Quakes Ask Ultras to Cover Up The Word "Slaves" In Independence-Day Tifo
While the biggest storyline coming out of the California Clásico is undoubtably the 3-1 victory for the hosts, an unusual quote on a banner — with one word conspicuously crossed out — raised eyebrows before the game had even kicked off.
Since the match served as the team's official Independence Day celebration, the San Jose Ultras fan group designed and created a series of enormous banners (commonly called tifo in the soccer world) in that theme. The pieces formed a triptych of revolutionary-era symbols with fields of red, white, and blue, topped with a banner that featured the quote: ”And ne'er shall the sons of Columbia be slaves/While the earth bears a plant, and the sea rolls its waves.” The word "slaves" was crossed out with red paint.
According to Ultras leader Dan Margarit, they were asked to remove the word by a liaison from the Earthquakes, who said that while the original meaning of the quote may be benign, the context was so obscure that the Earthquakes feared some who read it may be offended by that particular word.
Margarit reported that the sometimes-rocky relationship between the front office of the Quakes and its Ultras had improved in recent months, but that this incident undid some of that progress because of how much hard work it negated: "Since January, a small number of us have been spending every single weekend when the Quakes didn't have a game at our warehouse building tifo," said Magarit. "We worked our asses off to make those things and to raise money to pay for all we need...We are a small group with very limited resources, and in order to compensate and get those things done we make some titanic efforts."
Of particular frustration for the group is a perceived imbalance between how much the Earthquakes front office utilizes the presence and work of the Ultras in its marketing materials and how little support they are given for their activities.
According to Margarit, “you can imagine how frustrating it is to get this type of response from those who should appreciate it, because in the end, we don't do these tifos for ourselves. We do it to better the atmosphere at the Quakes games and to show support."
In a statement on their Facebook page, the San Jose Ultras explained their motivation behind the message:
"We wanted this tifo to recall the roots of the holiday. We do not consider the Fourth of July to be an excuse to get drunk, bbq, and light off fireworks. It is a day to celebrate our hard fought independence from tyranny. The imagery and quote were carefully selected to evoke the spirit of 1776 and to honor the men and women of our armed forces who continue to defend our country with strength and honor in the tradition of the early minutemen."
The poem in question is entitled "Adams and Liberty" and was written by Robert Treat Paine, a well-known Massachusetts Patriot, in 1798. Paine was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the first Continental Congress. The poem was set to the same tune that would later be used in The Star Spangled Banner and was a popular patriotic song in its day. The rest of its verses explicitly celebrate liberty, self-governance, and the founding of the United States.
While context may have been irrelevant to the decision to cover up "slaves," I sought background on the quote from Dr. Jack N. Rakove, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several books on Revolutionary-era history and W.R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University.
Dr. Rakove confirmed that the meaning of the word "slaves" at the time, in this context, was a reference to those living under tyranny and not chattel slavery, the kind Africans were forced to experience in the American South. According to Dr. Rakove, "It's not a reference to chattel slavery. There's a very common use of the word 'slave' to refer to a man governed by laws without his consent."
However, Rakove admitted the poem itself and the context were obscure, and that the historical issue of the relationship between the two types of "slavery" is messy. Regardless, he felt that the particular quote did not have the sort of unambiguously offensive messaging of the Confederate flag or the n-word, even absent context.
One issue that the Earthquakes organization did not address was the use of the phrase "sons of Columbia" to refer to Americans. While the phrase derives from Christopher Columbus, and therefore may appear to exclude indigenous peoples or those of non-European ancestry, Rakove said that it was a common phrase at the time and referred to all American Patriots living under the new nation, and therefore did not necessarily refer to a particular ancestry. Margarit, himself an immigrant to this country, similarly felt that the phrase referred to those who shared American values, not a common literal ancestor.
While the feelings of African-Americans appeared to be paramount in the Earthquakes’ concerns, Margarit also reported that African-American Ultras participated in the making of the tifo and were offended by the decision to censor it.
The San Jose Earthquakes declined to comment on this story.