Under pressure from fans, Major League Soccer this week lifted its ban on an anti-fascist symbol for the rest of the season and the playoffs.
MLS had prohibited signs and banners featuring the Iron Front at games under a policy introduced this season against political displays. The league said the symbol is political because of its adoption by antifa, a loosely organized military group of anti-fascists that sometimes engages in violence.
However, in Portland and Seattle, where antifa is active, fans have put heavy pressure on the league to changes its position. Supporters groups have argued that the Iron Front — with three arrows pointed downward and to the left — is a symbol of human rights, not politics. They have noted that it was first used in 1930s Germany by an anti-Nazi paramilitary group.
On Tuesday, MLS officials met in Las Vegas with supporters groups from both clubs and the Independent Supporters Council to discuss the issue. After a follow-up conference on Thursday, MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott announced the league had “suspended the prohibition on the Iron Front imagery at matches for the balance of the 2019 season and MLS Cup Playoffs while the working group conducts its analysis.”
Abbott also announced the formation of an official working group “to review the League’s Fan Code of Conduct to ensure clarity and consistence in advance of the 2020 season.” He said the body would bring together league and club representatives along with leaders of club supporters groups and “a cross-section of diversity and inclusion experts.
Leaders from the supporters groups also issued a statement expressing appreciation for the MLS’s cooperation and “affirmation of its long-time opposition to racism, fascism, white supremacy, white nationalism and homophobia.”
“We appreciate Major League Soccer’s willingness to engage, listen, and learn,” the statement said. “We look forward to continuing the dialogue, moving away from direct action in the stands on this issue, and instead focusing our energy on making progress around the table.”
Sounders VP of business operations Taylor Graham told the Seattle Times: “This is not something that is isolated in Seattle. As much as we can have good and productive and honest and direct and sometimes tough conversations with our supporters groups, it’s equally important that the league understands why this is such an important issue and why now of all these times.”
MLS tries and fails to ban the antifa-linked flag
Portland and Seattle fans had resisted the MLS ban on the Iron Front.
During a Sept. 15 Sounders home game against the New York Red Bulls, most of the fans in the supporters section walked out at the start of the second half in solidarity with a supporters leader who was removed during halftime for flying an Iron Front flag. At an Aug. 24 game between the Sounders and Timbers in Portland, fans from both clubs held a silent protest for the first 33 minutes of the match to protest the league’s rules.
— Kelly Weiler (@beaglehaus) September 15, 2019
When Portland hosted Real Salt Lake at Providence Park on Aug. 15, several Timbers fans were banned for three games for displaying the flags.
MLS clubs have also cracked down on symbols associated with the political right, and those policies were not revisited.
At an Aug. 25 Real Salt Lake game against the Colorado Rapids, a married couple were forced to stop waving a “Betsy Ross flag” because it was deemed a “symbol for hate groups.” Randolf and Diana Scott, who are Utah season ticket holders, said stadium personnel told them to stash the flag ― which features 13 stars to represent the original 13 colonies ―or risk being made to leave.
“He asked me — he’s like, ‘So what’s the purpose of the flag?’ I was like, ‘Well, ’cause we love America,’” Randolf Scott recalled to Salt Lake City’s Fox 13. “When people see me or Diana with this flag, I hope they can understand that it’s about the freedoms we have here in America, the legacy that America has.”
However, a Real Salt Lake executive explained in a statement that the flag has been adopted by “hate groups,” and so is too controversial for MLS games.
“Recently, and very controversially as well as surprising to us, the Colonial flag has been adopted as a symbol for hate groups,” Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll told Fox 13. “Any controversial flags or other similar banners or signs with symbols of hatred, divisiveness and/or intolerance whether intentional or otherwise will not be permitted in our stadiums. Period.”
Earlier this season, a fan waving a Trump 2020 flag was removed from Portland’s Providence Park, according to The Associated Press.
What’s wrong with the Besty Ross flag?
The notion that the Betsy Ross flag is racist is a new one. Notably, the flag was on prominent display during both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations.
However, in July, former NFL quarterback a national anthem protester Colin Kaepernick helped convince Nike to nix the planned rollout of a Fourth of July-themed sneaker that featured the flag. According to the Wall Street Journal, Kaepernick complained to the company, for which he is an endorser, the flag is offensive because of its supposed connection to slavery.
The Betsy Ross flag is not the only American flag to have triggered outrage of late. Also in July, actor Chris Pratt was accused by some of racism after being spotted wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a coiled snake over an American flag. Beneath the symbol appeared the slogan: “Don’t Tread on Me.”