Nov. 13, 1988: Three skinheads kill Mulugeta Seraw…

The skinheads had been hanging around Southeast Pine Street for months. Groups with names like the Preservation of the White American Race and East Side White Pride had been recruiting teenagers from Portland's metal-music scene throughout 1988.

Skinhead culture blended nearly unnoticed into the punk aesthetic. A few skinheads had been charged with assaults early in the year. But the city's refugee coordinator told WW that spring that the racist gangs didn't pose a threat to new immigrants.

Then skinheads went after Mulugeta Seraw.

Seraw, 28, had come to Portland from Ethiopia to study business at Portland Community College. He sent money he made as an Avis airport bus driver to his family.

In the early hours of Nov. 13, 1988, skinheads brawled with Seraw and two friends, also Ethiopians, outside Seraw's apartment at Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street.

Steven Strasser and Kyle Brewster kicked Seraw and the other two with steel-toed shoes. A third swung a bat into Seraw's skull: Twenty-three-year-old Ken Mieske, a metal-band frontman known as Ken Death. Mieske had become a local star in late 1987 in an experimental semi-documentary, "Ken Death Gets Out of Jail," by an up-and-coming filmmaker named Gus Van Sant.

The killing forced Portlanders to confront the white supremacists in their midst. "It pulled the curtain back about Portland's racial reality," says Randy Blazak, a Portland State sociology professor and chairman of the Coalition Against Hate Crimes.

Mieske and his two co-defendants took plea bargains. But the real court fight was just starting.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-group watchdog, filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court against a California white supremacist named Tom Metzger. Metzger, a TV repairman, had been recruiting Portland skinheads to his organization, White Aryan Resistance, in hopes of sparking a race war.

In October 1990, a jury decided Metzger had incited the Portland skinheads and awarded Seraw's family $12.5 million. The verdict bankrupted Metzger's organization. The verdict also helped set the legal precedent that hate groups could be held liable for inciting violence, even if they hadn't directly committed the assault.

For Portland residents, the verdict reassured them the threat came from the outside. The actual lessons from Seraw's murder are less clear.

In her 2003 book, A Hundred Little Hitlers, Elinor Langer wrote that Mieske committed the murder fueled as much by drink and a culture of street fighting as by white supremacist ideology. "Like certain noxious sulfurs bubbling up at times from beneath our Northwest volcanoes," Langer wrote, "it was a spontaneous eruption. The death of Mulugeta Seraw did not need an 'outside agitator' to explain it."

Mieske died in prison of hepatitis C in 2011. Brewster is out of prison, still proclaiming racist beliefs. Strasser quit the white supremacist movement while serving his sentence.

James McElroy, the SPLC lawyer who led the fight against Metzger, adopted Henock Seraw, Mulugeta's son. Henock became a commercial airline pilot.

From the archives:

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