Racist Skinheads Beat Mulugeta Seraw to Death on a Portland Street. Thirty Years Later, the Crime Still Echoes.

It happened here. Never again.

Southeast 31st Avenue, where Mulugeta Seraw died. (Abby Gordon)

It's been 30 years since one of the bleakest moments in Portland's history.

It doesn't seem so long ago.

In the wee hours of Nov. 13, 1988, three racist skinheads leaped out of a car in Southeast Portland and attacked a group of Ethiopian immigrants. They ganged up on one of the foreigners—a 28-year-old airport bus driver named Mulugeta Seraw—who tried to break up the fight. One of the skinheads repeatedly swung a bat into Seraw's skull, killing him.

The murder awakened Portlanders to a horrifying reality: Some of our neighbors were violent bigots who wanted to keep Portland white. Seraw's killing felt all the more alarming because the victim was a refugee, who had come here to escape war in his homeland.

"This murder had a profound impact on Portland," says Jim McElroy, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "This one really sent shock waves through the community."

The fallout from the killing was long and nearly as painful. Three men pleaded guilty to the attacks. But over the next two years, Portland was witness to an unprecedented development. Civil rights watchdogs decided to sue Tom Metzger, a California white-supremacist leader, arguing he had incited the skinheads with racist and violent thoughts. A jury agreed and awarded Seraw's family $12.5 million—a record judgment that bankrupted the white-power group.

Mulugeta Seraw

The Seraw case left Portland with a lot of scar tissue. The state responded by passing a hate crimes bill. And Portlanders debated how much responsibility for this deadly act should be placed on those who were not directly involved, but whose freedom of expression may have incited others to act criminally.

This week, as the anniversary of Seraw's death approaches, those questions feel fresh and raw.

Last Saturday in Pittsburgh, an anti-Semitic gunman slaughtered 11 people worshipping in a synagogue. Like the 1980s skinheads, he had been fed a regular diet of right-wing, conspiratorial propaganda sometimes endorsed, at least in spirit, by the White House. Same goes for Cesar Sayoc, the alleged pipe bomber who seemed to pick his targets from a list of enemies President Trump regularly assails.

And closer to home, almost every month, groups of nationalist brawlers vowing allegiance to Trump parade through Portland's streets.

WW decided to revisit the night of Seraw's murder, and met with his family and friends. We reprise some of our reporting from those awful months and talked to the journalist and historian who investigated how the neo-Nazi movement blossomed in Portland.

Portland's history of bigotry isn't something that ended when racist laws were struck from the Oregon Constitution. Instead, hatred courses just below the surface of this city. It is a part of who we are. And hate can only be stopped if we directly confront it by its name.

It happened here. Never again.

The nonprofit WW Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this story.

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WW's Reporting on How Hate Spread Across Portland In 1988

The Reporter Who Investigated Mulugeta Seraw's Murder Says the Hate Was Homegrown

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