Our home-grown Hitlers

The Oregonian/August 31, 2003
By Jeff Baker

The corner of Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street is quiet on a cool August morning. Every few minutes a car heads east on Pine toward Laurelhurst Park, or turns left onto 31st and moves rapidly up the narrow street.

Elinor Langer has been up and down this block dozens of times during the last 15 years. She came after midnight, to see what the light was like between 1 and 2 a.m. She came with police reports, and later with police detectives who gave her their version of the terrible events of Nov. 13, 1988. She used friends to prove to herself that three young men couldn't see what color another man's skin was, if that man was standing at the crest of 31st.

Langer steps quietly into the courtyard of the Parklane Apartments and points to an upstairs unit.

"That was Mulugeta's apartment," she says.

Mulugeta Seraw died on Southeast 31st, a little way down the street from his apartment. An Ethiopian immigrant who drove a rental-car shuttle bus at the airport, Seraw was described as a "pure spirit" by one friend. He was beaten to death with a baseball bat wielded by Kenneth Mieske, a racist skinhead nicknamed "Ken Death." Mieske hit Seraw on the back of the head from behind with the bat and hit him again and again after he fell to the pavement. Mieske's friend Kyle Brewster was fighting with Seraw when Mieske arrived with his bat, and his friend Steve Strasser kicked Seraw's prone body.

The murder of Mulugeta Seraw was one of the most shocking crimes in Portland history. In response, hundreds of people turned out for rallies against racism. After Mieske pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and Strasser and Brewster to manslaughter and assault charges in 1989, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil suit against a California neo-Nazi named Tom Metsger and his organization, the White Aryan Resistance, charging that he sent agents to Portland to incite racial violence. In a widely publicized Portland trial -- in which Metsger acted as his own attorney against a team of lawyers led by the law center's founder, Morris Dees -- the law center won a $12.5 million judgment against Metsger and his son John, the racist group White Aryan Resistance, Mieske and Brewster.

Langer spent 18 months investigating the growing neo-Nazi subculture for The Nation, which eventually led to a new book, "A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America" (Metropolitan Books, $26, 398 pages). The book -- which takes its title from a project by the racist White Student Union/Aryan Youth Movement to provide racist "start-up kits" for high-school students interested in starting their own chapter -- is an important, controversial and well-written account of a watershed event in recent Portland history.

Langer thinks the full story of Seraw's death has never been told and that Metsger's trial was wrongly decided. More importantly, she thinks its outcome allowed people in Portland to blame Seraw's murder on outsiders -- them, not us -- and avoid taking a hard look at the city's history of racism and how it might have contributed to a homegrown neo-Nazi culture.

"The Metsger trial told a completely different story of the murder and the origins of the local movement," Langer says. "It's the story of an outside agitator corrupting our local Oregonians, not the story of a grassroots political movement."

What initially drew Langer to Seraw's murder was not its brutality or the racist beliefs of his killers but the connections that kept turning up. She and her husband once lived near where Seraw died, and they lived only a few blocks from Strasser. Mieske, the lead singer for a metal group called Machine and the subject of a short film by a then-unknown Gus Van Sant called "Ken Death Gets Out of Jail," was at the fringes of Portland's artistic community. Brewster was a former homecoming king at Grant High School whose mother was a prominent civic activist.

Langer had friends who knew (or knew of) Mieske and friends who knew Brewster's mother. There weren't many degrees of separation, then or now.

"You wouldn't think you'd have that many connections with people who had committed a neo-Nazi crime," she says. Another skinhead gang Mieske, Brewster and Strasser were members of a neo-Nazi gang called East Side White Pride that formed in 1987, when racism and violence already had become a part of Portland's youth culture and underground music scene. There were skinhead gangs before East Side White Pride -- Portland United Skinheads (PUSH) and Preservation of the White American Race (POWAR) -- but East Side White Pride was notable for its leaderless structure and its love of violence. Its members came to their racist beliefs independently and banded together for the same reasons most gangs do: They were kindred spirits who gained power and a sense of community from each other.

East Side White Pride attracted attention, locally and nationally, by starting fights and harassing minorities. By the fall of 1987, when Mieske was released from prison after serving time on a burglary charge, Portland was becoming known as a hotbed of skinhead violence.

Brewster appeared on KATU's "Town Hall" with members of POWAR on March 20, 1988, and articles about skinheads began appearing in the local and national press. Metsger and his son John took notice, and when a California skinhead named Dave Mazzella moved to Portland in October 1988, John Metsger wrote a letter of introduction to East Side White Pride.

Mazzella attended an East Side White Power meeting the day before Seraw was killed, and it was at his urging that the gang passed out racist literature in downtown Portland. The local skinheads were welcoming but wary of Mazzella, who was pushing them toward political outreach at a time when they were still interested in drinking beer and starting fights. Mazzella had left Southeast 31st and Pine before the murder and never saw Seraw, but it was he who called the Metsgers in California to tell them about the murder and he who attempted to organize the skinheads after the killing.

Langer says Seraw's death was the result of a street fight with racial overtones, not a preplanned racial attack. Seraw was sitting in a car in front of his apartment talking with two Ethiopian friends when a car containing Mieske, Brewster, Strasser and their girlfriends approached them. The street is so narrow on the 200 block of Southeast 31st that -- when cars are parked on both sides -- two cars cannot pass each other in the middle. The skinheads could not get past Seraw and his friends and asked them -- "politely the first time," Langer writes -- to move.

Politeness soon disappeared and the occupants of the two cars began to shout and curse at each other. Seraw got out and gestured at everyone to calm down, but when the two cars backed up and got in position to pass, the shouting and taunting, now unquestionably racial in tone, continued. The cars stopped. Brewster and Strasser jumped out and began fighting with Seraw's two friends. Seraw turned from his apartment and ran toward the action. Mieske grabbed a bat from the car and smashed the taillights and windows of the Ethiopians' car, then ran to where Brewster was fighting with Seraw and swung the bat.

"I think it's inaccurate to say that these skinheads were looking for a black man to kill or attack," Langer said. "Obviously there were racist elements, but it was an unplanned confrontation that escalated into something terrible. What I tried to show in the book was how one thing built on the other until what you finally got was the Metsger trial, which was far away from the actual event."

The Metsger connection Metsger was more than 1,000 miles away from where Seraw was murdered and had never met any of the skinheads involved in the killing. Police detectives Mike Hefley and Tom Nelson, under enormous political and community pressure, arrested the three skinheads within one week of the murder. Strasser and his girlfriend, Heidi Martinson, told police the skinheads had seen Seraw standing outside the car and recognized him as being black, which provided a racial motivation for the crime. Mieske and Brewster never cooperated with the police, and their girlfriends denied that the attack on Seraw was preplanned.

When Mieske pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 1989, "he also affirmed what he had always denied, " Langer writes, "that . . . (he) killed Mulugeta Seraw because of his race." The day after Strasser's guilty plea, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League filed a lawsuit charging Mieske, Brewster, Tom and John Metsger and the White Aryan Resistance with civil liability in Seraw's death.

Tom Metsger didn't take the case seriously at first and didn't have the money or the connections to find a lawyer. (The American Civil Liberties Union turned him down.) He loved the idea of a political trial with himself as the center of attention but failed to do crucial pretrial investigation and preparation and failed to understand the kind of case Dees and the law center was building against him.

Dees made no secret of his goal: to put Metsger and the White Aryan Resistance out of business. To do so, he needed to prove Mazzella and two other California skinheads had been sent to Portland to incite violence. He had some circumstantial evidence: John Metsger's letter to East Side White Pride, which was found in Mieske's apartment; phone records of calls between Mazzella and the Metsgers; transcripts from WAR's telephone "hot line" with comments from Tom Metsger about Portland; and a pile of WAR newspapers and literature, full of vile, racist content. But his star witness was Mazzella. An articulate speaker who had appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jesse Raphael shows and in Rolling Stone, Mazzella told the jury that the Metsgers explicitly instructed him to go to Portland, organize the skinheads there and get them to commit violent acts against minorities.

Mazzella's conversion from violent racist to repentant witness for the Southern Poverty Law Center was questionable -- he spent time before the trial in Southern Oregon, organizing the local skinheads, fighting and getting arrested -- but Metsger couldn't lay a glove on him on cross-examination. Metsger didn't mount an effective defense on free-speech grounds and made all manner of racist comments in open court. A good lawyer would have kept him quiet, but Metsger was his own lawyer. The jury had no trouble following what Langer believes were one-sided instructions from the judge and found the Metsgers liable for Seraw's death.

Looking inward Langer has thought long and hard about Oregon's racial history and what effect it might have had on the rise of Portland's skinhead culture. Oregon was admitted to the United States in 1859 with a constitution that not only prohibited slavery but excluded African Americans from the state, a provision that was not removed until 1926. In the 1920s the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon were members of the Ku Klux Klan. It was not until World War II, when large numbers of African Americans came to Portland to work in the shipyards, that the black population of the city reached 2,000.

"At the time of our story, Portland was probably the whitest big city in the United States," Langer writes. (Portland was about 85 percent white in 1990; about 78 percent in 2000.)

The verdict in the Metsger trial put the blame for Seraw's death on outsiders, notorious racists from California who sent agents north to incite violence. It was, Langer believes, too good to be true and prevented Portland from taking a hard look at itself.

"I think the business of overturning myths is difficult and painful, no matter what myths are being overturned," she says. "Obviously, this is a situation that people here have understood one way, and now I'm saying, 'Try to understand it another way.' "

What myths are being overturned?

"The myth that Tom Metsger is responsible for the death of Mulugeta Seraw," she says. "That's a very narrow way of saying it. The myth that we're all good people, that we're not racists . . . It's not that Oregon isn't moving along, there has been progress, but to look at the Metsger trial as an exoneration of Oregon's racial history is just inaccurate."

Back on Southeast 31st Avenue, Langer looks down at the street where Seraw's body was found. The sun is coming out and nothing indicates that 15 years ago a gentle man died here.

"It doesn't look all that different, really," Langer says, looking toward the corner. "I'm not sure that stop sign was there."

If it was, Ken Mieske didn't see it.

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