Foreshadowing the spike in hate crimes that accompany Ballot Measure 9, in 1988 Mulugeta Seraw is beaten to death by racist skinheads.
There are moments that define each generation.
Your writer Holly Pruett grew up with the orienting questions: Where were you when you heard the President had been shot? …when MLK was assassinated?
I was too young to register those deaths directly, myself – 11 months old with JFK’s death, five years old with Dr. King’s.
The moment I remember is where I was when I got the call that Mulugeta Seraw had been murdered.
November 12, 1988. I was living communally in an activist household in southeast Portland. We each paid $80 a month in rent. I’d spent the early part of the year homestaying around Europe and living off $7 a day in the boho guesthouses of Southeast Asia. An expected rite of passage for white middle-class liberal arts students, for me delayed by a few years of complete immersion into rape hotline and domestic violence work. The women’s anti-violence movement introduced me to the worlds of anti-racism, class politics, social justice advocacy, and mutual aid. It recognized me as a sexual abuse survivor. And it introduced me to lesbian feminists. I looked up to these women. I wanted to be just like them.
When I got off the plane from my international travels, I came out as a lesbian and joined my first-ever electoral campaign as a full-time volunteer. It was the final months of the No on 8 campaign to defend Governor Neil Goldschmidt’s ban against anti-gay discrimination in executive department employment. This was the first of the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s (OCA) many ballot measures. Polling showed the OCA didn’t have a chance.
On November 8, a majority of Oregonians voted for Michael Dukakis for President over George H.W. Bush, the first time a Democrat had carried the state since 1964. And 53 percent of Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 8. The rallying cry of “No Special Rights for Gays!” and the notion of a nefarious “militant homosexual agenda” had prevailed. The gay and lesbian community was devastated. Mainstream civic and political leaders were shocked.
Five nights later, I was in bed in my basement room, frightened by the double blows of the OCA win and a Bush presidency. The phone rang. It was Alma, my compañera from the battered women’s shelter. Something terrible had happened.
Mulugeta Seraw was born in 1960 in Debre Tabor, an historic town of many springs in northern Ethiopia that was heavily contested during that country’s 16 year civil war. The elder Seraw sold off the family’s livestock to send his son to America for an education.
Arriving in Oregon, Mulugeta enrolled in business classes at Portland Community College while working two jobs to send money home to his girlfriend and their six-year-old son, Henock. They never got the chance to join him in Portland, as he’d planned.
In a foreshadowing of the white nationalist groups and far-right militias traveling into Portland to provoke street fights in recent years, Tom Metzger, the founder of White Aryan Resistance (WAR), had sent his lieutenant Dave Mazzella to Portland to organize racist skinheads. Their charge: to “clash and bash” those they called “mud people.”
That fateful night, three members of East Side White Pride had been drinking heavily and distributing Aryan Youth Movement recruitment fliers downtown. Mulugeta was getting dropped off outside his apartment, a building next to one occupied by a racist skinhead. Ken Mieske (aka “Ken Death”), Kyle Brewster, and Steve Strasser surrounded Mulugeta and his friend’s car, smashing in the windows. After the driver sped off for help, they crushed Mulugeta’s skull with a baseball bat. He died the next day.
Two months later Tom Metzger was recorded saying, “the Skinheads did a civic duty.”
Looking back on that night 10 years later, The Oregonian wrote:
“The killing sent three of Portland’s sons to prison. It launched a war among Skinheads. It prompted a series of hate crimes and a groundbreaking law to monitor them. It galvanized the horrified citizens of Portland against racism. And it led to a landmark trial that pitted a famous civil rights lawyer against the West’s most notorious neo-Nazi.”
Reading the Signs
My housemates and I – everyone I knew, it seemed – turned out in protest and mourning to countless vigils. We marched by the thousands in 1990 the day before Mulugeta’s wrongful death trial. “Protecting the marchers were 150 state and local police,” The Oregonian reported, “the most ever assembled for a Portland event.”
But the attention from law enforcement and civil society came far too late.
In the late 1980s, Portland was known as a haven for racist skinheads. They roamed the core of Portland unhindered…. Back then… Portland was a skinhead stomping ground.~ It Did Happen Here, an 11-episode podcast revisiting the work of the Coalition for Human Dignity and “the unlikely collaboration between groups of immigrants, civil rights activists, militant youth and queer organizers who came together to successfully confront neo-Nazi violence and right wing organizing.”
Racist skinheads had been active in Portland since the mid-1980s. Oregon, like Washington and Idaho, was seen as the promised land for its predominantly white demographics – the result of decades of racist exclusion both de jure and de facto. Targeting the region as a home base for the anticipated race war was known by white nationalists as “The Northwest Imperative.”
In 1984 a revolutionary racist gang called The Order got into a gunfight with federal agents in Portland after assassinating a Denver talk show host for being Jewish. In 1986, two dozen racist skinheads marched downtown with axes, lengths of pipe, and baseball bats. That was two years before Mulugeta’s murder. Eight months before he was killed, an Asian man was nearly beaten to death by racist skinheads after leaving a restaurant with his family.
As The Oregonian noted later, “The Seraw murder stunned Portland, but it shouldn’t have.”
After an informant from inside East Side White Pride identified Mulugeta’s killers, the three pleaded guilty. But Morris Dees, from his office at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), had been listening to Tom Metzger. In 1989, SPLC brought a wrongful death suit on behalf of the Seraw family to hold the Metzgers and WAR accountable for Mulugeta’s death, using the novel theory of vicarious liability.
The jury found Metzger and WAR responsible for inciting the murder. As Mulugeta’s then 10-year-old son listened to the verdict, the Seraws were awarded the largest judgement in a U.S. racism case to date: $12.5 million.
Metzger told reporters, “Stopping Tom Metzger is not going to change what’s going to happen in this country…. We’re too deep. We’re embedded now.”
When white nationalists marched through Charlottesville 29 years later, they wore polo shirts and khakis instead of shaved heads, bomber jackets, and steel-toed work boots. Integrity First for America followed in SPLC’s footsteps by winning a civil judgement against the far-right organizers for conspiring to incite the hate violence that resulted in Heather Heyer’s death and severe injury to others.
The chain of causality is less obvious between what happened on November 8, when voters gave the Oregon Citizens Alliance their first statewide victory, and the deadly attack on Mulugeta Seraw on November 12.
Did the OCA’s false and inflammatory rhetoric about a militant homosexual agenda demanding “special rights” for gays – “the same minority status as blacks and Hispanics, complete with hiring quotas” – contribute to the permission those racist skinheads felt to take the life of another human?
Were the voters who endorsed legal discrimination against gays motivated by the same fears and prejudices that fueled the growth of groups like White Aryan Resistance?
Racist and homophobic hate speech and hate violence, widespread indifference punctuated by shock in the face of predictable outcomes, and courageous organizing among unlikely allies – this is the scene that serves as Act I for the Ballot Measure 9 campaign to come.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.