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"Political." You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

08/07/2019 10:05 AM | Jennifer Ingraham (Administrator)

The following is a post from Paul Atkinson.

The Timbers Army has stood for more than a decade as a force for human rights and radical inclusivity, expressed in our North End antics and our activism in our community and joined in recent years by the Rose City Riveters. This year, Major League Soccer (MLS) published a revised Fan Code of Conduct that contains language that appears designed to excuse arbitrary bans on fan behavior by including a prohibition against “political” signage. The new code prohibits:

Using (including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior […] [1]

Subsequently the Portland Timbers, as a franchise of MLS, demanded the Timbers Army cease using Iron Front imagery. The Iron Front, appearing as a circle around three arrows pointing down and left, is an antifascist symbol from the 1930s that was designed to be painted over the swastika [2]. The Timbers front office explained this injunction as a fair and even-handed application of the MLS code of conduct. They contend that the policy is not at all arbitrary and that the Iron Front, in its current incarnation as a symbol of antifascism, is banned as political signage.

The Portland Timbers organization also owns the Portland Thorns of the NWSL. Despite the NWSL being unaffiliated with MLS, the organization extended their ban to Thorns matches as well.

The Timbers and Thorns front office does stand with us in supporting our displays in defense of other human rights. Banners and flags celebrating Pride Month are welcome in Providence Park, as are messages decrying racism and welcoming refugees to our city and our nation. We are grateful to have a responsible partner in this.

The ban on the Iron Front stands in jarring contrast.

I understand the arguments of those who say even Pride or anti-racism displays are “political,” but for this purpose I fall back on these simple definitions from Merriam-Webster:

Political: relating to the government or the public affairs of a country. [3]

Human right: a right that is believed to belong justifiably to every person. [4]

It is clear that human rights transcend politics and statements in support are not political. The United Nations has published a list of 30 internationally accepted human rights [5], and UN human rights chief Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein has warned that rising fascism globally and in the United States specifically stands as a threat to human rights [6]. Opposing fascism, then, is a human rights stance and not a political one.

Nationalistic displays, such as the singing of the National Anthem and a military color guard, precede every MLS match in the country. These displays are political and fall under the ban as written. These unquestionably relate to government and, in the case of the military, public affairs as well. A blanket ban on political displays cannot explain how the non-political Iron Front is banned but the political nationalism is not.

I contend that the wrong word was used: MLS wanted to ban controversial speech, which is an inherently arbitrary standard, and tried to disguise it in a way they felt would be more palatable. Only an arbitrary standard explains the capricious and contradictory combination of an Iron Front ban with a league-backed national anthem singer and show of military arms.

Understanding that the policy is arbitrary is important, because then we see that this isn’t a cool, logical application of an unbiased rule but rather a choice. The Timbers organization stands ready to sanction one of two groups. There’s the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters on their left, supporting the team and standing thousands strong for human rights, inclusion, and antifascism. On their right are racists, white nationalists, homophobes, and the rising tide of American fascism, just as the UN warned us about. The Timbers organization can choose where to draw a line indicating which group they’re standing with, leaving the other isolated. They can’t stand with both, we hope it won’t be difficult for them to choose to be on the side of human rights.

We’re not asking them for much. We want them to unequivocally rescind the ban on any antifascist imagery, including the Iron Front; we want them to work with the league to drop the arbitrary and disingenuous word “political” from the fan code of conduct; and we want them to look to international institutions for help in rewriting that code to promote human rights, inclusivity, and anti-discrimination.

The Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters stand strong in defense of human rights and radical inclusivity. We work to build up both our teams and our community. We stand against white supremacists who have brought violence into our city and whose fascist ideology is a threat to freedom. Faced with an arbitrary standard and the ability to stand with one or the other, I implore the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns to see reason and stand together with us.


[1] "Fan Code of Conduct," 01 March 2019. [Online]. Available:

[2] "Iron Front," Wikipedia, 09 07 2019. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 08 2019].

[3] Merriam-Webster, "Definition of political," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 08 2019].

[4] Merriam-Webster, "Definition of human right," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 08 2019].

[5] United Nations, "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 08 2019].

[6] P. Walker, "UN chief issues warning on the rise of fascism," The Independent, 09 12 2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 08 2019].


  • 08/07/2019 11:45 AM | Matthew Shields (Administrator)
    I 100% agree with your main conclusion, but I still want to push back a bit on the terminology that we're using and why I think it's so important. Apologies if you've heard this rant before.

    You are absolutely right that MLS' use of the word 'political' in the Fan Code of Conduct is disingenuous. They wanted to ban controversial signage that would look bad on television. Specifically they wanted to ban anything that looked like league-sanctioned support for Antifa because that word still scares a lot of their advertisers and because some of the owners and folks in the league office are, dare I say, much farther to the right then the majority of their fans.

    So I 100% agree that we should be calling on MLS to drop the use of that word and say what they actually mean if they are going to try to have a rule. (To say nothing of having a rule that bears some relationship to what's being enforced.)

    But, I think we should stop trying to run from the word 'political' in general, and for what I think are two very good reasons:

    1) When one replies to MLS' rule by saying "But human rights aren't political!" you are essentially conceding to the league that it is ok for them to ban political signage, but that you simply disagree on whether this particular example is political. We can't win that argument. It reduces the discussion with MLS to an essentially unresolvable argument about whether thing X is or is not political, rather than forcing the league to confront whether their underlying rule is reasonable. You're never going to be able to convince them, and it's their house so ultimately they win. This lets them pretend that they are simply enforcing an even-handed rule that happens to impact this one symbol, rather than admit that banning that symbol was literally the purpose of creating the rule in the first place. The rule itself targeted speech they didn't like.

    Framing it this way also traps us, because it frames our future advocacy and speech within a context of "we'd better not cross the line into being political." Every tifo PM then has to ask themself "Is this political or just an expression of support for human rights." That question is unanswerable, and that's not a reasonable place to try to draw a line on what we say.

    2) But more importantly, we need to remember that when we express support for human rights, we are not merely supporting an abstract concept. We are specifically opposing policies that are proposed by those in our government - many of which have been implemented.

    When we say "Refugees Welcome", that is said in a very specific context of a government that locks children in cages. That deliberately separates families in a calculated attempt to discourage immigration. That employs enforcement practices that target citizens and non-citizens alike based on race. When we say "Refugees Welcome" we aren't just being neighborly, we are making a statement in specific opposition to specific government policies and I dare say in specific opposition to the officials that enacted them.

    When I wave a pride flag, I am specifically stating my opposition to a set of policies that were implemented by my government that targeted our LGBTQ neighbors. Bans on same-sex marriage. Bans on adoptions. Disparate treatment by the military. Prohibiting people from using public restrooms. These were and are specific public policy decisions made by our elected leaders. Historically - and by historically I'm only looking back a decade or two - Oregon literally went to the polls and voted on many of these issues. If you waved a pride flag in 2004, you were, among other things, saying "Vote No on Measure 36." And when I wave one today I'm specifically saying Fuck You to the 1,028,546 Oregonians who voted yes.

    These issues are political by the definition you quoted, and we shouldn't be afraid of that. Political discussions are good and we need to have them in public if we want to get anywhere.

    A smarter guy than me told me the other day that "Human rights only become political when someone tries to take them away." In a way he's completely right. The thing is, people ARE trying to take them away, and they have been for a long time.

    I think many of us would agree that our current president ran on a platform of trying to take human rights away from a lot of people. That was a political decision made by a politician. We shouldn't be afraid to explicitly oppose that.

    When we say that we shouldn't engage in political advocacy what we are suggesting is that it's somehow ok for us to express support or opposition to abstract concepts so long as we don't get into the nitty-gritty of how those concepts are put into practice in the real world. That it's ok to oppose fascism, but it's not ok to oppose a specific fascist proposing a specific fascist policy. I think that's the wrong approach.

    I don't want to kick the MAGA 45 guy out of the North End. I want the other 5,000 of us to be equally public in our opposition to what the MAGA 45 guy is saying when he walks in the building. I get that MLS doesn't want that, but I can't say I particularly care.

    Public policy matters. Political decisions and political speech matter. We shouldn't be afraid to engage in the most political way possible.
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    • 08/07/2019 2:56 PM | Paul Atkinson
      Matt, I completely agree with everything you've said here.

      The difference between promoting human rights and making a political statement gets fuzzy when the government is suppressing human rights. "Racism, homophobia, misogyny, and fascism are wrong" is an apolitical statement in favor of human rights but adding "...and we support laws protecting those rights" crosses a line. Societal context can easily append that last even when it's omitted, so it's hard to draw a clear and concrete boundary.

      In writing this piece I never intended to suggest that an actual ban on all political -- actually political -- speech in the league was a goal I would support. Neither, I suspect, is it a position the league would genuinely accept or promote.

      Even leaving in place the distinction drawn from the dictionary definitions, there is too much in the league's own repertoire that's overtly political to think they're opposed in principle. They'll never stop playing the National Anthem, and they'll never give up those sweet military dollars to bring in an armed color guard.

      Broadening that to the political aspects of Pride, anti-racism, and other topics that can straddle the boundary we need look no further than Pride month / "Soccer for all" to see displays that they're not about to cease, and which they have to recognize would cause unfathomable pushback were they to attempt a ban. So I don't think that's a realistic possibility though I'd hate to be wrong.

      The message I was focused on was the disingenuous usage of "political" as a way to whitewash selective censorship. If they want a policy of "nothing political that doesn't support our political goals," then they're going to have to come out and say that -- and they'll need to document those goals to do that.

      We should be unified and supported in our political advocacy. I hoped my letter would highlight the areas where the league's political activity exists both in support and in opposition, because they're trying to hide their politics behind an unsupportable definition of the word. And I appreciate your response as an opportunity to clarify a reading I hadn't anticipated. Thank you.
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