Spectators at Providence Park for a Portland Thorns match would probably expect to see banners and two-sticks paying tribute to club legends like Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath. At last Sunday's Thorns match, supporter displays paid tribute not to footballing legends but to survivors, human rights advocates and resistors to fascism, and their timely, urgent messages.
As we've written about before here, Major League Soccer is in the midst of a battle with soccer supporters over its misguided "no politics" policy, which has clamped down on such dangerous and controversial messaging as "END GUN VIOLENCE" and "RACISM IS BAD." Although the NWSL has no specific policy around political signage and enforcement has varied among MLS clubs, Merritt Paulson, who owns the Timbers and Thorns, issued a statement declaring the team "anti-fascist" but expressing support for the ban on large banners and visuals featuring the anti-fascist symbol the Iron Front.
Over the weekend, supporters of both of Portland's professional soccer teams protested the ban and made a strong statement against fascism in their stands, city, and community. On Friday, members of the Timbers Army, working in concert with Seattle Sounders supporters, remained silent for the first 33 minutes of the match (a reference to 1933, the year Hitler banned the Iron Front) before both sides hoisted anti-fascist flags and displays and even a Timbers-ized version of Italian anti-fascist resistance song "Bella Ciao."
NWSL supporters took on and shared those same messages, as Thorns supporters bookended the weekend with banners and displays for Sunday's match. Banner crew members were informed on Wednesday that the capos were going to do a protest and make a stage banner. By the next morning, they had designs ready, and spent the next two days painting them.
The messages came through loud and clear, in bold text, hung along the supporters section: SILENCE = COMPLICITY. IF YOU'RE NOT ANTI, YOU'RE PRO. THERE IS NO MIDDLE GROUND. One smaller banner featured a reimagining of If You Give A Mouse a Cookie retitled If You Give a Fascist an Inch. And in a simple white banner with black text, the words of Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor; never the victim."
"Elie Wiesel knew exactly what happened when good people chose to stay out of politics," Holly Duthie, who leads the banner crew for the Riveters, shared via email. "We can't let that happen here."
The Riveters made the decision to not use the Iron Front symbol itself in their banners as to avoid the risk of confiscation and ensure their messages would be visible the whole game. As Duthie writes, "The battle isn't about the symbol, it's about the ideas behind it. (Though, as designers, the freedom to use that symbol would mean a lot.)"
In addition to the Riveters' banners, independently of the banner crew, another group of Thorns supporters handed out and displayed white roses during the match, a reference not just to the Rose City, but to the White Rose, a nonviolent student movement in Germany in the 1940s who used leaflets and graffiti to urge resistance to the Nazi regime. Midge Purce, who netted a brace in Sunday's match and was later named NWSL Player of the Week, received a crown of the white roses from a supporter. She gave the crown to Edie Parsons, the daughter of coach Mark Parsons. Thorns Captain Christine Sinclair wore an Iron Front shirt in solidarity, and prior to the match, Riveters member Nash Drake wrote an open letter urging NWSL President Amanda Duffy to address the impact of the "no politics" policy on the NWSL and its supporters in Portland with the Thorns front office.
The Timbers lost their match at home and according to social media accounts from several Timbers Army members, Paulson took his frustration out on them (he later clarified his position). The Thorns' display was met with a mostly positive response from supporters "save for a few trolls" and no opposition from the Thorns front office at time of writing.
"I can’t imagine our FO demanding we take down an Elie Wiesel quote," writes a banner crew member. "I hope they have learned a little more about who 'antifa' are (i.e., us) and that they release a revised statement soon. We'd really like to get back to painting banners for our Thorns."
Pushing back against fascism among soccer supporters feels particularly urgent in Portland. Not only do the city and the state of Oregon itself still have to contend with their histories as hotbeds of violent, structural white supremacy (although, let's be honest, literally all of North America has to contend with its history as a hotbed of violent, structural white supremacy), but Portland has been a frequent target of provocations from violent far-right groups in recent years, and garnered attention for anti-fascist counter-protests. In May 2017, a white supremacist murdered two men on a MAX train while they were defending a pair of Muslim girls from his attacks.
For many of the Riveters, and many soccer supporters across the country, the fight goes beyond a matter of censorship – fighting against fascism is deeply personal. A member says that the amount of out LGBTQ+ supporters among the Riveters (as well as immigrant and POC supporters among both the Thorns and Timbers faithful) mean they have more to lose under fascism than a mostly straight, white, male footballing audience might.
The #AUnitedFront movement has spread all over the soccer world, including through elsewhere in the NWSL – an Iron Front banner appeared, for example, at Sky Blue FC's match at Red Bull Arena, and another at a recent Chicago Red Stars match.
A Riveters' member's advice to NWSL supporters who want to show up in solidarity with anti-fascist efforts and messages and share their politics in the stands is simple: "Stand up now. Silence is complicity."
Photo courtesy of Riveters SG.