How New York City Soccer Fans Are Fighting Fascism In The Stands

With the start of the new season, fans want to know what the team will do about the far-right extremists in their midst.
Members of Empire State Ultras, an ad hoc supporters group of the New York City Football Club, have slapped up stickers that said “white power,” and their social media posts have included fascist and white nationalist imagery.
Members of Empire State Ultras, an ad hoc supporters group of the New York City Football Club, have slapped up stickers that said “white power,” and their social media posts have included fascist and white nationalist imagery.
HuffPost Illustration/Getty Images

When the New York City Football Club takes the pitch at Yankee Stadium, sections 235 through 238 are reserved for the team’s most loyal fans. There, amid a sea of light-blue NYCFC apparel, the banners, the drummers, the tifos, the organized chants and songs, and the face-painted fanatics, you’ll find another, less welcome fixture: far-right extremists, skinheads and outright white nationalists.

One face, in particular, has always stood out from this madding crowd: Irvin “Irv” Antillon, a 42-year-old tattoo artist from Queens and member of Batallón 49, a majority-Latino skinhead gang, who maintains affiliations with a slew of white nationalist and other far-right, nativist groups. Antillon was in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the Unite the Right rally, HuffPost previously reported, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he was a member of a now-disbanded militant wing of the Proud Boys, the chauvinist and violence-prone men’s club founded by Gavin McInnes.

From the beginning, leftist and activist NYCFC fans have contacted members of the pro soccer team’s front office, offering evidence of Antillon and others’ white nationalist ties, asking management to purge the fan base of its small but noisy white nationalist contingent and crack down on supporters groups harboring and enabling them — but to no avail, even though the team admitted back in 2015 that it was aware of the problem, according to emails obtained by HuffPost.

HuffPost spoke with nearly a dozen NYCFC fans, almost all of whom did so on the condition of anonymity, fearing the possibility of violent reprisals. To a person, they blame both NYCFC leadership and the New York City Supporters Club (NYC SC), one of two official supporters groups, for letting the situation fester for so long.

“NYCFC itself as an organization has elevated the status and provided special favors to a supporters club that has actively and blatantly coddled these extremists,” one fan said.

Four sections at Yankee Stadium are reserved for New York City Football Club supporters groups. Some of the team's most loyal fans say the far-right has infected their ranks.
Four sections at Yankee Stadium are reserved for New York City Football Club supporters groups. Some of the team's most loyal fans say the far-right has infected their ranks.
Michael Stewart via Getty Images

All of this might have remained relatively unknown — a dirty little secret familiar only to MLS fans — if not for a street brawl that took on national importance. On the night of Oct. 12, the Proud Boys attacked protesters outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City. In the celebratory aftermath, Antillon, along with Dennis Davila and Joseph “Joe Bola” Dellapina, both of whom have been spotted in the supporters section, posed with the Proud Boys for a group photo. Ten days later, Antillon turned himself in, charged with four counts of assault and riot in the second degree.

The photo spread quickly online among NYCFC’s activist left coterie, reinvigorating efforts to expose and eradicate the fan section’s far-right element. They begged the team to do something, anything. NYCFC banned Antillon within days of his arrest, but his presence is still felt, and fellow extremists have promised that no small imposition of authority can keep them out. By hook or by crook, they’ll continue to find a way to make Yankee Stadium their home.

The 2019 MLS regular season is set to begin on March 2. For NYCFC fans who just want to enjoy a soccer game without fearing for their safety or commingling with fascists, the question remains: What, if anything, will NYCFC do?

Members of the Proud Boys pose for a group photo on the night of their attack outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City.
Members of the Proud Boys pose for a group photo on the night of their attack outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City.
Shay Horse for HuffPost

Fascists In Their Midst

NYCFC is still in its infancy. New York’s first Major League Soccer team, the MetroStars (later renamed the Red Bulls) arrived in 1996. But during the ensuing two decades, the team failed to fully capture the imagination and attention of the New York-New Jersey market. In the spring of 2013, after MLS had spent years hunting around for wealthy backers, New York was awarded a second expansion franchise, and the New York City Football Club was born. (The Yankees bought a minority stake and agreed to host games at their stadium.)

An enthusiastic group of would-be fans immediately took up the charge of cultivating a following for the new team. They hosted viewing parties and ran membership drives. Within a year, the group — which would later become the team’s first official supporters group — said it had attracted over a thousand dues-paying members. Over 20,000 people held season tickets by the end of NYCFC’s first season, in 2015 (though attendance has dwindled in each succeeding year).

It didn’t take long for the burgeoning fan base to attract an unwanted element. During the second home game, three or four far-right extremists were spotted in the supporters section, behaving exactly how you’d expect them to, spouting “racial epithets, neo-Nazi propaganda and general hate speech,” according to Dave Martinez, who formerly covered NYCFC at the blog Empire of Soccer. A source told Martinez that other fans avoided confronting the men, who were wearing jackets with “distinctive gang-affiliated patches,” at all costs, for fear that “someone might knife us.”

A few months later, during the inaugural Hudson River Derby, a series of matches between NYCFC and the Red Bulls, the same people who were chanting racist slurs were involved in a brawl outside a Newark bar where Red Bulls fans were known to congregate, Martinez reported. Combatants heaved bottles and garbage, and one even picked up a sandwich board and used it as a weapon.

Anyone regularly attending matches in those early years would have recognized the agitators as members of Empire State Ultras (ESU), an ad hoc supporters group that drew heavily from Batallón 49 and parts of the Polish skinhead scene. Antillon was a prominent member.

(For soccer teams across the globe, “ultras” function at near-religious levels of devotion, often built out from their political beliefs. Some ultras embrace violence, but they’re in the minority.)

ESU maintained alliances and intermingled with other NYCFC supporters groups, like New York City Hooligans and Los Templados 12. The groups are loosely affiliated, the delineations between them porous. Membership bleeds from one group into another and crew names fade, change and reappear. It’s a murky web of allegiances, traceable only through social media photos and hashtags, banners and patches, news reports and rumblings from the stands — all of which betray their political beliefs.

ESU members slapped up stickers that said “white power,” and their social media posts included fascist and white nationalist imagery, such as a banner featuring a Totenkopf, a symbol of the Nazi SS during World War II. Antillon’s body art includes a Totenkopf and a Spanish-language version of the white supremacist phrase “Blood and Honor.”

Antillon did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

ESU members would often post photos with their faces covered by scarves and skull-festooned masks — not unlike European hooligans — or otherwise distorted to conceal their identities, giving off an unmistakable sheen of danger, blurring the line between fandom and fear-mongering.

Other MLS teams have dealt with the occasional far-right attendee and homophobic chant. A persistent strain of racism and misogyny also marred the American Outlaws, the largest supporters group for the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.

Older, far more established traditions of soccer hooliganism, especially in England, served as a magnet for far-right elements pulled in by the promise of violence, explained Noah Davis, a reporter who has covered U.S. soccer since 2006. While hooliganism in the U.K. has declined since its peak in the 1980s, in the U.S., where soccer is still relatively new, it remains alluring for some — “especially if you have some section of the culture that wants the violence, that likes that part of it,” Davis said.

But with a concerted effort, it is possible to expunge an unwanted, far-right element altogether. Take the case of the Red Bulls: In the ’90s, when the team still went by the name MetroStars, anti-fascist fans made it perfectly clear to neo-Nazis that they weren’t welcome, physically removing them from the stadium if need be.

If there are those who are turned on by the violence, “what you can do is you have standards,” said Davis. “Standards of conduct that people need to follow to be in the [supporters] group, and if they don’t follow those, you need to take action and police them.”

Fears In The Cheering Section

When extremists first showed up in the supporters section at NYCFC’s early games, a group of activist and decidedly left-wing fans tried to follow in the MetroStars fans’ footsteps and began organizing. As they dug up dirt on their troublesome brethren, they fed that information to the NYCFC front office, a source who participated in those initial activist efforts told HuffPost.

In July 2015, a fan emailed Mike Quarino, NYCFC vice president of ticket sales and fan services, asking if fan services knew anything about ESU. “There are a lot of very, very troubling anecdotes floating around about their behavior both at Yankee Stadium and at a few of the away dates,” the email read.

In a reply reviewed by HuffPost, Quarino thanked the fan for providing this information, writing, “It has recently come to our attention and it’s something we’re looking into.”

But come the team’s second season, the extremists were back at Yankee Stadium. In fall 2016, the fan once again reached out to Quarino, reporting that ESU had “gradually re-emerged at home games,” and that one of them (he did not specify who) had suggested that if he dared to keep mentioning ESU online, there would be consequences. While he was not directly threatened with violence, that was very much the implication, he said.

“These men are fascists, and their currency is violence or the threat of violence,” the email read. As long as ESU continued to attend matches, “my friends and I are not safe.”

Again, Quarino offered his gratitude and said, “I will pass around internally and see if I can find anything out on our end.” There was no further response.

“These men are fascists, and their currency is violence or the threat of violence. My friends and I are not safe.”

- Email from a concerned fan to the NYCFC front office

In a statement provided to HuffPost, NYCFC CEO Brad Sims said, “We vigilantly enforce our Fan Code of Conduct at all NYCFC events and any incident observed or reported will be immediately and thoroughly investigated and appropriate action will be taken.”

At first blush, the activist efforts seemed to have paid off. By all accounts, Antillon and others were making far fewer appearances at Yankee Stadium in 2017.

Still, ESU’s members didn’t disappear. Far from it. Somewhere along the line (it’s unclear when) the Empire State Ultras moniker was dropped. Their less openly toxic allies, New York City Hooligans and Los Templados 12, were incorporated into NYC SC, which was designated as the team’s second official supporters group in May 2017. That status earned NYC SC certain perks, including space in the supporters sections, permission to bring in flags and banners, and access to team management to coordinate travel to away matches.

NYCFC contends that none of the people cited as having white nationalist or far-right extremist ties are members of officially recognized supporters groups or received preferential treatment from team management.

But if you ask fans, the distinction is meaningless. As one put it, “NYC SC has welcomed violent, far-right extremists into their ranks.”

ESU continued to appear as a hashtag in its associates’ social media photos, and in March 2018, a new Instagram account was started for a group calling itself “River Ave Casuals” under the handle “rac_crew_718.” (River Avenue is the main street outside Yankee Stadium, and RAC is an acronym known in white nationalist music circles to stand for “Rock Against Communism,” a phrase associated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist punk bands in England during the 1970s and ’80s.)

By all accounts, River Avenue Casuals and ESU are one and the same. A source told HuffPost he believes Antillon partially runs the rac_crew_718 Instagram account, which employs ESU’s unofficial style guide, depicting members with blurred-out faces or masks and suggestions of violence. The second post on the account mentions ESU directly and includes neo-Nazi imagery.

(As this story was being reported, River Avenue Casuals put up an Instagram post targeting a vocal left-wing activist NYCFC fan and calling for him to be banned from games. In the comments, an alleged member of Batallón 49 who has been spotted at NYCFC matches suggested doxing him; NYC Hooligans chimed in suggesting that someone already has.)

One fan said the return of a rebranded version of ESU was to be expected. “It’s been a cyclical phenomenon, and every time it comes back, it’ll get worse,” he said. Eventually, “they’re going to smuggle in brass knuckles and kill somebody.”

Many fans felt powerless and resigned. “We’re all sick of it,” one NYCFC fan told HuffPost. “At the same time, people are too afraid to stand up or say something.”

Another NYCFC fan said women he’s told about the situation have likened the fascist groups’ behaviors to those of serial harassers — threatening, but not directly, and hard to prove, leaving their intended target little recourse. “They don’t do anything,” he said, describing how the far-right acts in the supporters section. “They just come and stand next to you. They just look at you.”

“What can you do?” he continued. “You can’t go to the club and say, ‘This guy is looking at me.’”

Then, last fall, an unlikely event spurred fans and activists back into action, and all the social media chatter and frustration built up over the last three years came bursting out into the open.

The Floodgates Open

On Oct. 12, after McInnes made an appearance before the assembled GOP swells at the Metropolitan Republican Club — which included a crude re-enactment of the 1960 assassination of a Japanese socialist leader by a far-right extremist — the Proud Boys milled about in the streets of Manhattan. Spying a few left-wing protesters, they went on the attack, doling out vicious beatings, whooping and celebrating their triumph over the left. The Southern Poverty Law Center quickly identified three NYCFC-connected individuals at the scene: Dellapina, Davila, and Antillon.

In the days that followed, New York City Antifa and left-wing activist soccer fans released troves of information online, exposing personal information about Antillon, Davila and others, and tracing the interlocking alliances between them, the River Avenue Casuals, New York City Hooligans, and the larger white nationalist and nativist movement in the U.S.

Seizing on the revelations, a group of NYCFC fans called True Blues published a statement demanding that NYCFC permanently ban anyone associated with the far-right and calling for NYC SC to have its official status revoked.

“NYCFC needs to release a plan to prevent this ever happening again. The current standard of ‘everyone’s fine as long as they behave inside matches’ is not sufficient and has allowed violent bigots in our matches,” the statement read.

For its part, team management maintains that it can’t deny spectators entry based on allegations regarding their political beliefs, and it expects officially recognized supporters groups to act in alignment with “our core values.”

A week after the doxing, Shaun King, a social justice activist and journalist who doesn’t normally comment on soccer, chimed in. His tweet gave the story a massive signal boost:

Now that the floodgates were opened, fans reached out to team officials urging them to take action. They sent emails to several members of the front office, including Doug Bennett, then NYCFC’s fan and membership services executive; Jon Patricof, the former team president and a current board member; Matt Pellegrino, the senior director of operations and security; and Quarino from fan services.

One specifically cited King’s tweet and said, “Fans are looking for a strong response from the team condemning these individuals.”

Bennett’s reply: “Yes, we are aware and taking this very seriously.”

Another fan, a season ticket holder since 2015, detailed how uncomfortable it was having Antillon on a bus with NYC SC for a road game, describing him as “intimidating” and saying he “did not feel safe.” Another complained about the ongoing presence of Antillon and other far-right affiliated individuals, including links to reports of the arrests outside the Manhattan Republican Club.

Both of these emails received the same anodyne response from NYCFC fan services, which promised that “NYCFC has a zero tolerance policy for hate related offences of any kind at our matches or events” and encouraged fans “to report conduct that does not fall in line with our Club’s core value of inclusivity.”

Other emails containing links to reported stories about Antillon and the Proud Boys, plus the information published on Twitter and Medium by NYC Antifa, received no reply.

“NYCFC itself as an organization has elevated the status and provided special favors to a supporters club that has actively and blatantly coddled these extremists.”

- NYCFC fan

One fan wrote: “Fan Services owes every single City member an explanation as to how this situation was able to materialize in the first place, as well as what’s being done to stop it, before expecting them to hand over another dollar.”

Evidently, it worked. Fans did not get an explanation, but the team quietly banned Antillon on Oct. 25, sources said.

“New York City Football Club has a zero tolerance policy for hate speech or hate related conduct of any kind at our games, events and facilities and we reject in the strongest possible terms any suggestion to the contrary,” Sims told HuffPost in his written statement. “We have and will continue to, without hesitation and to the full extent of the law, eject and ban any individual who has engaged in any conduct that impacts or undermines our core principle of zero tolerance.”

An NYCFC spokesman would not comment on specific bans, but confirmed that the team has banned more than 30 people between 2015 and last year, and that some were the result of investigations launched in response to fan complaints.

If the hammer has been brought down on Antillon, his cohorts haven’t been similarly disciplined. Davila — a member of the 211 Bootboys, a skinhead gang with ties to the Proud Boys — a has continued to appear in the supporters section, sources said. (Davila did not respond to a request for comment sent via Instagram.) A photo taken during a home game on Oct. 28 allegedly shows Davila in the stands alongside a prominent Charlottesville organizer, Gabriel Brown.

Ban or not, Antillon was seen hanging around Yankee Stadium after that game and partying at a bar that regularly hosts watch parties, much to the dismay of many in attendance, save for a few from Los Templados. Despite the outcry, far-right extremists have made it clear they will continue to worm their way into games in 2019.

“There’s a very shameless effort to announce that Irv [Antillon] is still in the fold,” one fan said.

Means Of Support

Antillon and his cohorts’ persistent presence in the NYCFC scene would not be possible, fans say, without a concerted effort by NYC SC to downplay or deny their far-right politics — ample evidence notwithstanding — and actively usher them into events.

“These violent dudes, they need people like that to protect them,” a source told HuffPost. “And they’ve been surprisingly successful in achieving that.”

In a closed NYCFC Facebook group, time and time again, people attempted to make it clear that having fascists in the supporters section was beyond the pale. In screenshots obtained by HuffPost, some NYC SC members and like-minded individuals glibly dismissed these complaints. Some howled that keeping the far-right out of Yankee Stadium would violate their right to “free speech,” or amounted to “censorship.” Others offered the (wrongheaded) argument that a Latinx person can’t also hold white nationalist beliefs, or resorted to irony-drenched trolling, a tactic straight from the online right’s playbook. When the subject came up on Twitter, whoever was manning NYC SC’s account laughed and resorted to bad-faith arguments.

Multiple fans said NYC SC’s former vice president Jonathan Sanchez has played a large role in normalizing the presence of NYCFC’s far-right contingent. (One escalated that concern to team management in 2017.)

“We’re all sick of it. At the same time, people are too afraid to stand up or say something.”

- NYCFC fan

Reached via Instagram direct message, Sanchez confirmed that he had endorsed ESU in a 2015 Facebook thread, adding that at the time, he “really didn’t have much knowledge or insight on any of their political beliefs.”

Asked whether NYC SC ever discussed dealing with extremists in the supporters section, Sanchez punted, putting the onus on team brass. “The team hasn’t said anyone from any political beliefs aren’t allowed at the games,” he said. He believes that by not issuing a statement, NYCFC demonstrates that it “clearly doesn’t seem to care.”

Then there’s Mariana Glocer, daughter of Thomas H. Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters and current lead director of Morgan Stanley’s board. On Facebook, she described criticism of Antillon and other far-right NYCFC fans as a “witch hunt,” while denying they espoused fascism.

When Antillon was arrested in October, Glocer posted his bail, Instagramming a photo of the bail receipt. (She attempted to black out Antillon’s name, and the arrest number is partially obscured, but charge details that match the document are publicly available.) Glocer did not respond to Instagram and Facebook messages requesting comment.

A bail receipt for Irvin Antillon posted by Mariana Glocer.
A bail receipt for Irvin Antillon posted by Mariana Glocer.

Trey Fillmore, the 27-year-old co-host of an NYCFC fan podcast called “Blue Balls,” began sounding the alarm about far-right fans last fall, both on his own podcast and other shows.

What enrages Fillmore is the ongoing promotion and validation of NYC SC by the team. “Every time I see [the official NYCFC account] retweet that supporters club, it just sends a chill down my spine,” he said.

Fillmore and all the fans who spoke with HuffPost feel that if NYCFC had taken a far firmer stand earlier, the team could have put a stop to this.

According to Davis, the New York front office’s lack of transparency reflects a broader tendency throughout MLS to eschew anything that smacks of politics, even — it seems — something as universally agreed-upon as condemning neo-Nazis. Commissioner Don Garber spent 16 years working for the National Football League, which is famously politics-averse (save for those instances when it doles out millions to the Department of Defense for over-the-top displays of patriotism), and Davis believes that Garber has imported a similar ethos to his new gig.

MLS and Garber did not respond to a request for comment prior to the publication of this story.

Yet it’s all spelled out in the MLS Fan Code of Conduct, a version of which appears on each MLS team website: “Political or inciting messages” are forbidden, deemed as intrusive to the in-game fan experience as “foul, sexist, racial, obscene or abusive language or gestures” — as are intimidation of visiting fans and “any behavior that impairs the safety and/or enjoyment of the event from other guests.”

In fact, fans unfurling anti-fascist and anti-racist signs have felt the weight of this enforcement, including the brief confiscation at Yankee Stadium of a banner that read “No Hate.”

“We’re not going to fucking change the world. But at least we can clean up our little corner.”

- NYCFC fan

Given the recent outpouring online and the increasing number of people aware of what’s going on in the supporters section, one fan involved in activist efforts sees a glimmer of hope. “I really feel like the tide has been turning and we are reaching the kind of ‘enough is enough’ phase of this,” he said.

“We’re not going to fucking change the world,” he continued. “But at least we can clean up our little corner.”

The failure to do so would be devastating in the long term for NYCFC, according to Davis. He too has spoken with quite a few of NYCFC’s most loyal fans — the ones who show up for every match and buy gobs of team-branded merchandise — and they are not happy with the current state of affairs.

“If you let it go too long, and don’t deal with it, those people stop coming,” he said. “And if those people stop coming, all you have left is neo-Nazis.”

At least NYCFC’s wannabe thugs are unlikely to reach the level of true European-style hooliganism, one fan believes: “They suck at it.”

“That’s our one saving grace,” the fan said. “They’re all fucking idiots.”

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