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MLS, fans in 'productive' talks over political signs

The Timbers Army went silent for the first 33 minutes of Friday's match against the archrival Seattle Sounders.

LAS VEGAS -- MLS executives met with several supporter groups on Thursday to discuss the league's ban on displaying political signage at matches, and in particular the Iron Front flag.

The meeting concluded with MLS agreeing to evaluate the treatment of the Iron Front Flag for the rest of the 2019 season, "while conducting a broader evaluation of the Fan Code of Conduct."

A conference call involving MLS, the Independent Supporters Council (ISC), an umbrella organization representing supporter groups from around the league, as well as leaders from three different supporter groups -- the Timbers Army, Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC -- is scheduled for next Tuesday. That call will likely determine what will be done about the Iron Front flag for 2019.

As for matches this weekend, the fan representatives asked MLS if they could "press pause" on enforcement, but MLS confirmed that for now, the policy banning the Iron Front flag remains in place.

"During today's meeting, the League proposed a collaborative process for reviewing its Fan Code of Conduct in a way that is inclusive of a cross-section of industry experts and national advocacy groups along with the leaders of its supporter groups," MLS said in a prepared statement.

"The goal is to have that process completed prior to the start of the 2020 season."

The meeting, which lasted over three-and-a-half hours, included nine leaders of various supporter groups. The Timbers Army, the main supporter group of the Portland Timbers was represented by Sheba Rawson, president of the 107ist, the organizational arm of the Timbers Army, as well as Fernando Machicado and Scott van Swearingen. The Emerald City Supporters, a Seattle Sounders supporter group, was represented by co-presidents Tom Biro and Shawn Wheeler while Cameron Collins was there on behalf of Gorilla FC. The ISC was represented by president Bailey Brown and vice-president Drew Picard. Speaking on behalf of MLS was deputy commissioner Mark Abbott and the league's general counsel Anastasia Danias.

Rawson said the meeting was productive, but was also disappointed that there was no resolution on the Iron Front flag.

"The first hour and a half was very productive, with a lot of good discussion about the path the code of conduct took in coming to fruition," Rawson said via text message.

"We are disappointed the league elected to come to this meeting unprepared to make a decision on the Iron Front ban given that it's been a central part of this issue. We are, however, encouraged by the dialogue and progress made, and we look forward to continued discussions with the league next week."

Abbott declined to comment beyond MLS's statement.

The dispute arose at the beginning of the season, when MLS implemented a revised Fan Code of Conduct that included a ban on political signage. While the Code of Conduct doesn't mention the Iron Front flag specifically, fans from around the league were told prior to the season that it is prohibited.

The Iron Front symbol dates back to an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization from the 1930s, and has been flown by the Timbers Army at Providence Park since at least 2017. But the symbol is used by antifa, and because MLS deems antifa to be a political organization, the display of the Iron Front symbol on flags or banners is prohibited in the league's venues. The supporters groups, however, contend that the flag is a symbol of inclusion.

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The issue over waving the Iron Front flag has come to a head in recent weeks, however. The Timbers Army, the Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC staged a silent protest for the first 33 minutes of the match between the Timbers and the Sounders back on Aug. 23. At that point in the game, the supporters from both teams began cheering and displaying flags with the Iron Front symbol.

In a statement released prior to the match, the three groups called for MLS to rescind its ban on flying the Iron Front flag, as well as remove the word "political" from its Fan Code of Conduct, calling the use of the word "inherently arbitrary." The groups also asked MLS to work with international experts on human rights to craft language in the fan code of conduct that "reflects and supports radical inclusion and anti-discrimination."

More recently, three Timbers Army members were banned for three matches for displaying an Iron Front in a match involving the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake on Aug. 31. Last weekend the ECS staged a walkout during the game between the Sounders and the New York Red Bulls when one of its capos -- a member who leads the crowd in chants -- was ejected for waving an Iron Front flag. In Minnesota, one fan was ejected for waving the flag according to a Minnesota United statement, though one of the supporter groups, the Red Loons, countered in a statement to ESPN that security ejected "about a dozen" of its supporters, and around the same number left with them in protest.

Tuesday's meeting represents another chance for the two sides to come to an agreement.

"The league heard our position and understood it," said Biro. "I do feel like there was a genuine attempt to move the needle on some things, but we came in with some specific asks that track back to what we put out in a statement.

"It seemed like they were willing to consider them, which is great. But the fact they were unwilling to move on this one topic, which was the crux of why we were here in the first place, it just was surprising. We're supposed to meet next week. I'm hopeful we can come to some sort of decision."

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