The Vancouver Whitecaps are backpedalling after telling a season-ticket holding fan he was banned for three games over an anti-fascist sign he brought to a recent game.
Campbell River, B.C., soccer fan Joshua Griffith, who travels regularly to Vancouver to watch the squad play, said he got a call from the club Thursday morning telling him he’d miss the rest of the season over the sign.
On one side, the sign displayed the “Iron Front” logo — a 1930s-era image used by an anti-Nazi paramilitary group, and which has since been adopted by anti-racist and anti-fascist groups. On the other it said “#AUnitedFront Against Racism Against Fascism.”
He said he brought the sign over concern about rising incidences of overt racism and white supremacy around the world, and to set a good example for his 11-year-old foster son with autism.
So I just received a Call from the @WhitecapsFC and apparantly because @bcplace doesnt check the signs that I have been bringing in every game I have been Banned for the remaining 3 matches @MLS #AUnitedFront pic.twitter.com/YSg366ZW2Z
— Joshua (@JoshuaGriffith0) September 5, 2019
Ironically, Griffith said word that he’d been banned came as he was expecting a call from the team about his season tickets for next year.
“I received a phone call today just before 11 a.m. and it was the Whitecaps number, so I obviously thought it was [them] phoning to finalize the season tickets,” he said Thursday.
“[But they said] ‘I just want to let you know you’ve been banned for the remaining three games.'”
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Griffith said the club told him the ban was because his sign wasn’t approved — something he doesn’t understand, as everything he brought into BC Place had been inspected by security on his way in.
“This was my eighth game of the year on Saturday, and I brought in signs to every single game and never have I needed a sign to be approved,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Whitecaps Chief Operating Officer Rachel Lewis said the ban was an “internal miscommunication,” and that the fan was supposed to receive a warning about the sign.
“From our perspective we have always had to have a really strong commitment to the core values of diversity and inclusion and that includes supporting anti fascism and anti racism,” said Lewis.
“The issue with this particular site was that MLS can code of conduct prohibit signs that promote any political organization candidate or policy and this particular sign had the Iron Front flag on it which is associated with the antifa movement.”
Lewis said the club had been in touch with Griffith, and that the ban has been rescinded. She said Griffith and other fans that wish to bring signs and banners to games must have them approved as stated on the club’s website.
It was not immediately clear whether the ban was initiated at the behest of the club or the MLS.
Earlier this year, the league quietly rolled out a new fan code of conduct which bans any political signs.
The issue around Iron Front iconography has recently become a flashpoint in Portland, Ore.
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Fans there have adopted the anti-fascist messaging following repeated street brawls between white supremacist and far-right groups and local members of the antifa movement.
The Oregonian reported Thursday that several Portland Timbers fans had also been banned for waving Iron Front flags.
Fans there have argued that the symbol represents human rights and an opposition to oppression, while the league says it is overtly political because of its association with antifa.
At a game earlier in August, hundreds of Timbers and Seattle Sounders fans staged a protest against the sign ban, keeping silent for the first 33 minutes of the televised game.
Paul Sabourin-Hertzog, president of the Whitecaps fan organization the Southsiders, said he hadn’t heard of anyone else getting a ban, despite the fact the Iron Front logo was displayed by many people at Saturday’s game, himself included.
“Clothing is somehow permissible whereas signs are not. In addition, many chose to wear their ‘Against Racism / Against Fascism’ black and white scarves, which have been appearing in BC Place for years now,” said Sabourin-Hertzog.
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“The ban of the Iron Front logo on signage is ridiculous. At the game, Joshua’s message was one of resistance to bigotry, one that is perfectly in line with MLS’ own campaigns to promote diversity.”
In recent years the Whitecaps have hosted club-sponsored Pride nights, which include displays of the rainbow flag that is not considered political.
The club says it views Pride as a human rights issue, not a political one.
The MLS Players’ Association has also vocally opposed the league’s “overly vague ban on ‘political speech at MLS games.'”
The MLSPA supports the efforts of its fan/supporters' groups to overturn MLS's overly vague ban on "political" speech at MLS games. (1/2)
— MLSPA (@MLSPA) August 13, 2019
As countless athletes have shown in the past several years, we all have a voice and should be empowered to use it to support inclusiveness and oppose those who attempt to silence opinion. Our supporters' groups are the backbone of our league and have our full support. (2/2)
— MLSPA (@MLSPA) August 13, 2019
As for Griffith, he said he’s still grappling with the club’s “disappointing” and “confusing” ban.
“They couldn’t even reach out to talk to me about it and express where they were coming from and their point of view,” he said. “Considering just two days ago I was trying to buy season tickets for next year, yeah, this will probably hinder me wanting to go to games.
“I don’t support the front office, I support the team. I support the players on the pitch. So I would probably still go because I want to support the team, but it will be hard.”
The incident is not the first time a “political” sign has ruffled feathers at a Whitecaps game.
In September 2015, the team faced criticism after ejecting a group that displayed a banner reading “refugees welcome.”
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