Thursday , January 21 2021

30 years after the skinheads beat the death of an immigrant in Portland Street, the city is reflected

As a young man, Nkenge Harmon Johnson remembers going off the train or the MAX bus in downtown Portland and taking care not to cut Pioneer Courthouse Square.

It was in the late 1980s or 90s. Harmon Johnson is black.

"It was not safe for me and my friends," said Harmon Johnson, now President and CEO of Portland's Urban League. "Because the Arians, neo-Nazi skinheads were holding the court in Pioneer Square, they were hanging on the stairs and smoking and chatting."

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

Harmon Johnson recalls a recent message reading in an email list – the service sent to friends. He warned the same and other black people to stop that day because the Elderly boys were passing by the road. Self-proclaimed western chauvinists holding the gun have become known for their violent confrontations.

Harmon Johnson is one of the activists, community leaders and policy makers who worry about how Oregon evolved – or not – as Mulugeta Seraw was murdered 30 years ago on Tuesday.

Seraw, a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, is surrounded and hits to death with a baseball bat from three directors on a south-eastern Portland road on November 13, 1988.

Portland's Urban League, Harmon Johnson, is organizing a conference this week at the University of Portland to focus on Seraw's death and Oregon's future. The subject of the conference is "Remember, I Learn."


What changed; "The date in the calendar," said Harmon Johnson.

The barbarity of Seraw's death struck a lot. He was an immigrant who abandoned the violence from his own country, who came here to get a college education and live the American dream when he was attacked for no other reason than the neo-Nazis did not like who he was.

It lit up white people – "there was no way for people to explain it away," said Harmon Johnson.

But to black people, Harmon Johnson said, it did not look so amazing, because it fits with the reality of a Portland they knew through repeated experiences of racial assault.

Last year, Harmon Johnson again saw white shock and less surprised by the minority communities when the police said Jeremy Christian cut dead two men on the throat and almost killed a third on a MAX train. The men interceded as Christians directed a racist and xenophobic tide on two African American teenagers, a witness said.

"People say," Oh my girl. How could this happen in Portland – he does not love, progressive Portland, "said Hammond Johnson. "And (we) say …" What do you mean how this can happen in Portland? "We know this can happen because white advocates can wander in ways that are totally inappropriate."

Hammond Johnson cited as an example the fact that the Portland police did not capture Christian the night before the attack, when an African American said he gave an infamous hatred against blacks, Jews and Muslims, threatened to kill her and threw a plastic bottle full of Gatorade on her face. The police responded to Rose Quarter MAX but allowed Christian to go. Later, the police issued a statement that disagreed with the woman's account that she had identified the Christian as her attacker.

The police said he did not. Hammond Johnson also highlighted the two-decade practice of the Portland Police Service to keep a list of suspected members of gangs and affiliates. An Oregonian / OregonLive survey in 2016 found that 81% of the 359 people on the list were racial or ethnic minorities. The office dismissed the list last year under public criticism, but the auditor later found that the police were keeping a second list of suspected gang members.

Hammond Johnson said the police are unfairly focusing on younger, minority men who believe they are in gangs, but they pay little attention to white gangs with defense ties.

The same applies to federal authorities, who ignore white defenders in the creation of terrorist lists, he said. The New York Times reported this month that the federal government's anti-terror strategy has been centered almost 20 years on almost exclusively Islamic militants and not white defenders and members of the far right – though they have killed much more people since September 11, 2001, by Islamists or other domestic extremists.

"White defenders are terrorists," said Hammond Johnson.


Kenneth Mieske, the 23-year-old who had fathered Seraw, was sentenced to life for murder, and died in 2011 at the age of 45 while he was jailed. His achievement Kyle H. Brewster ended up serving more than 13 years before his release in 2002, and his accomplice Steven R. Strasser served more than a decade before he left prison in 1999.

Although he was never persecuted, a fourth man – Tom Metzger – had to pay for what later the Multnomah County Circuit Judge decided he was his role in death. Metzger was founder of the White-Aryan Resistance group based in California.

The judging panel was awarded to the Seraw family at $ 12.5 million after a landmark finding that Metzger was repre- sentatively responsible for Seraw's death by sending a militarist to Portland to advise a local skinhead branch East Side White Pride. The jury agreed that Metzger encouraged the three members to release violence to non-white men.

The family finally gathered a fraction of the verdict – after Metzger had to sell his home in southern California – but it was enough to break Metzger's racist organization and provide an egg for his 10-year-old son Seraw. One of Seraw's lawyers, James McElroy, adopted the boy. Today, Seraw's son is a pilot of a commercial airline.

Elden Rosenthal, another of the lawyers who represented the Seraw family, said he saw Metzger and his white nationalist views at the time, as in the extreme – extreme and rare.

"I thought she was with this tiny 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."

Rosendal said he believes President Donald Trump has encouraged an increase in racist rhetoric. Anxiety fell under an almost constant criticism bar on his comments on the Latin Americans, the ban on the Muslims of his government, calling the migratory caravan an "invasion," and holding rampant gatherings to "build the wall."

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

Rosenthal recently read a transcript of Metzger's arguments during the 1990 civil trial. He said he was surprised to see many of what Metzger told counselors seems to mirror the words of Trump and his supporters.

Metzger spoke about his "nice little" neighborhood in California that was "destroyed" by an "invasion" of the Mexicans. Metzger said America is turning to the worst. Metzger was worried about the misery of the White Americans of the working class – and he said that many people felt just as they did, Rosenthal realized.

"There is a growing class of white people in this country," said Metzger. "They go through rubbing, they become poorer, poorer and poorer, and they do not like what's going on in this country."

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

"These things can happen here, right in the progressive, sacred city of Portland, because there are people like this all around and we can not ignore it," said Rosenthal, a lawyer working in Portland.

"It can happen here, that's what happened here and that will happen again if we do not educate our children," he said. "It is the job of a progressive civilization to always be vigilant and always unfold it when lifting its head."


Randy Blazak spent the last three decades in the hate group study and is president of the Oregon Coalition against hate crime. Amid calls such as Rosenthal's vigilance, Blazak also sees promising developments in a state that is overwhelmingly white.

Members of the community are increasingly willing to speak out, Blazak said. After Jeremy Christian's arrest, people managed to watch the candlelight and wrote love and tribal messages at the Hollywood MAX station, he noted.

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

Such demonstrations have emerged in rural, more conservative corners of the state, too, Blazak said.

He stressed in John Day in 2010 when the Aryan Nations expressed their interest in buying real estate for their new national headquarters. The Aryan Nations ended up abandoning the idea, as hundreds of residents appeared at a meeting in the town hall to express their wrath.

"He was so inspired," Blazak said.

Police in Portland has developed plans and training to try to tackle racial and tacit prejudice, community groups have worked with the police to increase understanding between officers and LGBTQ individuals and prosecutors who offend people who target others because of race , differences, he said.

State legislators voted the state's first laws on "intimidation" in the 1980s.

"Some of it is trying to send a message," Blazak said of the persecution.

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

Last year, a Portland driver cried out to a pregnant Muslim to remove the hidzab and then assume he shot her and her husband immitating a gun with his fingers. Fredrick Sorrell was convicted of second-degree intimidation in August. He was instructed to take anger management lessons and have a meaningful conversation with members of the Portland Muslim community.

"We will not tolerate anyone in any protected class attacking – and if we can prosecute him, we will do it completely," said Brent Weisberg, spokesman for County Multnomah's Prosecutor's Office.

"We always want individuals to come into contact with law enforcement when they think they may be victims of hate crime," Weisberg said. "This is something that is a priority for our office."

Armonie Johnson of the Urban League believes that such persecutions of people who have paid hatred that threaten but do not physically harm others are an exception, not a rule. Very often, reports diverge and people stop turning to the police when they suffer from victims, he said.

He described an Urban League official who was threatened by a man with a knife as he shouted racist disturbances. But when the officer called the police, the officers failed to investigate, said Harmon Johnson.

"These people are thrilled because they get away from it," said Harmon Johnson. "And many people do not say why their answer is they think the police will not do anything about it."

But Blazak believes that there has been remarkable progress since the death of Sera.

"There are all these reasons to be skeptical," Blazak said. "There is plenty 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 cops and Klan were the same people," Blazak said. "But the change I've seen in my life, I encourage."

Memory events

Tuesday, November 13 marks 30 years since the murder of Mulugeta Seraw with a baseball bat in southeast Portland by racist skinheads. The community marks the anniversary in a number of ways:

* The Portland Urban League will deliver on Tuesday from 9am – 2 pm at the "Seraw Mulugeta Memorial Conference". Click here to register.

* Wednesday, 8:50 am: Revealing the "signposts" marking the corner of the road around Southeast 31 and Pine Street, the place where Seraw was hit deadly. The "toppers" will be placed on road signs in the immediate area and will display the photo and the name of Seraw.

* Wednesday, 2 pm: The Portland City Council will be presented with a declaration on Seraw's recollection.

– Aimee Green

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