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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
The Portland Timbers confirmed on Thursday morning that a number of Timbers supporters who flew the Iron Front flag during the club's win over Real Salt Lake have been banned from Providence Park for three games.

Those supporters, the first in Portland disciplined for defying Major League Soccer's deeply controversial Fan Code of Conduct, will miss the club's matches against Sporting Kansas City, DC United, and the New York Red Bulls.

The bans are a clear escalation of a fight that dates all the way back to March, when MLS released a new Fan Code of Conduct banning "political" signage in stadiums. The antifascist Iron Front symbol, rooted in opposition to the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s, was specifically targeted for removal.

In response, the 107ist, the organization behind the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters, wrote Thursday that it "stands in protest" of the league's decision.

"We disagree with the League’s stance," it wrote, "with its misapplication of the Fan Code of Conduct, and with its failure to consult with human rights experts in the Code’s creation."

As a result, the Timbers Army will not release smoke or fly any flags after Timbers' goals when they face Kansas City on Saturday. They will focus on "education" at the match, and plan to "use banners with words instead of symbols to remind the world of our unwavering opposition to fascism and to discrimination."

In comparison with the 33-minute silent protest orchestrated by the Timbers Army and Seattle's Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC ahead of August's match between the Timbers and Sounders, the action planned for Saturday is decidedly low-key.

But the Army has made progress with the Timbers' front office since the Seattle game, and wrote Thursday that it has a meeting scheduled for next week with the representatives from the club and several Oregon-based social justice organizations to discuss their concerns.

The Army is favoring a diplomacy-first approach, and they may well be rewarded for their level-headedness.

But these bans, and the Timbers' decision to enforce them — the club wrote in a statement on Thursday that "we and all clubs in MLS need to enforce league rules"— are another clear sign that the league believes it can and will ride out the storm it has created with its Fan Code of Conduct.

It's also, unsurprisingly, another completely arbitrary and obtuse application of said code.

Setting aside for a moment that being banned from a professional sports stadium for flying a flag in support of human rights is in many ways a badge of honor, the Timbers' statement implies that — given the league's policy — they are compelled to enforce the suspensions.

Whether that is true, in any real sense, is difficult to say. Enforcement of the league's Fan Code of Conduct has been almost laughably uneven this season; an "End Gun Violence" banner got fans ejected from a game in Atlanta last month, while fans who flew Iron Front flags at the Timbers' match against Seattle were not sanctioned at all.

The Timbers Army was handed a general warning in the aftermath of the Seattle game, and, given that warning, it is not necessarily surprising that the league felt it had to act after supporters again unfurled Iron Front flags as the clock struck 33 minutes in the Timbers' game against Real Salt Lake last weekend.

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Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers
But there is no formal warning system for fans in place. The day after the Timbers Army members were banned, a Vancouver Whitecaps fan was handed a three-match suspension for displaying a hand-drawn Iron Front sign at BC Place. The fan, a 31-year-old from Nanaimo, told The Province that "no one from the team has ever warned me about my signs."

It goes on: fans who were ejected from the Atlanta United game were forced to take an online education course and pay a several-hundred dollar fine in order to return to good standing with the club; the Timbers confirmed that supporters banned from Providence Park will not be required to do any of that.

If it's hard to make heads or tails of the process by which MLS and its clubs are deciding on punishments for supporters found violating their extraordinarily vague fan conduct policy, that's because there is no uniform policy. They're making it up as they go.

All the league knows for sure is that it doesn't like the Iron Front, and feels that its stadiums should be politically neutral zones — even though, for non-white, non-male, non-cisgender, and LGBTQIA+ people, politically neutral zones do not exist.

Not every soccer organization around the world is this deluded. Last week, German club Borussia Dortmund was awarded UEFA's Equal Game award for its "outstanding work to challenge far-right attitudes and actions, conveying the clear message that racism, intolerance and discrimination have no place in football."

At Dortmund, in order for supporters groups to be officially recognized, they must sign a list of pledges rejecting fascism and racism. Said one of the members of the club's primary supporters group to the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, "We're there to show people they're not alone."

That, of course, is what the Iron Front does: it communicates loudly and clearly that vulnerable people are not alone in the spaces where it flies. Its aim is to make fascists uncomfortable, and all those people who fascists traditionally target a little bit more comfortable.

The Timbers may be far, far more enlightened on this issue than MLS is. But to effectively support their fans, they need to take this fight to the league office in New York.

MLS isn't backing away from this policy, at least not at any point in the foreseeable future. Asked by ESPN yesterday if the league would consider ending the Iron Front ban, deputy commissioner Mark Abbot responded "no."

If the Timbers want to stand with their most ardent supporters, the lifeblood of their club, it is time for them to either get this policy changed or state openly that they disagree with it. There are options available to the front office besides waiting for the league to meet with the Independent Supporters' Council and crossing their fingers.

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In the meantime, it's the Timbers who will suffer. General admission tickets for the Sporting Kansas City game are available on the secondary market for just $20 — well below face value, and well below the typical resale value for a Saturday night match against a Western Conference playoff rival.

The atmosphere on Saturday night won't be the same. Neither will concession sales, as fans boycott in-stadium purchases, and neither, down the line, should this situation not be resolved, will the club's vaunted season ticket renewal rate.

Make no mistake: the relationship between the Timbers, the Timbers Army, and the city of Portland has been something very special over the last number of years. But that relationship is at serious risk — and banning supporters putting themselves on the line to express their opposition to fascism isn't the way to fix anything.