and diversity. But by banning a symbol whose meaning is entirely tied to protecting diversity and inclusion, it had the opposite effect.
And finally, if you spend any time looking into this, particularly if you’re delving into the dreaded comments sections, you’ll find people screaming about how the league was right to ban the Iron Front symbol, and that antifa are just a bunch of terrorists. Those people are just plain wrong, for a number of reasons. To begin with, antifa isn’t an organization. You can’t go talk to the leader of antifa and figure out what their agenda is, because there is no leader of antifa. Antifa is simply a descriptor. It’s a portmanteau of “anti-fascist”, and that is the beginning and end of its meaning. Do you oppose fascists? Congratulations! You’re antifa! Are there people who describe themselves as antifa who commit violence? Absolutely. There’s also people who describe themselves as tall who commit violence. That doesn’t make tall people a terrorist organization.
There is a concerted effort to paint antifa as an equal and opposite side to the alt-right. That they’re both violent ideologies and somewhere in the center is a common ground we can all agree upon. But that’s a false equivalence. White supremacy, fascism, racism, and homophobia are all based on the single flawed idea that some people are, by their very birth, better than others; that there are people who are less deserving of rights or full membership of society because of traits completely out of their control like their skin color, heritage, or sexual orientation. Antifa is opposed to that ideology, and even violent antifa advocates only commit violence against those who espouse that deplorable worldview.
There are people who are actively spreading disinformation about antifa in an attempt to assert that false equivalency. People like Andy Ngo release deceptively edited video and report blatant lies to try to paint antifa as a violent extremist group (for a really great breakdown of Andy Ngo’s history and tactics, I suggest you listen to the episode of Behind the Bastards about him). But intolerance of intolerance is not itself intolerance.
The Iron Front symbol is displayed as a statement against fascism. To paraphrase reporter Abe Asher, if people being against fascism make you uncomfortable, perhaps it’s time to look closely at your own beliefs, and figure out from where that discomfort stems.