PORTLAND, OREGON — Thirty years ago this month, a trio of white supremacists wearing jackboots and olive-tinted military jackets murdered an Ethiopian refugee named Mulugeta Seraw in Portland. The killing rocked a complacent city, shattering a town that billed itself as a left-leaning utopia.
For years, Seraw’s death was largely overlooked. In the age of Portlandia, as Portland transitioned into the cultural epicenter of Obama-era progressivism, the killing faded. And as Portland became the whitest major city in the country, the city moved past Seraw’s legacy, preferring to focus on the crunchy cultural tics rather than its horrid racial histories.
No more, though. As hate crimes spike, as President Donald Trump whips up his white nationalist base, and as proto-fascist groups like Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys continue to incite violence in Portland, the city has finally decided to memorialize the victim of one of the most horrific hate crimes the Pacific Northwest has ever seen.
Thread: 30 years ago today, Mulugeta Seraw was attacked and murdered by racist skinheads in southeast Portland. He was an Ethiopian immigrant and a student at Portland Community College. He had a son in Ethiopia. He had a life that we know almost nothing about. pic.twitter.com/7aGxlDSjKI
— Portland Assembly (@pdxassembly) November 13, 2018
Seraw initially moved to Portland from Ethiopia in 1980, arriving on a student visa. While living and working with his uncle, he enrolled in classes at Portland Community College. Seraw was, by all accounts, a supportive and caring person who was grateful for the opportunity to continue his education in the U.S.
Seraw also arrived in a Portland that was a world apart from what the city, over the past decade, has since become. Urban blight devoured swaths of Portland’s East Side; streets now lined with curio stands and coffee shops, playing host to vice presidents looking for their gourmet ice cream fix, were disheveled, run-down.
One group that thrived in that past Portland, though, was the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who wanted to return to the state’s racist roots, to help Portland become the Ku Klux Klan hotbed it once was. Before Portlandia, there was “Skinhead City.” Before hipsters, there was hatred and racism blanketing the city in a way that’s been largely forgotten, largely ignored.
We will always remember Mulugeta Seraw, and others who were victims of hate violence. 30 years after his murder, have we made Oregon a safe place for all?
Get your ticket here: https://t.co/AyTiWLYTNJ #RememberLearnChange #RememberMulugeta pic.twitter.com/uXFuya3uMc
— Urban League of PDX (@ULPDX) November 11, 2018
Portland’s white supremacist gangs, in a scene reprised up and down the West Coast, mingled with the city’s burgeoning metal scene. One of the most popular local metal-heads was named Ken Mieske, a man who called himself “Ken Death” on the stage.
Only 23 years old in 1988, Mieske was a bundle of charisma; he could put on a different face for multiple audiences and light up in front of a camera. He even caught the eye of Portland’s best-known director, Gus Van Sant. Then a novice, before blossoming as the director of Good Will Hunting, Van Sant followed Mieske for a three-minute short. Ken Death Gets Out of Jail trailed Mieske’s release from prison after serving time on a burglary charge. “He’s a great actor,” Van Sant later said.
After Van Sant wrapped the project, though, Mieske fell further into the white supremacist rabbit-hole metastasizing throughout Portland. He linked up with a pair of skinheads slouching through the city. One, Steve Strasser, was a “street kid,” according to the Willamette Week, and “one of the earliest recruits to the Portland skinhead movement.” Another, Kyle Brewster, had just been named the homecoming king at Portland’s Grant High School.
Their backgrounds varied, but they united in a belief tying them together, and to Mieske: that Portland, as it had decades before, belonged to whites. And on a cold night in November 1988, they took their first, fatal step to making that dream a reality.
The night of Seraw’s death began with, of all things, a parking dispute. Seraw and his friends were reportedly returning home, to their apartment in Southeast Portland. Around the same time, according to later testimony, Mieske, Strasser, and Brewster, already drunk, were heading out for the night with their girlfriends.
Full house for @UrbanLeaguePDX conference commemorating 30-year anniversary of Mulugeta Seraw's murder by white supremacists on the streets of Portland. @rblazak gives attendees a brief history of Oregon's roots as a white supremacist Utopia. pic.twitter.com/T8komNHefB
— sarah iannarone (@sarahforpdx) November 13, 2018
As Randy Blazak, a sociology professor at Portland State University, later told the Portland Mercury, the three men had recently begun scuffling with non-white visitors in nearby Laurelhurst Park. The trio, who had joined a skinhead group called “East Side White Pride,” had “been out in Laurelhurst Park provoking fights with Latinos earlier that fall,” Blazak said.
That night, though, they saw a chance for something else. It was the middle of the night, and it was dark. The ideal time, Blazak told the Mercury, to “put their new strategy into action.”
In its 1988 write-up of Seraw’s murder, The Oregonian interviewed Tilahule Antneh, who was in the car with Seraw and Wondwosen Tesfaye. With their Oldsmobile “parked in the middle of the narrow side street,” The Oregonian reported, the white supremacists pulled up directly next to them. According to Antneh, the trio of skinheads never said a single thing. “The women inside the car were shouting. They were saying, ‘Let’s kill him. Kick him,'” Antneh said. “[The men] never said anything. They just jumped us.”
The skinheads didn’t initially grab Seraw. But Seraw tried to intervene, grappling with Brewster. Mieske came from behind, lifting his baseball bat, bringing it down over Seraw’s head, and then doing it again as Seraw fell to the ground. Brewster and Strasser slammed their steel-toed boots into the limp Seraw.
The fight, Antneh later said, couldn’t have lasted any more than two minutes. That was all it took, though, for the skinheads to claim their first fatality.
Seraw was only 28 years old.
Mulugeta Seraw, a man destined to change society has an everlasting legacy. After 30 years, his murder is still significant in the reformation of our community. How can we incorporate these lessons of unity in our lives and society? Today we incorporate! #RemeberMulugeta pic.twitter.com/dB8ORA9T0S
— Urban League of PDX (@ULPDX) November 13, 2018
For years, the primary legacy of Seraw’s murder hasn’t been the memory of the man himself, but the precedent the ensuing trial set for white supremacist murders to come.
Civil rights groups, among them the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), set their sights not just on the three skinheads involved in beating Seraw to death but also the man they believed pushed the three men to murder Seraw: Tom Metzger.
Thank you @tedwheeler for joining @ULPDX and more than 200 community members today to celebrate the life of #MulugetaSeraw#StandUpAgainstHate@Portland_State @NULpolicy @SEUplift pic.twitter.com/tmLd37kFKx
— Nkenge (@TrueNkenge) November 14, 2018
An unrepentant racist, Metzger steered a group called the White Aryan Resistance (WAR). He was, as one of the SPLC lawyers involved would later say, the “Pied Piper of the skinheads,” one who saw white supremacists like Brewster and Mieske and Strasser as “foot soldiers of the race war.”
Metzger, living in Southern California, was nowhere near Seraw’s murder. But thanks to a letter uncovered in one of the murderers’ apartments, written by Metzger’s son to the “East Side White Pride” — as well as the fact that the trio of skinheads had been handing out flyers for Metzger’s Aryan Youth Movement — prosecutors managed to thread a direct line from the killing to Metzger and his organization.
And a jury supported the argument. In a significant ruling, the court awarded Seraw’s family some $12.5 million. When Metzger couldn’t pay, the SPLC took Metzger’s house. Like that, the “Pied Piper” of America’s skinheads was homeless. And Metzger’s white supremacist group, as KATU wrote, was “effectively bankrupt[ed].”
For their role in the killing, Mieske received a life sentence, while Brewster and Strasser got 10 years and 6 years, respectively. Mieske died in prison in 2011, while Brewster bounced in and out of prison in the years since. Strasser’s whereabouts, meanwhile, are unknown, according to the Willamette Week.
A new sign
That ruling, alongside a tightened hate crimes bill, effectively closed the book on Seraw’s legacy in the decades that followed. Portland, meanwhile, transitioned into the land of craft brews and indie rock, whitening along the way. (As a billboard that went up this month in the middle of Portland reads, “Yes, there are black people in Portland.”)
put this billboard right in the middle of my city and i couldn’t be more proud. this is for all my friends incarcerated and affected by gentrification. pic.twitter.com/pRw1oPChz4
— Aminé (@heyamine) November 16, 2018
In the middle of 2017 — as Trump reignited demons buried and ignored; as America’s post-racial dreams disintegrated amidst a resurgent white nationalism — a man named Jeremy Christian began hurling racist slurs at a pair of young Muslim women on Portland’s lightrail. When two men, Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, tried to intervene, Christian, who described himself as a “patriot,” stabbed them both to death.
Once more, the city’s image of itself imploded. Portland’s early history as a bastion for those hoping to escape diversity elsewhere roared back, confronting a new generation and a country suddenly teetering on a precipice of racist violence. And suddenly, for the first time in decades, Seraw’s name returned to the news with regularity.
This time, though, the city and civil society activists wanted to make sure Seraw’s name wouldn’t fade. As a massive mural went up to honor the victim of Christian’s attack, the city worked with anti-racist activists and Seraw’s family to organize a number of gatherings and events that would cement Seraw’s legacy, at least in Portland.
Following efforts from the mayor’s office and the Urban League of Portland, a series of events this month are seeking to establish Seraw’s legacy for decades to come. The Urban League of Portland helped organize a conference to commemorate Seraw, offering lessons on “anti-hate violence tools and resources.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a congressional resolution discussing Seraw’s legacy, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) entered a statement into the congressional record, describing Seraw as someone who “did not lose his life in vain.”
Perhaps most importantly, the city decided to memorialize Seraw with a series of signs where he lived, and where he died. With one side in English and one side in Amharic, the signs featuring a photo of a smiling Seraw. (Someone also placed an antifa sticker just beneath one of the new sign-toppers, reading, “When you punch a Nazi, the whole world punches with you.”)
“I saw a lot of diverse people [at the unveiling], people celebrating him, but also trying to look at what’s going on right now, at this hatred that’s still existing,” Yonas Kassie, the head of Portland’s Ethiopian and Eritrean Cultural and Resource Center, told ThinkProgress.
In addition, the city declared that, henceforth, every November 13 would be known in Portland as “Mulugeta Seraw Day.” Seraw’s death was a “horrific hate crime,” Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said, ending the life of a “kind, hard-working man” who was “in pursuit of the American dream.”
It was only right that Portland honored the man, and that the city, despite its monochrome makeup, continues to affirm that “immigrants” and “refugee[s]” and “people of color are a part of the services and programming, decision-making, and place-making in the City of Portland.”
Thirty years on, and thanks to efforts that came to fruition this month, Seraw’s name and legacy will live on in perpetuity in Portland. A city shaken by his murder and now at the epicenter of proto-fascist, racially motivated violence revived by the president and his followers has pledged to remember a man whose life ended at the hands of the men who once made Portland “Skinhead City.”
Seraw may no longer be here, but those in the city who still want to make Portland the safe haven Seraw thought it could be are one step closer to making sure his name will never fade.
“There are a lot of other people like Mulugeta, who stood for good causes, and Mulugeta represents all of those people,” Kassie told ThinkProgress. “That’s how I see it. He represents those people. There are a lot of people we don’t know, who fought for the right cause and died. And he’s a symbol for all of them.”