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September 10th, 2003 John Schrag | News Stories
 

SKINHEAD REVISITED

A new book reexamines Portland's neo-Nazi legacy.

     
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"...[A]s he runs down the street toward the action something in Kenneth Mieske explodes.... [He] looks up and when he does he sees his white friend, his skinhead comrade, Kyle Brewster, struggling with the black Mulugeta Seraw and he races down the few more steps to where they are fighting and with all the force of his burly body he brings the bat down between them, hitting Mulugeta Seraw on the side of the head from behind, and when Mulugeta crumples to the ground Ken stands over him with the bat for a moment more, bringing it down, once, twice, maybe more.... With those swings of the bat he has lifted himself out of obscurity into history, not, as he has dreamed, as a rock star, but as a racial murderer."--Elinor Langer, A Hundred Little Hitlers

Those who chronicle events love the "defining moment." The first ominous hum of approaching Mitsubishi engines over Pearl Harbor; the sharp crack of a rifle shot from a book depository in Dallas; the stunning collapse of the north tower two years ago this week.

In Portland, the list of momentous singular events over the past three decades is a short one.

The Blazers vanquishing the 'Sixers in the Coliseum in '77 was a cultural coming of age. Mayor Bud Clark's dethroning of Frank Ivancie five years later marked a political sea change. The birth of Pioneer Courthouse Square in 1984 gave the city a public living room. The 1985 choking death of a black security guard by white cops awakened a slumbering resentment toward the city's pale power structure.

But none can compare with the reverberations of that bat.

Anyone residing in Portland in the late '80s lived with that slender piece of hardwood. Some tried to tuck it in their mental utility closets. Others held it high, as shocking proof that life in Portland could never be the same.

"It was a wakeup call," says former city commissioner Dick Bogle. "And it shook the city. It shook those who thought it might happen to them. And it shook the others, who said, 'This is not what we want our city to be.'"

The bat that smashed Mulugeta Seraw's skull on the night of Nov. 12, 1988, also crushed Portland's innocence. The tranquility of the Land of Birkenstocks was disturbed by the unmistakable scuffle of steel-toed boots. A trio of our own young men--including a Grant High homecoming king, for God's sake--was accused of standing at the corner of Southeast 31st and Pine and clubbing a man to death, simply because of his skin color.

Portlanders responded in typical Portland fashion: They held rallies, formed coalitions and marched through the streets, proclaiming, "We're Gonna Run Those Skinheads out of Town!"

Some screamed, some cried, but as the crescendo of the coming criminal trial trailed off in a series of unsatisfying plea bargains, they searched for a way to make sense of this brutal act of bigotry in a city that prided itself on its tolerance. A year later, they got it.

On Oct. 20, 1989, one day after the last of the three skinheads cut his deal with prosecutors, an Alabama civil-rights lawyer filed a civil suit in federal court in Portland alleging that the trio of home-grown racists was only partly to blame for Seraw's death. Just as guilty, he said, was a Southern California white supremacist named Tom Metzger, a pudgy TV repairman who hadn't set foot in Oregon in years.

Metzger's physical presence was irrelevant, argued Morris Dees and his colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Through his hateful newspaper, telephone "hotlines" and the exhortations of an associate in Portland, the former Klansman was just as liable as Mieske. As far as Dees was concerned, Metzger's fingerprints were all over that bat.

In October 1990, a Portland jury agreed. In front of a courtroom packed with the national press corps, they socked Metzger and his son, Tom, with a multimillion-dollar judgment, to be paid to the family of Mulugeta Seraw.

A few observers were unsettled by the tidy, made-for-TV conclusion and the loose threads that connected Mieske to Metzger. But given the circumstances, it was as happy an ending as could be expected: The killers were behind bars. The racist instigator would soon be bankrupt. The victim's family would be compensated.

Portland could return to a place where, as Mayor Bud Clark said at the opening of every City Council meeting, "we honor diversity." The bat could finally be stashed in the crawl space, where it has largely remained out of sight and out of mind.

Until now.

Portland writer Elinor Langer was in the courtroom when the jury announced its verdict against Tom Metzger. For her, it was not an ending but a beginning.

For the past 12 years, she's plugged away, reassembling the facts of Seraw's death, researching the backgrounds of the major players and reexamining both the criminal and civil proceedings in Portland. The result is A Hundred Little Hitlers, which hit bookstores this month (Metropolitan Books, $26).

The 398-page book has a lot of people shaking their heads, because in compiling the meticulous historical details (the books has 18 pages of notations) Langer came to a couple of provocative conclusions.

First, although she doesn't deny that Mulugeta Seraw's murder was a brutal crime, she questions whether it was really the premeditated, racially motivated attack that many believe it was.

It seems like an odd hair to split, but it's crucial to Langer's second point, because it was the racial component of the murder that allowed Morris Dees to link it to Tom Metzger. And while Langer provides ample evidence of Metzger's influence within the white-supremacist movement, she argues Dees overstated his role in Seraw's death.

In short, Langer has the audacity to claim that justice, in fact, was not done in that Portland courtroom.

It's not a popular view. The Village Voice chided Langer for being "weirdly besotted" by Metzger and found her "sympathetic" portrayal of him "extremely discomforting."

The lawyers who toppled Metzger's empire of hate are equally critical. "I think Ellie's a really nice person," says Richard Cohen, Dees' right-hand man at the Southern Poverty Law Center, "but her conclusions seem strange. She writes as if she has something that is profound. I find it naive."

"To say that this was just a typical street fight, that it wasn't racially motivated, is ridiculous. It pisses me off," says James McElroy, a San Diego lawyer who helped secure the judgment against Metzger on behalf of Seraw's son, Henok. "I will go to my grave believing that Henok's father would be alive today if Metzger hadn't been around."

Langer seems an unlikely champion for a neo-Nazi. She's a liberal Jewish intellectual, a kindred spirit of Josephine Herbst, the radical writer of the 1930s whose biography Langer wrote in the early '80s. Like Herbst, Langer is a contributor to The Nation, America's oldest lefty magazine, and serves on its editorial board.

In fact, it was her progressive politics and religious roots that drew Langer's interest in the Seraw's murder at the hands of a young skinhead. "I know my friends and neighbors were dismayed," she writes in the book's prologue, "but the word 'Nazi' tolls for a Jew differently than it does for others, and I heard it tolling for me."

That carillon call led her to the The Nation and an impressive cover package on the rise of the white-supremacy movement, published just weeks before the civil trial. In conducting her research, she interviewed cops and skinheads. She monitored plea agreements, sat through the civil trial and read the accounts filed by the national press corps. Along the way, she gradually came to a disturbing conclusion: The facts as presented by Dees were at odds with what she had learned.

"In doing that work I met several of the local skinheads," she says, "and it gave me a different sense of history than was presented at the trial."

She doesn't dispute that Dees made a powerfully persuasive argument. Backed by his organization's cadre of lawyers and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, he distilled the events leading up to Seraw's murder with intoxicating effect.

Just weeks before the attack, he noted, a young skinhead named Dave Mazzella had moved to Portland. Mazzella was a leader in Tom Metzger's White Aryan Resistance. Metzger had written glowing accounts of Mazzella's racist antics in the WAR newspaper. He'd hosted him at his home in Fallbrook, Calif. He'd taken him on Oprah and The Morton Downey Jr. Show. He'd even officiated at Mazzella's Aryan wedding.

Once in Portland, Mazzella immediately looked up a group called East Side White Pride, which he'd heard about through the white-supremacy grapevine. Its 12 or so members were big fans of the white-power punk-music scene and favored brown bomber jackets and Doc Martens boots.

Mazzella frequently met with them, often bringing racist materials published by Metzger and, Dees claimed, encouraging them to get more political and violent. In fact, just hours before Seraw was killed, Mazzella had been at an East Side White Pride meeting and convinced the members, for the first time, to head downtown and hand out copies of a racist youth-oriented newspaper published by Metzger.

Dees showed how later that night, fueled by beer and their recent crusade for the white man's cause, the three skinheads saw Seraw and his companions in a car parked in the middle of the 200 block of Southeast 31st Avenue. They piled out of their car and, in a drunken racist rage, bludgeoned the three helpless Ethiopians, leaving Seraw to die in a pool of blood.

The conclusion, which Dees drove home in his closing statement, was obvious: "The bat that hit Mulugeta Seraw in the head started in Fallbrook, California."

Langer doesn't buy it. She offers readers no startling revelation that Mieske was innocent or Mazzella (as was rumored) was actually working for the cops. She doesn't even dispute most of the evidence Dees brought into the courtroom, but she argues it doesn't add up to his tidy summation.

Deputy District Attorney Norm Frink, who led the prosecution team, agrees that the criminal case was far more complicated than the public believed. "This was not what many people in the community thought," he told WW. "It was not a pre-planned hunting down of a black person. It was a convoluted incident involving multiple defendants with various degrees of culpability."

That's why Frink agreed to allow the skinheads to enter plea agreements, despite the widespread desire for a public trial, where the men, and their racist beliefs, could be put on the stand. "A lot of people said we should just line 'em up and shoot 'em," Frink says.

Langer notes that although the skinheads initially denied that their attack was racially motivated, Frink insisted their plea include the admission that they "intentionally killed Mulugeta Seraw because of his race."

That wording made it easier for Frink to sell the plea bargain to the public. And, more important, it made it easier for Dees to go after Metzger with a civil claim.

With the three men admitting that their attack was racially motivated, Dees, whom prosecutors consulted on the wording of the plea agreements, needed only to find the source of that motivation.

Enter Dees' star witness.

Langer's book demonstrates the crucial role Mazzella played in bringing down Metzger, but it undercuts the notion that he was dispatched from Fallbrook to turn Portland skinheads into a racist "hunting party."

Rather than being sent to Portland to find recruits for Metzger's WAR machine, Langer writes that Mazzella had fled California to escape legal problems and a failing marriage. Her book shows he'd attained little influence within East Side White Pride. She notes, for example, that the crucial ESWP meeting held just hours before Seraw's death focused more on a desire for beer and girlfriends than the need to attack blacks.

Even if you conclude that the attack on Seraw was motivated by race, Langer argues, it's far from certain that Mazzella, and thus Metzger, had anything to do with it. Because Metzger insisted on representing himself, there was no effective cross-examination of any of Dees' witnesses.

To which her critics say, "So what?" Or, as Dees' associate Cohen asks, "Was an injustice done?"

Langer says yes.

"It really is about finding the truth," she says of her 12-year odyssey. "Maybe it's the nonfiction writer's impulse, but it really bothered me to see these misrepresentations in the civil trial."

Even this explanation fails to satisfy most people, including those who normally champion the idea of free expression.

"According to our judicial system, she might be technically correct [that Metzger shouldn't have been held liable for Seraw's death]," writes Joy Press in her Village Voice review. "But discourse has consequences, and from any sane perspective it's hard to pity this would-be Goebbels as a First Amendment martyr."

Portland lawyer Michael Simon disagrees. Simon, who monitored the Metzger proceedings for the American Civil Liberties Union, says Langer should be applauded for reviewing the record of a case that had huge free-speech implications. "Journalists and historians can always look back," says Simon, whose group turned down requests for help from both Dees and Metzger. "That's completely appropriate."

What's so seditious about Langer's book, however, is not just its defense of the First Amendment, but that it calls into question the good intentions and civic healing that followed Seraw's death and surrounded the subsequent civil trial.

"It was a pivotal point for this city," says state Sen. Margaret Carter, who then was the only African-American member of the Oregon House. "Those who didn't believe that there was a racial divide in this state had to take pause. They had to admit, 'Yes, there is still racism in Oregon.'"

That heightened attention to bigotry and prejudice grew as the momentous civil trial neared. The Portland City Council proclaimed Oct. 5-13, 1990, as Dignity and Diversity Week. Thousands of residents, rainbow ribbons in hand, marched across town on Sunday, Oct. 7, the day before opening arguments.

Mayor Bud Clark named October "Justice, Harmony and Equity Month." Gov. Neil Goldschmidt went further, officially devoting the entire last quarter of the year to inclusiveness and tolerance.

The message, Langer writes, was clear: "That bad Californian who had sent his forces northward to corrupt our Oregon children had to be unequivocally repudiated."

And, thanks to Dees, he was. But, to borrow the question of Langer's critics, "So what?"

As Sen. Carter will tell you, she's still getting calls from constituents complaining of racism. Many African Americans said the death of Kendra James was proof that nothing's changed in Portland. And as we saw in the surge of attacks on Arab Americans since September 2001, bigots are capable of being equal-opportunity offenders.

The publication of A Hundred Little Hitlers offers Portlanders a chance to follow Langer's lead and reexamine a horrible, brutal murder and ask, once again, the questions we thought were answered 12 years ago.

Langer has a query of own, based on her conclusion that the neo-Nazi movement has only gained momentum since the celebrated verdict in Portland. "When there's a deepening ugliness," she asks, "what's the point of saying, 'We got Tom Metzger--we've taken care of the problem'?"


Langer's book title refers to the "Hundred Little Hitlers" program of Greg Withrow, who in 1980 formed the "White Student Union" in Sacramento and, after hooking up with Tom Metzger, recruited Dave Mazzella into the effort of organizing young white men into Metzger's camp.

 

 

Both Withrow and Mazzella later renounced their racist beliefs.

 

 

Langer's long list of acknowledgements includes WW News Editor John Schrag, who wrote this article, as well as Editor Mark Zusman and former WW reporters Rachel Zimmerman and Jim Redden.

 

 

Several events related to Mulugeta Seraw's death and Elinor Langer's book are scheduled in the next several weeks.

 

 

Sept. 12: Langer is the featured speaker at this Friday's City Club luncheon. A limited number of seats, though no lunches, are available, to the general public. (Multnomah Athletic Club, 1849 SW Salmon St., 228-7231. Noon-1:15 pm)

 

 

Sept. 18: Langer will give a reading from A Hundred Little Hitlers. (Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm.)

 

 

Oct. 3: Morris Dees will be the keynote speaker at the "Hate Hurts" conference hosted by Portland Community College. (Rock Creek Campus, Hillsboro. $50 for the daylong conference; $8 for Dees' 7 pm speech. For details, go to www.pcc.edu or call 614-7261.)

 

 

Oct. 23: Langer will read at Annie Bloom's books. (7834 SW Capitol Highway, 246-0053. 7:30 pm.)

 

 

Nov. 11: The Oregon Council for the Humanities hosts a forum with Langer and other panelists to mark the anniversary of Seraw's death. (First Congregational Church, 1126 SW Park Ave., 241-0543. 7:30 pm.)

 
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