Friday , June 25 2021

30 years after skinheads killed extinction on Portland Street, the city reflects

As a youth, Nkenge Harmon Johnson will remember to come from the MAX train or bus in central Portland and be careful not to cut it over Pioneer Courthouse Square.

It was the late 1980s or 1990s. Harmon Johnson is black.

"It was not safe for me and my friends," says Harmon Johnson, now President and CEO of the Urban League of Portland. "As the aries, neo-Nazi skinheads held the court on Pioneer Square, they hung on the stairs and smoked and chatted."

Three decades later, downtown is not sure for some African Americans.

Harmon Johnson reminds of a new message that she read on an email list server sent by friends. It warned her and other black people to stay away that day because the proud boys marched through the street. The self-proclaimed weapon-like western kuvinists have become famous for their violent confrontations.

Harmon Johnson is one of a group of activists, community leaders and politicians who reflect on how Oregon has evolved – or not – since Mulugeta Seraw was murdered 30 years ago Tuesday.

Seraw, a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, was surrounded and bludgeoned to death with a three-skin baseball bat on a southeast Portland street on November 13, 1988.

Harmon Johnson's Urban League of Portland organizes a conference at Portland State University this week to focus on Seraw's death and future for Oregon. The conference theme is "Remember. Learn. Change."


What has changed? "The date in the calendar," says Harmon Johnson.

The brutality of Seraw's death shook many. He was an immigrant who fled violence from his own country who came here to get a college education and live the American dream when he was attacked for any reason other than neo-Nazis did not like who he was.

The amazing white people – "There was no way for people to explain it away," Harmon Johnson said.

But to black people, Harmon Johnson said, it did not seem so amazing because it suited the reality of a Portland that they would get to know through repeated experiences of the aggression of the breed.

Since last year, Harmon Johnson again saw shock among white people and less surprise from minority communities when the police said Jeremy Christian dropped two men in the neck and nearly killed one third on a MAX train. Men intervened as Christians directed a racist and xenophobic tirade at two African American teenagers, the witnesses said.

"People say," Oh my shit. How could this happen in Portland – do not love progressive Portland, "says Harmon Johnson." And (we) say … "What do you mean, how can this happen in Portland?" We know this may happen because white supremacists get allowed to move for free in ways that are completely inappropriate. "

Harmon Johnson quoted, for example, that the Portland police did not arrest the Christian night before the attack, when an African-American woman said he delivered a hateful assault against blacks, Jews and Muslims, threatened to kill her and threw a Gatorade-filled plastic bottle in her face. The police responded to the Rose Quarter MAX station, but Christian left. Later, the police issues a statement that does not agree with the woman's account that she had identified Christian as her attacker.

The police said she did not have it. Harmon Johnson also pointed to the Portland Police Bureau's two-decade-old practice to keep a list of suspicious gang members and affiliates. An Oregon / OregonLive survey in 2016 found 81 percent of the 359 people on the list were race or ethnic minorities. The agency abolished the list last year under public criticism, but an accountant later found that the police retained a second list of suspect gang members.

Harmon Johnson said the police unfairly focus on younger minorities who they think are in trouble, but they pay little attention to white gangs with supremacist bands.

The same goes for federal authorities who ignore white supremacists when creating terrorist lists, she said. The New York Times reported this month that the federal government's strategy against terrorism has focused on almost 20 years almost exclusively on Islamic militants and not white supremacists and members on the far right – although they have killed many more since September 11, 2001, than Islamic or other domestic extremists.

"White supremacists are terrorists," says Harmon Johnson.


Kenneth Mieske, the 23-year-old who was killed by Seraw, was sentenced to murder and died in 2011 at the age of 45 while being detained. Accomplice Kyle H. Brewster ended earning more than 13 years before being released in 2002 and cohabiting Steven R. Strasser served more than a decade before being released from the prison in 1999.

Even though he was never charged, a fourth man – Tom Metzger – had to pay for what a multinomah County Circuit Court jury later ruled was his role in death. Metzger was the founder of the California-based White Aryan Resistance group.

The jury awarded Seraw's family $ 12.5 million after making a landmark that Metzger was responsible for Seraw's death by sending a recruiter to Portland to mentor a local branch of skinheads, East Side White Pride. The jury agreed that Metzger called on the three members to release violence against non-white.

The family eventually took up a fraction of the sentence – after Metzger was forced to sell his southern California house – but it was enough to paralyze Metzger's racist organization and provide a book for Seraw's 10-year-old son. One of Seraw's civilian lawyers, James McElroy, adopted the boy. Today, Seraw's son is a commercial airline leader.

Elden Rosenthal, another of the lawyers representing Seraw's family, said he saw Metzger and his white nationalist views at the time as on the edge – extremely and rare.

"I just thought he was with this little minority of people," said Rosenthal, who lost members of his Jewish family to the Holocaust. "Now we know he was just the top of the iceberg."

Rosenthal said he believes President Donald Trump has encouraged an increase in racist rhetoric. Trump has come under constant constant criticism of his comments to Latin Americans, his administration's Muslim ban, calls the immigrant car an "invasion" and holds flexible "building walls" collections.

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

Rosenthal recently read a transcript of Metzger's ending argument in the 1990s. He said he was surprised to see a lot of what Metzger told lawyers seemed to mirror Trumps words and his appeals.

Metzger talked about his "fine little" California neighborhood as having been "destroyed" by an "invasion" of Mexicans. Metzger said that America changed for the worse. Metzger worried about the situation of white, working-class Americans – and said that many felt exactly as he did, told Rosenthal.

"There is a growing subclass of white people in this country," said Metzger. "They pass through the grid, they get poorer, poorer and poorer, and they do not like what's happening in this country."

In view of Trump's political success, Rosenthal said he had come to admit that such nationalist views are part of a common social segment.

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

"It may happen here, it happened here and it will happen again if we do not train our children," he said. "It's the job of a progressive civilization to always pay attention and always throw it down when it's wearing its head."


Randy Blazak has spent the last three decades studying hatred groups and chairing the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime. In the conversation that Rosenthal is for vigilance, Blazak sees promising development in a state that is overwhelmingly white.

Community members have increasingly been willing to speak out, Blazak said. After Jeremy Christian was arrested, people held candle vigils and wrote messages about love and breed harmony at the Hollywood MAX station, he noted.

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

Such support has occurred in rural areas, more conservative corners of the state, said Blazak.

He pointed to John Day 2010 when the Aryan countries expressed interest in buying real estate there for their new national headquarters. The Aryan nations stopped abandoning the idea after hundreds of residents showed up at a council meeting to express their upheaval.

"It was so inspiring," said Blazak.

The Portland Police have developed plans and programs to try to address racial profiling and implicit displacement. Community groups have worked with the police to increase understanding between officers and LGBTQ people and prosecutors pay for people who target others because of race, sex, religion or other differences, he said.

State legislators passed the state's first "scary" laws in the 1980s.

"Some of it tries to send a message," Blazak said on the charge.

In 2017, a white man told an African-American man that he was "in the wrong neighborhood" in northeastern Portland and tried to make a pit bull on him. Mathu Karcher, the white man, was sentenced for the degree of intimidation in February and served 16 days in prison.

Last year, a Portland driver called a pregnant Muslim woman to remove her hijab and pretended to shoot her and her husband by imitating a gun with their fingers. Fredrick Sorrell was sentenced for secondary infringement in August. He was ordered to take anger management classes and have a meaningful discussion with members of Portland's Muslim community.

"We will not tolerate anyone in any protected class that is being attacked – and if we can prosecute it, we will definitely," says Brent Weisberg, a spokesman for the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.

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

Urban League Harmon Johnson believes that such prosecution of hated people who threaten but not physically harm others is an exception, not the rule. Too often, the reports are shaken and people stop turning to the police when exposed to victims, she said.

She described an employee in the Urban League who was threatened by a man with a knife when he called out the races. But when the employee called a police officer, officers failed to investigate, said Harmon Johnson.

"These people are emboldened because they get away with it," Harmon Johnson said. "And many people do not report it because their response is that they think the police will not do anything about it."

Blazak, however, believes that noticeable progress has taken place since Seraw's death.

"There are all these reasons to be skeptical," said Blazak. "There is a lot 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 city where the police and Klan were the same people," said Blazak. "But the change I've seen in my life, I'm encouraged."

memory Events

Tuesday, November 13 marks 30 years since Mulugeta Seraw was assassinated with a baseball game in South East Portland by racist skinheads. The community marks anniversary in different ways:

* The Urban League of Portland sponsors the "Mulugeta Seraw Commemoration Conference" on Tuesday from 9:00 to 2:00 PM Click here to register.

* Wednesday 8:50 a.m.: Detection of "sign toppers" marking the street corner around Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street, the place where Seraw was fatalized. "Toppers" will be attached to street signs in the immediate area and show Seraw's photo and name.

* Wednesday 2 o'clock: Portland City Council will be presented with a proclamation commemorating Seraw.

– Aimee Green

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