Above: Iron Front flag on display in Providence Park. Photo by Kris Lattimore.
By Scott Mainwaring, Vexilloid Tabloid #79
For much of the 2019 Major League Soccer season, league officials were engaged in a stand-off with some of MLS’s most passionate fan groups over the league’s decision to ban display of what it deemed “political” flags, a ban targeting the anti-fascist “Iron Front” flag (and, more widely, emblem). Having announced the ban on March 1st MLS lifted the ban on September 24th in time for the post-season, following months of vociferous #AUnitedFront protests in stadiums across the league and particularly at Portland’s Providence Park by members of the Timbers Army fan club.
The Iron Front was an antifascist and anticommunist paramilitary arm of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) during the 1930s Weimar Republic. Its Three Arrows symbol was created in 1932 by Sergei Chakhotin, a Russian Marxist and Pavlonian living in Germany, who said he was inspired by crossed-out swatstikas he encountered while walking in Heidelberg. Chakhotin stated his three arrows represented “unity, activity, and discipline” as well as the SDP, the trade unions, and the Reichsbanner (another SPD-affiliated anti-extremist political group named after the black, red, and gold tricolor of the Weimar Republic).
Following World War Two, the Three Arrow symbol became associated with a number of leftist movements, with the meanings of the arrows changing as it travelled to other countries and other contexts. For example, in the 1940s the Social Democratic Party of Austria said they represented the unity of industrial workers, farm workers, and intellectuals, while in the 2000s the Socialist Party USA said they represented direct action, education, and elections as means for enacting change.
How did the Three Arrows end up on regular display in Providence Park? In response to the ban, the 107IST, a non-profit supporting Portland’s men’s and women’s soccer fan clubs, explained:
From the beginning, a core value of the Timbers Army, the Rose City Riveters, and the 107IST has been that we are unquestionably and vocally an anti-fascist and anti-racist organization. We have never — and will never — tolerate discrimination or bias for any reason. We believe in acceptance, understanding, inclusion, and love. […]
As a vocal stance against fascism, we began displaying banners with the Iron Front logo in 2017 (although some also made appearances as far back as 2011 and the USL days before that). The Iron Front logo has stood as a symbol of the fight against persecution and fascism since World War II. Originally designed to symbolize the resistance against Nazi rise, it now stands primarily for the fight against all oppression. With the recent rise in targeted attacks against so many groups — LBTGQ+, immigrants, women, religious groups, and more — and the presence of fascists in our stadiums, this symbol represents our firm stance of combating hatred in soccer, our communities, and our world.from https://timbersarmy.org/Blog/7367159
The fan groups insist that the Three Arrows symbol refers not to partisan politics, but to human rights. In this respect, it is akin to the Rainbow Flag (a flag not deemed by the MLS to be part of their “political” ban).
The MLS saw the symbol differently – as the logo of a political movement, antifa. Portland is home to the oldest antifa group in the US, Rose City Antifa, founded 2007. Starting in 2017 Portland antifascists gained significant media attention in their efforts, confrontational and sometimes violent, to counter outside fascist protesters who repeatedly descended on Portland looking to fight and intimidate the local population. Although Rose City Antifa does not use the Three Arrows in its official logo (which uses the black flag of anarchism alongside the red flag of socialism, another common antifa symbol), this Iron Front symbolism is a frequent feature of antifa protests in Portland and elsewhere. (Even if Rose City Antifa were to officially represent itself with the Iron Front symbol, this would have no bearing on the antifa movement in general, which is a loose and heterogeneous collective of activists without an official structure or governance.)
Though the MLS has for the time being backed down in the face of months of organized and embarrassing protests by some of its biggest fans, the question of what exactly the Iron Front flag symbolizes remains, and what symbols should and should not be allowed in sporting (and other public) venues. As vexillologists well know, these questions are social, contextual, and often contentious, as flags and emblems travel through history and geography.