In 1980, Mulugeta Seraw came to the United States to pursue his education and to escape a nation gripped by a bloody, multifactional civil war. He hoped to return to Ethiopia eventually. He didn’t expect to encounter violence in his adopted country.
Both of those expectations were destroyed in the early hours of Nov. 13, 1988. Seraw and two friends, Tilahula Autueh and Wondswon Tesfaye, who were also Ethiopian, were accosted outside Seraw’s Southeast Portland apartment by a group of skinheads. One of them, Ken Mieske, took a bat to Seraw and crushed his head; he died of his injuries later that night.
“The irony is, he was fleeing violence, and violence got him killed,” said Engedow Berhanu, Seraw’s uncle, who sponsored his relocation to the United States. “I can’t explain the situation to my family. How could that happen in America, a so-called civilized and peaceful place?”
Seraw’s story made headlines all over the country. Local and national media were just then beginning to cover the racist skinhead movement that had started in England in the 1970s, crossed the Atlantic and bubbled up in punk scenes across the U.S. in cities, including Portland.
At the same time, a larger White supremacist movement was spreading across the country, and it was particularly pernicious in the Northwest. A gang enforcement officer tracking skinhead gangs for the Portland Police Bureau told The Oregonian in February 1989 that such gangs were probably more aggressive in the Northwest, because there were fewer racial minorities in the region to begin with.
Yet for the amount of attention it received at the time — and has received in recent, national media stories like last year’s CBS documentary on race relations in Portland, Seraw’s story seems to have been buried.
“It almost feels intentional, to wipe out the record,” said Ewnetu Tsegaw, a policy specialist for the Urban League of Portland.
For several months Tsegaw has been working to organize a conference – which will take place next week on the 30th anniversary of Seraw’s death – to commemorate Seraw and to talk about ways to fight hate in an era when far-right racists are less likely to talk about “White traitors” in the federal government than to express enthusiasm about Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency.
And for the first time his life and death will be commemorated with a physical marker at the intersection where he died. On Nov. 14 the Urban League of Portland will unveil street sign caps, written in English and Amharic, and a physical marker at Southeast 31st and Pine – the intersection nearest the apartment Seraw last lived in, and the intersection where he was attacked.
Part of a national movement
“Coming from Ethiopia, you never would think about somebody being racist. I personally never thought about such harm coming to us,” said Abbinet Haile, who came to Portland from Ethiopia in 1983 to attend school and because her family was affected by the civil war. As part of a small community of Ethiopians in Portland, she knew Seraw personally, and described him as an “incredibly gentle soul, a really quiet person.”
After Seraw’s death, she said, Ethiopians in Portland were afraid to go out at night and made sure to travel in groups.
“It was a horrible time. It was very scary,” she said.
Although the killing sent waves of fear through many of Portland communities, skinhead gangs were already a visible part of the city’s landscape. Nkenge Harmon Johnson, President and CEO of the Urban League of Portland, said as a child in Portland in 1980s, she knew to avoid Pioneer Courthouse Square, where skinheads frequently congregated, especially after dusk.
Local and national media first started reporting on neo-Nazi skinheads in the mid-1980s. Just days before Seraw died, Tom and John Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance appeared on an infamous episode of “The Geraldo Show” remembered both for record-breaking ratings and for the fact that in the brawl that followed, talk-show host Geraldo Rivera suffered a broken nose.
The Skanner’s initial reporting on the murder is notable in that The Skanner may have been the first publication not just to link Seraw’s death to a burgeoning neo-Nazi movement, but to name White Aryan Resistance leaders Tom and John Metzger specifically.
“Roy (not his real name), also active in the Portland underground scene, says John Metzger and his father, Tom Metzger, head of the California-based White Aryan Resistance, are well known among Portland skinheads,” reporter Patrick Mazza wrote in a Nov. 16, 1988 story about the murder. “Aryan Youth Movement organizers and recruiting among Portland youth has been suspected for some time, and a high officer of the group recently relocated from San Diego, the movement’s headquarters, to Portland.”
In a story that ran a few weeks later, Mazza noted that Metzger’s cable-access talk show, “Race and Reason,” was broadcast on cable-access shows in Vancouver and Portland.
In 1989, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League sued the Metzgers on behalf of Seraw’s family. A jury awarded them $12.5 million, the largest civil judgment in Oregon history – and, as it turns out, an amount far larger than attorneys could collect.
“It turned out he didn’t have any money. I don’t know how much that [lawsuit] actually decreased the movement,” said Berhanu, who helped file the suit. He said he’s come around to the perspective Portland journalist Elinor Langer put forward in “A Hundred Little Hitlers,” a landmark book about the Seraw murder and suit against Metzger, that the suit may not have been effective in dismantling the neo-Nazi movement. Still, he said he doesn’t regret having done it.
SPLC lawyer Jim McElroy sold Metzger’s home for $121,500, noting California property values were far lower in the early 1990s. There was some poetic justice in the result: the home sold to a Latino family.
When Seraw died, he had a young son in Ethiopia – Henock – and the lawsuit altered the course of Henock’s life. Money from the home sale, plus payments McElroy collected from Metzger for 10 years, went to support Henock. With the consent of Seraw’s mother, who had been struggling to raise Henock in Ethiopia, McElroy adopted him. He attended high school and college in the United States. He now lives abroad and works as a commercial pilot.
The aftermath and the road ahead
McElroy and Berhanu will both be in Portland next week for the Urban League’s event. Other speakers include Randy Blazak, a former sociology professor who studies hate groups and co-founded the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime in 1997.
The conference takes place at the University Place Conference Center, 310 SW Lincoln St. It will begin at 9 a.m. and run until 1:30 p.m. The cost of registration is $20 for students and $75 for other participants; scholarships are available.
Harmon Johnson said she expects the event to include members of the African community, the Black American community, faith organizations, attorneys and students, as well as new Portlanders wanting to learn more abou ttheir history. It includes brainstorming sessions where Harmon Johnson said she hopes participants will find real solutions.
“This conference is about reminding people, introducing some people to Mulugeta Seraw, to our history of racially motivated violence — and also our history of coming together as a community of Black folks to stand against that type of violence, to feel safe to plant our feet firmly in this town that belongs to us, too,” Harmon Johnson said. “And [it’s] to highlight a time when Black folks, and other folks weren’t Black, were standing up together and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to take it, we’re not going to stand for it, this is not the kind of violence or crime that we’re going to tolerate in our town.’ We used to do that together. It was a real thing.”
This story was published by The Skanner in November 2018.