How a soccer match became an anti-fascist demonstration

September 8, 2019
Timbers Army banner.

The silence was stunning. Portland Timbers football (soccer) matches are renowned for their raucousness, but the first 33 minutes of the Timbers’ August 23 match against their archrivals, the Seattle Sounders, were eerily quiet.

No singing, no chanting, no drumming, no signs of the collective joy that typically accompanies their matches.

The unnerving hush that thrummed through the stadium was the brainchild of the Timbers Army, the team’s supporters’ group. They organised with the two supporters’ groups from Seattle — Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC — to express their dissent over a new rule instituted by Major League Soccer (MLS), which bans the anti-fascist Iron Front symbol on banners and flags at games because it is deemed “political”.

The league’s new Fan Code of Conduct states that such political symbols on signs “represent a threat to the safety” of matches.

Supporters' groups across the country have taken issue with this new rule being implemented at a time when fascists and white-power racists feel free to flex in public. This is especially the case in Portland, a city that journalist Arun Gupta has dubbed “the epicenter of far-right violence”. In August, the city was engulfed by a hodgepodge of far-right groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and the American Guard, a neo-Nazi group with a violent track record.

The Timbers Army decided enough was enough, and worked behind the scenes with supporters of their archrivals to develop a protest plan. The Timbers Army refused to construct a tifo — a display of gigantic banners hoisted up by rope and pulley that is an iconic feature of rivalry matches. For Timbers faithful, the curious absence of a tifo was jarring. All they offered for 33 minutes was the silence of their protest — a white-noise murmur on the verge of bursting.

The Iron Front symbol matters in the city of Portland. It was the emblem of a paramilitary organisation created by socialists and the Social Democratic Party in 1930s Germany as a rebuke to incipient fascism under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The Nazis banned the Iron Front in 1933, which accounts for the decision to start the match with precisely 33 minutes of silence.

Today in Portland, the Iron Front symbol has emerged as a ubiquitous emblem of anti-fascism. But the new MLS rule — the only of its kind among the major sports leagues in the United States — has converted the symbol into contraband.

There was plenty of such contraband on hand in Portland on August 24. When the 33 minutes expired, the north–end of the stadium exploded with pent-up cheers. Fans waved flags clad with the symbol, openly challenging the league’s ban.

They weren’t the only ones. Portland defender Zarek Valentin walked into the stadium and answered questions after the game wearing a shirt with the symbol. Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse also came to the game wearing an all-black Colin Kaepernick jersey and tweeting “#ImWithKap”.

Then, at halftime, some players on the rival squads engaged in the extraordinary act of exchanging jerseys as a show of solidarity with the protesting fans. When the game ended — a 2-1 Seattle victory — Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei even saluted the Timbers Army.

The Portland Timbers’ owners, former treasury secretary Henry Paulson and his son Merritt, issued a statement earlier in the week asserting that they “stand steadfast against fascism”, while also backing the league’s rule against political speech on banners and signs.

But the Timbers front office then let slip the real target of the rule: antifa. It fretted that the Iron Front symbol is “widely associated with its frequent use by antifa, often in the context of violence at protests or counter protests”. It added: “Major League Soccer believes the Iron Front symbol is inherently political because it has been co-opted by antifa.”

Their political commitment —  or lack thereof — was seen after the game when Merritt Paulson was spotted throwing a tantrum, blaming the protesting Timbers Army as responsible for the 2-1 loss. Timbers fan Jeffrey Ball tweeted: “I was one that he was yelling at … I yelled ‘Merritt fight for us!’ He said ‘You can yell anti-Fascism all you want but you fucked this team tonight!’”

Merritt Paulson is wrong. Regardless of the final score, the Portland Timbers and their fans stand as the big winners. They showed the country they will stand resolutely against fascism, efforts to divide the anti-fascist movement, and a president who equates such displays of unity in the face of racist violence with “terroristic” threats.

This was a tremendous — and important — collision of sports and politics: a showcase of the power of dissent and solidarity. It was about restoring anti-fascism into the most public squares. Given recent events, it could not have been more welcome.

[Reprinted from The Nation. Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation and his writing can be read at Edge of Sports. Jules Boykoff is the author of three books on the Olympic Games, most recently Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. He is a former professional soccer player who represented the US Olympic Team in international competition.]

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