Tim doesn’t want his last name revealed because he fears potential backlash. He has seen what can happen to critics of self-described anti-fascists, and he’d rather not take the risk.
But Tim wants it known that he has no plans to renew his membership with the raucous Sounders fan club known as the Emerald City Supporters. In their quest to be as inclusive as possible, he feels they’ve excluded him.
For much of this season, the ECS fought Major League Soccer over the right to display the Iron Front symbol, which is three arrows pointing southwest inside a circle. Like the Timbers Army in Portland, its leaders bucked when MLS said it violated the new league rule banning political signage in stadiums.
They’ll say it’s not political — that the logo is just an old German emblem representing anti-fascism and inclusion. But the only other people I’ve seen flash that symbol these days are involved with antifa, far-left-leaning militant groups that have engaged in many acts of violence.
Tim was hoping MLS would maintain the ban because he’s embarrassed by the association. With its constant talk of anti-fascism, he thinks the ECS has turned into a political faction with a soccer hobby.
But after an array of protests and critical headlines, MLS lifted the Iron Front ban for the rest of the year. That’s when Tim, an ECS member since 2014, felt like he got a figurative pink slip.
“I am really depressed,” he said via text. “I have no supporters home.”
Upon first glance, one might wonder why there’d be anything controversial about promoting anti-fascism. As a colleague of mine said, being anti-fascist is like being pro-oxygen.
But it doesn’t seem that most people know much about antifa, which is short for anti-fascist. If they did, Tim’s frustration would make more sense.
Yes, antifa has protested some of the most despicable people in the country — namely the white supremacists that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., two years ago. They also clashed with Proud Boys, the right-wing “western chauvinists” who have been violent in their own right.
But there have been myriad times when people associated with antifa decided that a person or group were “fascists” simply because they disagreed with them. And those protests didn’t stay peaceful for very long.
Two years ago, The Washington Post reported that “five black-clad antifa members” attacked a Trump supporter at a rally in Berkeley, “each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself.” Last June in Portland, they sent conservative journalist Andy Ngo to a hospital via a beating because he regularly films their antics.
They have screamed “Nazi scum!” at an elderly lady trying to cross the street, have been charged with assaulting cops in Boston and had one loyalist point a gun at officers after launching incendiary objects at a Tacoma ICE facility.
So when Tim sees “anti-fascists” waving the previously banned Iron Front flag at Sounders games, he feels inclined to wave goodbye.
“It’s just not constructive,” said Tim, who still has many friends in the ECS but thinks “groupthink” has overcome its leaders. “That doesn’t belong in a stadium.”
Tim also was put off when the ECS and Timbers Army protested the Iron Front ban by sitting silently for the first 33 minutes of the Sounders-Timbers game in August. He said he didn’t even know that was going to happen until he was informed during the $90 bus ride to Portland. It would be one thing if the two fan bases united over an actual tragedy, but for Tim, going Kumbaya over an outlawed flag was a blow to the heart of the clubs’ historic rivalry.
For ECS member Troy Storfjell, on the other hand, the protest was “awesome.” Just before the Sounders took on the Galaxy last month, the Pacific Lutheran University professor told me MLS would have to be prepared to lose its most zealous supporters if it didn’t rescind the Iron Front ban.
But what about antifa co-opting that symbol? I asked.
“I say hell yes,” Storfjell said.
They’ve used violence, though.
“Violence against fascists.”
What about Andy Ngo? He has gotten milkshakes thrown at him and beaten up, and he’s just a journalist.
“He’s not just a journalist,” said Storfjell, whose son went on to call Ngo a provocateur. ” … I don’t have a problem with it. There are children dying of lack of medication in concentration camps in the U.S. If one fascist gets a milkshake thrown at him … “
And beaten up.
“And beaten up. I don’t have a problem with it.”
I have no idea if Storfjell’s comments represent how other ECS members feel. None besides Troy and his son would grant me an interview that day. But his answers weren’t exactly subtle. And they reflect an attitude that is alienating people such as longtime Sounders fan Mike McDonnell.
McDonnell watched that silent protest in Portland in disbelief. He was equally bewildered three weeks later, when most of the ECS walked out of CenturyLink Field to stand with an ejected, Iron Front-flag-waving fan.
Both teams were in the midst of a playoff push when the demonstrations took place, yet their loudest supporters ceded home-field advantage by hitting the collective mute button.
“I never thought they would put their politics in front of the team itself,” McDonnell said. “You’re a supporters group. You’re not supposed to be a political group.”
ECS co-president Tom Biro insists there is nothing political about his club. He said the Iron Front logo simply complements the ECS’ “anti-fascist, anti-racist, always Seattle” slogan.
It’s about inclusivity, Biro says — about everybody having the right to be here.
“And I don’t just mean in the section, I mean here on the planet.”
I believe that Biro, who was a complete gentleman to me, has pure intentions — just like I believe that symbol can mean different things to different people. But I also think it’s naive to think there is nothing political about it.
When I brought up violent antifa incidents such as the Berkeley protests, assault on Ngo or gunman in Tacoma, Biro said he didn’t have enough information to comment. But when you’re protesting the ban of a logo that doubles as one of antifa’s chief symbols, shouldn’t you have that info?
I was reluctant to write this column given the timing. It’s been more than three weeks since MLS reversed the Iron Front ban, and the Sounders have a playoff game Saturday. But I suspect there are a lot more people who feel like Tim and Mike. And if inclusion truly is the ECS’ goal, then their voices should be heard.
As for the Sounders, they declined to comment. They’re working with MLS on a long-term signage policy. And though it may be easy to criticize both parties from afar, they’re in a tough spot given the nature of their primary supporters groups.
Still, if it were up to me, I’d lose the Iron Front logo and all things political, regardless of what side of the aisle it falls on. If you think tension is high now, just wait till we’re in an election year.
The MLS may lose customers if it reinstates the ban, but it won’t lose true fans. If signs are more important than their teams, how big of fans can they be?