In the weeks since nine people were shot and killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a troubling picture has emerged of the accused gunman, Dylann Roof, who has been indicted on nine charges of murder and three of attempted murder. A website believed to have been registered to Roof featured photos of the 21-year-old posing with a handgun and Confederate flag and wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of apartheid South Africa and the former white-minority rule of Rhodesia, as well as references to the number 88, a shorthand for “Heil Hitler” favored by neo-Nazis. The site also published racist rants, including a chilling 2,500-word manifesto advocating “drastic action.”
It is hardly the first homegrown attack on American soil with roots in ideologies of hatred. On the opposite side of the country, nearly 30 years before Roof entered that church in Charleston, another brutal murder took place that revealed, as the trenchant writer Elinor Langer described it, “a new strain of American racism”—the violent, neo-Nazi skinhead movement. In the early hours of Sunday, Nov. 13, 1988, in Portland, Oregon, several members of a local skinhead group known as East Side White Pride encountered three Ethiopians in the parking lot of an apartment complex. A violent confrontation ensued, and 28-year-old Mulugeta Seraw, who had immigrated to the United States from Addis Ababa 10 years earlier, was beaten to death with a baseball bat.
The murder sparked outrage in Portland, and the wider culture’s sudden awareness of the skinhead movement was mirrored by the fringe movement’s own catapult into the national spotlight. Langer, a Portland-based biographer and journalist, was assigned to cover the skinheads’ trial for the Nation. She wrote about the murder and the trials that followed—which included a high-profile civil case against a California neo-Nazi leader brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League—and the subsequent formalization of the skinhead movement in her 2003 book, A Hundred Little Hitlers.
The following excerpt begins just after the murder of Mulugeta Seraw.
The city was in an uproar. The first bulletins were followed by such intense news coverage it was almost as if racism itself, and not only the skinhead movement, was being discovered. Mondays “SKINHEADS BLAMED IN MAN’S DEATH” was followed by Tuesday’s “DEATH PROMPTS OUTRAGE,” Wednesday’s “FBI JOINS INVESTIGATION OF BEATING DEATH,” Thursday’s “SOURCES SAY GRAND JURY PROBES PORTLAND KILLING,” and so on until the arrests the following weekend. At supermarkets, bus stops, and lunch counters the incident was the talk of the town. An innocent black man was walking across the street when he was beaten by three skinheads with bats: That is the way the killing was generally represented. Portland had had a lynching! Besides the bats, the main thing that seemed to distinguish the killing of Mulugeta Seraw from the homicides of other black men in Portland that year was the nature of the Ethiopians. They were so—foreign. Whenever you turned on the TV, there they were: Mulugeta Seraw, in suit and tie, his sweet, open, smiling face so ready and eager for life. His uncle Engedaw Berhanu, a professional social worker, forcing himself through the pain of interviews to plead with the city to find out what had happened and why. Beautiful women in Ethiopian dress weeping at Mulugeta’s apartment and later in church. The other victims were also in the picture. Tilahun Antneh, the driver of the Ethiopians’ car, bringing his arms down in a chopping motion right to left demonstrating the attack, explaining in his charming English, “They have stick and they kick him and he lay down and after that they kick me and broke the car and … then they run away.” The young passenger, Wondwosen Tesfaye, in a hospital gown, pointing to his injured groin.
But at the same time the Ethiopians were so exotic they were so—American. Their previously invisible Ethiopian Community Organization had suddenly appeared out of nowhere complete with a well-dressed, articulate spokesman named Betra Melles who took his place alongside the traditional representatives of Portland’s black community with such assurance it was almost as if he had been there all along. Nor was the Ethiopians’ concern limited only to themselves: They were acting for the sake of others. “If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone,” said Engedaw Berhanu, calling Mulugeta’s death a “sacrifice.” That Mulugeta could have been any black person was a point made again and again. All through the week public feeling continued to mount. Press conferences and demonstrations built around the Ethiopians but supported by other black organizations occurred all over town. A recessive fact-finding body known as the Metropolitan Human Rights Commission began sounding practically aggressive. The militant Black United Front was constantly in front of the mikes.
On the Thursday after the killing, there was a tense meeting at a hall in the black community named for Martin Luther King where several hundred people heard from representatives of the police, including the new chief, Richard Walker, that a white supremacist movement was indeed on the rise. The next day there was an antiracism rally at City Hall, organized chiefly by Somali students at nearby Portland State University but attended spontaneously by hundreds of city and downtown workers and other passersby. The governor, Neil Goldschmidt, was among them. He would have closed down state offices to allow all public employees to come if he had known about the rally beforehand, he said. “WE’RE GONNA RUN THOSE SKINHEADS OUT OF TOWN!” was one of the watchwords. “DEATH TO THE SKINHEADS! DEATH TO THE KLAN!” was another. Besides the local clamor, national and even international press interest was making itself felt, bringing to Portland a level of publicity more typically reserved for such natural catastrophes as the eruption of Mount St. Helens. In spite of the sincere revulsion of Mayor Bud Clark at the death of Mulugeta Seraw and his determination that the Police Bureau be seen decisively to have separated itself from its old ways, the undercurrent of doubt that the police would even care about such a killing, let alone be able to solve it, was very strong.
A ‘Moral Panic’
In the months that followed the arrests of Ken Mieske, Kyle Brewster, and Steve Strasser, public agitation over the death of Mulugeta Seraw only increased, and for good reason. Skinheads were coming out. Contrary to the pattern in most communities, where, after a widely publicized racial crime culminating in arrests, racial violence tends to go down, in Portland it went up. Suddenly skinheads were everywhere. In Wendy’s, leaving a note for a black employee telling him to “Beware!” and burning a pile of napkins as they fled. On a Tri-Met bus, assaulting a fellow passenger, who had to be taken to a hospital. Downtown, beating and kicking a man who interrupted two of them breaking into a newstand. In neighborhoods on both sites of the Willamette River, slipping fliers such as “WHITE MEN BUILT THIS NATION—WHITE MEN ARE THIS NATION” under windshield wipers and stapling them to telephone poles: all this made known by Gang Enforcement Team member Loren Christensen, who was now the chief spokesman for the Police Bureau on the subject of skinheads.
Far from being reviled, Ken, Kyle, and Steve were viewed as leaders and had so many visitors in jail they did not have enough visiting time to see them. “SUSPECTS IDOLIZED,” one Oregonian headline reported. The impact of these local incidents was greatly magnified by increased news coverage of skinheads and neo-Nazis elsewhere. When a skinhead was arrested in Corvallis or Spokane: when skinheads and neo-Nazis gathered in commemoration of Robert Mathews on Whidbey Island: when Reverend Butler issued a call for a national skinhead conference to be held at the Aryan Nations on Hitler’s birthday. It was big news. Anxiety was heightened still further by reports from the Anti-Defamation League and the Northwest Coalition against Malicious Harassment that racist and anti-Semitic incidents were on the rise nationally and that the area was contributing more than its share. The Seattle Times headlined a gloating front-page article, “PORTLAND: A TROUBLED CITY.” Faced with a killing that meant so much more than itself, the white citizens of Portland reached the collective civic opinion not merely that such a thing must never happen again in the future—but that it had never even happened in the past. “Racism is un-Oregonian,” said a politician. “Our country is built on no division between the races,” said a civic leader.
“A man has been killed because of his race!” said a judge. The black citizens could scarcely believe their ears. “What else is new?” “It is the quiet racism of the larger society that permits such a loud act to happen.” “The only thing different about the skinheads is their suspenders” were some of the comments from black spokesmen. But for whites the skinheads’ racism was original sin. A thick wall of righteousness simultaneously depressing in its self-delusion and touching in its goodwill was now found to be separating “Us”—the good people—from “Them”—the bad skinheads. From small community meetings to a large gathering in Pioneer Courthouse Square where black and white citizens looped themselves together in a shining yellow ribbon, there was a burst of antiracist feeling. New organizations and new coalitions of organizations, most importantly the Coalition for Human Dignity, sprang up overnight. The only way to capture the spirit of Portland in the period after the death of Mulugeta Seraw is to borrow the term of the British sociologist Stanley Cohen: “moral panic.” I know because I shared it.
What was true in the community was just as true in court. The ways in which “the state of the world” shapes the “case at law” may be hidden, but they are real. Here the mood was so hostile to the defense that there might as well not have been any. In intermittent pretrial hearings that began in January 1989, any intimation on the part of the skinheads’ court-appointed counsel that Seraw’s death might have resulted from a spontaneous act rather than an intentional one—the difference between manslaughter and murder—elicited a reaction almost of vilification. Motions to suppress evidence that were in fact routine seemed, instead, suspect. When the lawyers attempted to exclude the propaganda found in the skinheads’ apartments on the grounds both that few of the items could be definitively linked to a particular defendant and that in any case they were too general to demonstrate a specific “intent,” the attorneys seemed just as racist as their clients. Why else attempt to protect a client from revealing that? Some of the defense efforts were indeed ridiculous. One defense lawyer characterized the skinheads’ white-power tattoos as “comic book art.” Another described the picture of East Side White Pride on Ken Mieske and Julie Belec’s wall as “a bunch of friends together under an American flag.” But even had they been less ridiculous, the reaction would have been the same. Either you were with “Us” or you were with “Them.” Every little thing counted. When one defense lawyer said, of a protracted discussion, “Let’s not beat this to death,” when another referred to the Ethiopians as “Boys,” those of “Us” in the courtroom raised our eyebrows at one another as if to say, “How bad can it get?”
The weakness of the defense was underscored by the strength of the prosecution. “Proof of intent and motive can only be accomplished through scrutinizing the life and thinking of the man; his associations, his readings, his writings, his self-identification, his politics, his fascination with violence and institutionalized examples of violence and the unifaceted quality of his interests and activities,” reads part of a lengthy brief from the state, later described to me by a Portland lawyer as one of the best prepared he had ever seen from the Multnomah County district attorney’s office. The state also argued for volume. “It is only when the fact finder is faced with the magnitude of material generated, received, preserved, disseminated and displayed by defendant [Mieske] that the true picture of the man emerges,” the brief continued.
Defendant is a radical, white supremacist. He is a Nazi. He advocates violent enforcement of his views. He views blacks as “subhuman.” He knows no moral obstacle to racial violence; it is good. He was prepared for it, armed for it, and primed for it; defendant acted on his white supremacist beliefs on November 13, 1988. As a direct result, Mulugeta Seraw died. The facts of November 13, 1988 must be viewed against that backdrop. To do less is to perpetuate a fraud.
The judge concurred. As the evidence of “the life and thinking” of the skinheads through which the reader of this book has already met them circulated in the courtroom and beyond, trying the skinheads for who they were as well as what they did seemed not only permissible but necessary. It was precisely who they were that was on trial. The most chilling item was a sheet of paper in Ken Mieske’s handwriting containing the lyrics to a Machine song [Editor’s note: Mieske’s band] called “Senseless Violence” found during the search of his and Julie’s apartment—“Victims all around me / I feel nothing but hate / Bashing their brains in / Is my only trade. / Senseless violence is the only thing I know / Piles of corpses never ending watch them grow / Kill my victims for pleasure and for fun. / Beat them over the head. Shoot them with my gun”—words that Ken would repeatedly say he had not written but merely copied but that to anyone who encountered them seemed damningly to prefigure the death of Mulugeta Seraw. And the evidence was still coming in. In jail, Ken in particular enjoyed the mantle of stardom in which his skinhead followers enveloped him and wrote numerous rabid letters that, intercepted by prison authorities, also found their way into the state’s case. “Greetings, Comrade,” he wrote to another inmate at the time of the hearings:
Well it is good to hear from those who share the same feelings as me. Yes I am being charged with 1st degree murder, 2 counts of assault, 3 counts of intimidation and another count of Assault 1 [from the Safeway incident] for stabbing and puncturing a black SUBHUMANs lung. As you can tell, these Zionist whores and the media are allready accusing me and Kyle of being guilty. We would have never got caught but some weak wanna be white scum turned us in for the J.D.L.’s 10,000 reward.
‘For Faith, Race, and Nation, Your Brother!!!! KEN DEATH, A Hero to the White Race!!!” was how he signed the letter. “P.S. Explain to me about Kristallnacht. Who or what is it?” he added. The more the press and public followed the prosecutors into the roiling underground from which the defendants seemed suddenly to have materialized like a primeval force, the harder it was to see them as human beings. Those dull, unrepentant faces we saw staring out at the proceedings seemed to have come from a lower world. When the skinheads sat at the defense table “snacking on salted peanuts,” as the Oregonian reported one day of Ken, it was as if Satan himself were pouring the salt.
If I am deliberately fusing the substance of the proceedings with the atmosphere, it is because I think the two were inseparable. The wall that we are taught is supposed to exist between them was permeable. Everyone played his or her part well—the judge, Philip Abraham, the prosecutors, Deputy District Attorneys Norm Frink and Jill Otey; the court-appointed defense lawyers, Randall Vogt for Ken Mieske, George Haslett for Steve Strasser, and William Park for Kyle Brewster, the latter soon replaced by privately retained Pat Birmingham—but I think that no matter who had been in those positions, the outcome would have been the same. It is hard to imagine any court in Portland at that moment limiting the case against the skinheads to what the state’s brief called “the individual threads of evidence which comprise the circumstances of the event” rather than “the fabric of the [men themselves, their] racist essence” or redefining the issue to include not only whether the killing of Mulugeta Seraw was indeed a “racist attack on three Ethiopian males by three alleged skinheads” but whether, if it was, those racist skinheads could get impartial treatment. Of the myriad motions, including an attempt on the part of the defense to move the trial out of town, virtually every ruling the court was called upon to make was decided in favor of the state. As many times as I have reviewed the documentation, reconsidered my interviews, and reread my notes, my conclusion is always the same: From a legal standpoint, what happened in the pretrial hearings did not add up to much. They were beside the point. While most of the decisions were intended to provide a framework for an actual trial rather than to stand by themselves, the result, if not the intention, was to raise the stakes. At the end of the hearings the death of Mulugeta Seraw seemed an even worse crime than before.
Excerpted from A Hundred Little Hitlers by Elinor Langer published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt And Company, Llc. Copyright © 2003 by Elinor Langer. All rights reserved.
Elinor Langer is the author of A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in the United States, and Josephine Herbst, a biography of the radical novelist and journalist. She is currently at work on a biography of Queen Lili’iuokalani of Hawaii.