"It's almost inconceivable in America that something like that could take place—especially in your town, because I don't believe Portland is that kind of town," said Alabama-based civil rights attorney Morris Dees, addressing the jury in the federal trial of white supremacist Tom Metzger in 1990.
Metzger, the head of the California-based White Aryan Resistance (WAR) group, was ultimately found guilty for recruiting and training Portland skinheads Kenneth Mieske and Kyle Brewster—through an agent, Dave Mazzella—to murder Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw. The murder occurred late one Saturday night, two years earlier, on November 12, 1988 on the corner of SE 31st and Pine, when Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat.
Metzger lost his home and had to pay $12.5 million in damages as a result of the verdict, which he is still paying off today, in between running the white power website Resist.com and hosting his internet radio show Insurgent Radio.
"The prosecution put a real dent in Metzger's operation," says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which pursued the case through Dees, its lead attorney at the time. "Metzger never had the influence and reach he once did after our case."
PUNKS TURN THUGS
Mieske was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the attack, and Brewster got 10 years. Their accomplice, Steven Strasser, a street kid at the time, got six years. All three were members of the skinhead group East Side White Pride.
"It was satisfying that we were able to work with the victims and the victims' families to get this case prosecuted," says Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink, who prosecuted Mieske, Brewster, and Strasser in the criminal case. "The crime was a very serious one, and I think our prosecution sent a message, and an important one, considering some of the issues that the case presented."
Frink says the role of the SPLC was "absolutely critical" in bringing the case to criminal trial. "They got people to cooperate who maybe wouldn't have cooperated otherwise, and they got people to understand what could be done, and what couldn't," he says.
Seraw, who had arrived in Portland from Addis Ababa in 1981, was attending Portland Community College and working as a bus driver for Avis at the airport before he died.
Mazzella, an organizer for Metzger's WAR group, came to Portland in early October 1988. On the night in question, Mazzella had led Mieske, Brewster, Strasser, and other skinheads in distributing white power newspapers aimed at youth in downtown Portland.
Mieske was the lead singer of punk band Machine. His nickname was Ken Death, and he was featured in Gus Van Sant's 1987 short film Ken Death Gets Out Of Jail. But his punk sensibilities seemed to take on a far more sinister edge over the following year, especially under Mazzella's—and, by extension, Metzger's—influence.
"The skinhead movement came over to the United States from England, on the back of the exportation of the British punk rock movement in the 1980s," says Randy Blazak, professor in sociology at Portland State University, specializing in youth and hate crimes.
"But in the late 1980s, the adult white supremacist groups started to see these drunken street toughs as a way to revitalize their movement," he continues, "and started targeting them for training and to refine their message."
Included in that ideology, which Mazzella had been stirring up amongst the kids in Portland for a month before the murder, was the rationalization for violence—and that's exactly what happened with the Seraw case, Blazak feels.
"They had been trained, and had even been out in Laurelhurst Park provoking fights with Latinos earlier that fall," Blazak says. "And when the opportunity arose in this case, especially with the help of alcohol, it was the perfect moment for them to put their new strategy into action."
The three skinheads encountered Seraw and two of his friends as their two cars drove in opposite directions on SE 31st at around 1:30 am. A verbal altercation over the right of way quickly became racially confrontational and within minutes, Mieske had pulled a baseball bat from his trunk and beaten Seraw in the head at least twice with it, according to news reports from the time. Seraw died in hospital eight hours later.
FREE SPEECH VERSUS HATE SPEECH
The criminal trial of Mieske and Brewster was important, but it was the SPLC's civil pursuit of Metzger— who was 1500 miles away from Portland in Fallbrook, California, at the time of the beating—that provoked international interest in the case. Elinor Langer's book A Hundred Little Hitlers focuses on the civil trial of Metzger, portraying it controversially as the triumph of Portland-style liberal fascism over Metzger's right to free speech.
"Personally I think if Metzger had hired a lawyer instead of representing himself, there would have been a different outcome," Blazak concedes, when asked about the theory presented in Langer's book.
Others, like Cohen from the SPLC, see it differently.
"I think it was incredibly important," he says. "The foot soldiers in hate groups always get swept up by police, but the problem will continue as long as the leaders escape scot-free."
Cohen says the SPLC was trying to place blame for the incident on the brains behind the operation, which was Metzger—who at the time, he thinks, probably had the most vibrant white supremacist organization in the United States.
"We like to think of hate-mongers as stupid, but Metzger was a smart guy, and he very quickly recognized the potential of skinheads to be the shock troops of the movement, so his strategy was to galvanize them and set them loose," Cohen says.
Nationally, there is no doubt that the SPLC's case against Metzger highlighted the skinhead problem from right here in Portland.
"Both from a moral and a practical point of view it was a hugely important case," says Cohen.
PORTLAND'S ONGOING HATE PROBLEM
Meanwhile, back in Portland, the white power movement continues to operate. Portland now has a bias crimes detective, a coalition against hate crimes, a human rights commission, and an incoming gay mayor, not to mention a healthy neighborhood network system that can respond to any bias crime, no matter how small.
"But the bad news is the skinheads haven't gone anywhere," says Blazak. "They're still a presence in Portland and they've been linked to violence in the area."
As part of his work at PSU, Blazak is in touch with both local racist and anti-racist skinheads. The Mercury tried to secure an interview with one racist skinhead through Blazak to talk about the killing, but the skinhead declined, although he did ask Blazak to relay some of his opinions.
On January 1st, 1993, racist skinhead Erik Banks was shot dead by anti-racist skinhead John Bair of group Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, who was sentenced to five years in prison for first degree manslaughter and ordered to pay $4,606 in restitution to Banks' family for funeral expenses. Bair's comparatively light treatment compared to Menske's is an ongoing source of resentment amongst the racist skinhead community, says Blazak. "One of the things that the racist skinheads wonder is how come if you kill a black man you go to jail for life, and if you kill a racist, you only get five years?" says Blazak.
The skinhead also wanted Blazak to convey the message that the skinhead movement in Portland has evolved and just wants to have its First Amendment rights and be left alone.
"And that sounds wonderful," he says. "Until something violent happens."