WW’s Reporting on How Hate Spread Across Portland in 1988

A reminder of how hatred can hide in plain sight, and what happens when the warnings aren’t heeded.

Six months before the murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw, WW published a story about a frightening trend in Portland: organized and vocal neo-Nazis, preparing for violence.

The story, by reporter Jim Redden, was the first look at Portland's skinhead culture, which was growing inside the punk and metal music scenes. The scenes depicted in his cover story are chillingly resonant: Groups of fascists roamed Portland's streets, looking for someone foreign to assault and claiming they merely wanted to have their voices heard.

That November, they attacked Seraw. After the incident, WW looked closer—and found the killer Ken Mieske was an avowed white supremacist who was also a celebrated figure at the center of Portland's counterculture, with close ties to music promoters and even the young movie director Gus Van Sant.

Less than three weeks after Seraw's murder, WW published a second cover story that revealed how Mieske had embraced racism even as he commanded stages and audiences at Portland metal shows.

We present these passages from Redden's work as a reminder of how hatred can hide in plain sight, and what happens when the warnings aren't heeded.

"Young Nazis: Portland's new breed of racists," by Jim Redden, WW, May 12, 1988. (This story was published six months before Seraw's murder.)

The men, whose ages range from the late teens to the early 20s, have shaved heads and are dressed in militaristic-looking outfits that include heavy, steel-toed boots. The women, approximately the same ages as the men, also have their hair cut short and are attired in fatigues and jackboots. Most of them are covered with elaborate, permanent tattoos that feature skulls and other images of death.

[They] call themselves skinheads, and they believe it is their sacred duty to defend the sanctity of the white race. They have formed a group, called Preservation of the White American Race (or POWAR, for short), to promote their beliefs, which are drawn from the teachings of the Ku Klux Klan and from the heated rhetoric of the European-based, right-wing National Front party.

"Blacks can fight for their rights, and everyone says that's OK," says Jason, an energetic and intelligent teenager. "But if someone started a National Association for the Advancement of White People, just think how controversial that would be."

As unusual as these people and their beliefs may sound, they are not alone. At least one other group of racist skinheads, East Side White Pride, also exists in Portland. Similar groups are springing up in cities ranging from San Francisco to Chicago, causing concern among law-enforcement agencies, which blame them for spontaneous acts of violence directed against blacks,  Jews and other minorities.

Despite these incidents, there is little agreement about what to make of these young racists. Portland police say they do not know how many local skinheads are active racists, as opposed to young adults who shave their heads for fashion. And Paul Duong, the city's refugee coordinator, who works in the Office of Neighborhood Associations, says he does not believe racist skinheads pose a threat to Portland's immigrant population.

One person who disagrees with Duong is Hock-Seng "Sam" Chin, a 27-year-old Singapore native who now lives in Portland. On March 10, after leaving the Siamese Princess Restaurant at 1231 SW Washington St., Chin and his family were confronted by three male skinheads who taunted them with remarks such as "Go back to Hong Kong" and "Get out of the country." When Chin stood his ground, he was struck repeatedly by the skinheads, who knocked him to the ground and kicked him with their combat-style boots.

Although Chin was not seriously hurt, the three skinheads were arrested by the police and charged with intimidation and assault.

"I think they should be taken very seriously, " says Chin. "It's a form of terrorism."

For their part, the skinheads in the Southeast Portland apartment—who were willing to pose for pictures, but asked that their full names not be published—say they have been misrepresented by the news media. They complain that news reports about them do not adequately explain their beliefs. But most Portlanders would be shocked by some of the group's beliefs, such as its intense hatred of religious and racial minorities. For example, they refer to the United States government as ZOG, which stands for Zionist Occupation Government, a term that means the president, the Congress and the Federal Reserve Board are controlled by Jews.

And, although they denounce the media's focus on violence, they are unwilling to completely reject it. While they say the assault on Chin was not representative of their beliefs, they repeatedly stress that they are willing to fight for their cause. "We wouldn't beat someone up for no reason at all," says K, a tall male with a a tattoo of a heavy-booted skinhead on his left biceps. "But we're ready to defend ourselves."

"The Faces of Death: Street kid, actor, musician, skinhead—who is the real Kenneth Murray Mieske?" by Jim Redden, WW, Dec. 1, 1988. (This story was published 18 days after Seraw's murder.)

The strangest thing about Ken Death is how many different people he became.

Death, a 23-year-old whose real name is Kenneth Murray Mieske, is one of the three Portland men charged with murder in the Nov. 13 beating death of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian national. The men have been identified as skinheads, part of a nationwide band of young racists who cut their hair short, wear Nazi paraphernalia and routinely condemn blacks, Asians,  Jews and gays. To most people, this undoubtedly makes Mieske a monster of almost unspeakable horror.

But the truth is, Mieske is known and liked by a variety of Portlanders—for startlingly different reasons.

To Gus Van Sant, Mieske is a natural actor—talented, self-deprecating and at ease in front of a camera. Recently, Van Sant finished directing Drugstore Cowboy, a Hollywood production filmed in Portland and starring teen heartthrob Matt Dillon. Late last year, Van Sant made Ken Death Gets Out of Jail, a short, experimental film featuring Mieske, whom Van Sant has known for several years.

The film, in which Mieske is the only actor, was shot entirely in one quick take. For approximately three minutes, Mieske crouches beside a busy roadway, discussing everything from his stay in jail [for a parole violation] to his undeserved rap as a bad lover. Although he appears to be spontaneously answering questions from the off-screen director, the dialogue was carefully scripted in advance. "He's a great actor," Van Sant says of Mieske. "I was shocked when he was arrested [for the assault]."

To Chris Monlux, Mieske was a former street kid who became a dedicated rock-and-roller living on the cutting edge of the American music scene. Monlux is part owner of the Portland-based music production company Monqui Presents, which has brought many interracial groups to Portland. Monlux has known Mieske well for many years, and he says the young man was the first person to introduce him to "death metal," one of today's most popular forms of heavy metal music. At Mieske's urging, Monqui Presents booked a number of so-called death metal bands several years ago. Monlux was amazed at the response. "I hadn't heard of these bands, but they already had a dedicated following," says Monlux. "The shows drew large crowds, and most of the kids knew the lyrics to all the songs."

To Jack Yost, Mieske is a victim of a hypocritical government—the Reagan administration. Yost, coordinator of the peace studies program at Portland State University, has known Mieske since 1981, when the onetime street kid first moved to town. "Whatever racism is involved is inexcusable, but Ken's as much a victim as the guy who was murdered," says Yost. "He's the victim of a social environment that's been created over the past eight years."

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

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