The Portland Timbers issued an open letter to fans Monday denouncing fascism and defending the club’s enforcement of Major League Soccer’s new ban on political displays.
Fans within the Timbers Army, the supporters group for the club, have in recent weeks decried the Timbers’ ban on displays with the Iron Front logo. Fans say the logo is an anti-fascist symbol but the Timbers say it has been associated with the “antifa” movement, which has sometimes included violent protests. Some fans complained that not being allowed to fly the Iron Front flag indicated the Timbers support fascism, which the club strongly denied Monday.
“The Portland Timbers stand steadfast against fascism,” the club’s letter says. “We always have and we always will. Our actions supporting inclusion, diversity and acceptance for more than a decade speak for themselves, as does the freedom we have always given our supporters to express themselves at our matches. To suggest anything else is patently false and offensive.”
The controversy was prompted by a new policy from MLS this season that bans any political displays at games around the league. That has sparked debate over which speech is “political” as fans on social media have complained of being ejected from some venues outside Portland for displays that contain phrases like “anti-racist” and “anti-fascist.”
But the Timbers said Monday those types of displays will continue to be allowed in Portland, and that the club fought with MLS for the right to determine locally which displays are merely related to human rights rather than being “political.”
“Under the new rules, teams in MLS do continue to have some discretion locally over what is deemed broader human rights in their respective markets. The Portland Timbers fought hard for that,” the letter says.
The letter adds: “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. What a supporter cannot do under the new MLS Fan Code of Conduct … is wave a banner or any larger display that includes the Iron Front symbol.”
The differing policies between banners and flags bearing the Iron Front logo compared to shirts, pins and scarves is based on TV broadcasts and fans around the stadium being able to see the larger displays. The Timbers say they had “received much feedback from those uncomfortable with antifa symbols being displayed at our games.”
The Timbers add that the club “didn’t make the rule banning the Iron Front on signs but we understand it and support it.”
The policy banning political displays has pushed other clubs around MLS to speak out. The Seattle Sounders front office had to apologize to its supporters group for equating antifa with violent white supremacist organizations. The Iron Front symbol has been the primary source of controversy there too.
MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott has defended the policy as being one that clubs around the league agreed with.
“I think it was the belief of the league and the clubs that fans are at our games to enjoy the game and that there is a place for third-party political organizations or groups to express their views, but that place isn’t within our stadiums,” he told The Associated Press.