Sunday , October 2 2022

30 years after the skinheads beating immigrant death on Portland Street, the city reflects


As a young man, Nkenge Harmon Johnson remembers that he left the MAX train or bus in downtown Portland and being careful not to cut Pioneer Square Courthouse.

It was in the late 1980s or 1990s. Harmon Johnson is black.

"He was not sure about me and my friends," said Harmon Johnson, now President and CEO of Portland Urban League. "Because the Arians, neo-Nazi skinheads, held courtyards in Pioneer Square. They hung on the stairs and smoked and talked.

Three decades later, the city center still does not feel safe for some African Americans.

Harmon Johnson remembers a recent message he read on a list of emails – a friend sent to friends. He warned her and the other blacks to stay away that day, for the proud boys marched through the street. Western self-proclaimed chauvinists became known for their violent confrontations.

Harmon Johnson is one of a group of activists, community leaders and decision-makers who reflect how Oregon has evolved – or not – since Mulugeta Seraw was killed on Tuesday, 30 years ago.

Seraw, a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, was surrounded and murdered with a baseball bat by three skinheads on a South East Portland street on November 13, 1988.

Harmon Johnson's Urban League in Portland is organizing a conference at Portland State University this week to focus on Seraw's death and Oregon's future. The theme of the conference is "Remember, learn, change."


What has changed? "Calendar date," said Harmon Johnson.

The brutality of Seraw's death shook many. He was an immigrant running away from the violence in his own country who came here to get college education and live the American dream when attacked for another reason than neo-Nazism does not like who he is.

He amazed white people – "there is no way for people to explain it," said Harmon Johnson.

But for the blacks, Harmon Johnson said it did not look so stunning because it matched the reality of a Portland they had come to know through repeated racial aggression.

Then, last year, Harmon Johnson again saw the shock among white men and less surprising from minority communities when the police said Jeremy Christian morally stabbed two men in his throat and nearly killed a third on a MAX train. The men intervened as Christians, pointing out a racist and xenophobic tirade to two African-American teenagers, the witnesses said.

"People say," Lord. How could this happen in Portland – not a lively, progressive Portland, "said Harmon Johnson." And (we) say, "What do you mean by what this can happen in Portland?" We know this can happen because white survivors are allowed to go free in incomplete ways. "

Harmon Johnson quoted an example of a Portland policeman who had not arrested Christians the night before the attack, when an African American woman said she had a hateful wound against blacks, Jews and Muslims, then threatened to kill her he threw a bottle of plastic filled with Gatorade to her face. The police responded to Rose Quarter MAX, but left Christian to leave. Later, the police issued a statement that did not agree with the woman's account that she identified the Christian as an attacker.

The police said he did not. Harmon Johnson also highlighted the twenty-year practice of the Portland Police Bureau to keep a list of members suspected of gangs and affiliates. An Oregon / OregonLive survey in 2016 found that 81% of the 359 people on the list were racial or ethnic minorities. The Bureau removed the list last year under public criticism, but an auditor later found that the police kept a second list of suspected gang members.

Harmon Johnson said the police are mistakenly focused on younger, minority men whom they think they are in gangs but do not pay too much attention to white gangs with supreme links.

The same is true for federal authorities, who ignore white supremates when they create lists of terrorists, she said. The New York Times reported this month that the federal government's antiterrorist strategy has focused almost exclusively on Islamic militants for almost 20 years, not on white supremacists and members of extremism – although they have killed many more people since September 11, 2001, than Islamic or other international extremists.

"White supremacists are terrorists," said Harmon Johnson.


Kenneth Mieske, 23, who hit Seraw fatally, was sentenced to life for murder and died in 2011 at the age of 45 while she was jailed. Accomplished Kyle H. Brewster finished more than 13 years before his release in 2002, and accomplice Steven R. Strasser served more than a decade before leaving prison in 1999.

Although he was never prosecuted, a fourth man – Tom Metzger – had to pay for what a legal jury of the Circuit Court in Multnomah County Court later determined was his role in death. Metzger was founder of the California Aryan Resistance group in California.

The jury gave Seraw's family $ 12.5 million after making an assessment that Metzger was vicariously responsible for Seraw's death by sending a recruiter to Portland to direct a local skinhead branch East Side White Pride. The jury agreed that Metzger encouraged the three members to release violence against the white men.

The family eventually collected a fraction of the verdict – after Metzger was forced to sell his South Californian home – but it was enough to destroy Metzger's racist organization and provide an egg nest for Seraw's son, for 10 years. One of Seraw's civil lawyers, James McElroy, adopted the boy. Today, Seraw's son is a commercial airline pilot.

Elden Rosenthal, another lawyer who represented Seraw's family, said that he saw Metzger and those of his nationalist nation at the time as extreme – rare and rare.

"I thought this minor was a minority of people," said Rosenthal, who lost members of his Jewish family to the Holocaust. "Now we know it was just the tip of the iceberg."

Rosenthal said he believes President Donald Trump has encouraged an increase in racist rhetoric. Trump has come under almost constant criticism for his comments on the Latin Americans, the ban on Muslims in his administration, calling the immigrants' caravan an "invasion" and building "build-wall" rallies.

"It's the same message," said Rosenthal.

Rosenthal recently read a transcript of Metzger's final arguments during the 1990 civilian trial. He said he was amazed to see much of what Metzger told jurors seems to mirror the words of Trump and his supporters.

Metzger spoke of his "beautiful little" neighborhood in California as "destroyed" by an "invasion" of the Mexicans. Metzger said that America is getting worse. Metzger was worried about the situation of the other working class Americans – and he said many people felt just as he did, Rosenthal told.

"There is an increasing subclass of white people in this country," Metzger said. "They fall through the grid, they are becoming poorer, poorer and poorer, and they do not like what is happening in this country.

In view of Trump's political success, Rosenthal said he has come to recognize that such nationalist views are part of a major segment of society.

"These things can happen here, right in the progressive city, the sanctuary of Portland, because there are people of this kind everywhere and we can not ignore it," said Rosenthal, another lawyer working in Portland.

"It can happen here, it happened here and it will happen again if we do not educate our children," he said. "It is the job of a progressive civilization to always be alert and always to take it down when it raises its head."


Randy Blazak spent the last three decades studying hate groups and is chairman of the Oregon Coalition against hate crime. Against the backdrop of Rosenthal's vigilance, Blazak sees promising developments in a state that is wholly white.

Members of the community were increasingly willing to speak, Blazak said. After Jeremy Christian was arrested, people kept the candles alert and wrote love messages and racial harmony at the Hollywood MAX station, he remarked.

"The whole community came out," Blazak said. "This is important for two reasons: it shows the victims that" we might not look like you or pray with you, but we are with you. "He also sends a message to the perpetrator that" we might look like you, do not be with you ".

Such support shows also appeared in the country's more conservative countryside, Blazak said.

He pointed out at John Day in 2010, when Aryan nations expressed interest in buying property there for their new national headquarters. The Aryan people gave up this idea after hundreds of people showed up at a town hall meeting to express their indignation.

"He was so inspired," Blazak said.

Portland police have developed plans and training programs to try to address racial prophylaxis and implicit bias, community groups have collaborated with the police to increase understanding between officers and LGBTQ people, and prosecutors accuse people addressing others because of race, identity gender, differences, he said.

Parliamentary deputies adopted the first "intimidation" laws of the state in the 1980s.

"Some of it is trying to send a message," Blazak told the prosecutor's office.

In 2017, a white man told an African-American man that he was "in the wrong neighborhood" in northeastern Portland and tried to make him a pitbull. Mathu Karcher, the white man, was convicted of second-degree intimidation in February and sentenced to 16 days in prison.

Also last year, a Portland driver shouted to a pregnant Muslim woman to steal them away and then claim to shoot her and her husband by mimicking a gun with her fingers. Fredrick Sorrell was convicted of second-degree intimidation in August. He was ordered to take courses of anger management and to have a meaningful discussion with members of the Muslim community in Portland.

"We will not tolerate anyone in any protected class being attacked – and if we can accuse him, we will be absolute," said Brent Weisberg, spokesman for the Multnomah District Prosecutor's Office.

"We always want individuals to contact law enforcement authorities when they think they could be victims of a hate crime," Weisberg said. "This is a priority for our office."

The Urban League, Harmon Johnson, believes that such accusations of haters who threaten but do not physically harm others are an exception, not a rule. Too often, the reports are getting bigger and people stop coming back to the police when they're victimized, she said.

She described an employee of the Urban League who was threatened by a man with a knife while he shouted racial shit. But when the employee called the police, the officers failed to investigate, said Harmon Johnson.

"These people are encouraged because they have escaped it," said Harmon Johnson. "And many people do not report, because their answer is they think the police will not do anything about it."

Blazak, however, believes that visible progress has been made since Seraw's death.

"All these reasons are skeptical," Blazak said. "There is a lot of institutional racism."

Blazak, who is white, spent his childhood in the 1970s in Georgia before finally settling in the northwest as an adult.

"I grew up in a town where policemen and Klan were the same people," Blazak said. "But the change I've seen in my life is encouraged."

Remembrance events

Tuesday, November 13 marks 30 years since Mulugeta Seraw was killed with a baseball bat in southeastern Portland by racist skinheads. The community marks the anniversary in different ways:

* The Portland Urban League sponsors the Mulugeta Seraw Memorial Conference on Tuesdays from 9:00 to 14:00. Click here to register.

* Wednesday, 8:50 am: Disclosure of toppers that will mark the corners of the streets around Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street, where Seraw was beaten dead. Toppers will be attached to street signs in the immediate vicinity and will display Seraw's photo and name.

* Wednesday, 2 am: The Portland City Council will be presented with a proclamation in memory of Seraw.

– Aimee Green

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