A few years ago, some Portland Timbers fans started flying banners with the Iron Front symbol — a circle enclosing three arrows pointing down and to the left.
The Iron Front was an anti-fascist group in Nazi Germany, and fans displayed the image in response to the uptick in hate incidents in the city of Portland and across the country.
Earlier this year, Major League Soccer updated its fan code of conduct to ban what it called political signs generally and the Iron Front symbol specifically. That’s prompted protests and outrage among fans.
Representatives of team supporter groups were scheduled to sit down with the president of Major League Soccer Thursday to attempt to resolve what has become a major controversy within the league. Among the fans represented: Sheba Rawson, the president of the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, a nonprofit that oversees the Timbers Army and other fan activities.
Rawson talked to OPB "Morning Edition" host Geoff Norcross about the debate and the meeting. Here are highlights:
Q&A with Sheba Rawson
Geoff Norcross: You’ve been trying to get this meeting with Major League Soccer for months. Why do think they’re willing to meet with you now?
Sheba Rawson: Well, I think we got their attention, to be frank, when there was a protest in the stands on Aug. 23 with 33 minutes of silence. That silence spoke volumes.
Norcross: What are you hoping to accomplish?
Rawson: Our goals are around getting the word "political" out of the code of conduct, being allowed to fly the Iron Front flag again and having the league consult with supporters and outside experts on human rights when they're revising that code of conduct. What's most important to all of us, out of all of this, [is] to create safe and welcoming spaces in the stadiums.
Norcross: What’s the problem with the word "political?"
Rawson: The word political as it sits in the fan code of conduct is inherently vague. One could argue that the American flag is political, that the rainbow flag is political. I think it's problematic to expect stadium officials to figure out on the fly whether or not something is deemed political. So much of what we do is inherently political ... .
... We’re not talking just about a flag here. We’re talking about sending a message to people who are less safe in states now that this is a safe space for you. From Portland Police Bureau’s own statistics, hate and bias crimes in 2018 were more than double those reported in 2016, so we really need to talk about how we’re going to make sure we send a message to people in the stadium, in the stands, that hate is not welcome here.
Norcross: Major League Soccer says the Iron Front symbol is problematic because it’s now associated with Antifa, and that, according to some, means it’s associated with street violence. How do you answer that?
Rawson: I think I'd want to see the sources on that. One could also argue that people who are white supremacists who engage in violence have appropriated the American flag as a symbol. I don't think people assume that means the American flag is an inherently violent symbol.
Norcross: There’s a bigger question here: The league believes the vast majority of people who come to a game just want to see a game and support their team. They don’t want to see advocacy for anything. Do you not agree with that?
Rawson: I guess I would say that one of the things that makes soccer unique in the United States is the passion of the fan base. There are people who will come to see the game, but there are also people who come to enjoy the spectacle of thousands of passionate fans in one section jumping, clapping, singing, waving flags. When you have that level of passion and support, they're also engaged in community work in the city. They also have a voice.