The Urban League of Portland held a conference on Nov. 13 at University Place Conference Center to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Portland resident and Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw.
Street sign toppers featuring a portrait of Seraw with details of his life and death were installed in the Kerns neighborhood by his family members and community leaders during a Nov. 14 commemorative gathering on the block where he was killed in Southeast Portland.
Seraw was 28 when Kenneth Mieske and two other members of the East Side White Pride skinhead group beat him to death. At the time of his death, his neighbor called police to report what she thought were gunshots, but turned out to be the piercing sound of Seraw’s skull being cracked with a baseball bat.
President and CEO of Urban League Nkenge Harmon Johnson said Seraw’s death is one of many in Portland due to the rise of white nationalist groups.
“It’s important to me that all of us be looking through the same window as we seek to confront the problems of the day, as we remember that these thugs that take over our streets every other weekend downtown, they’re not to be played with,” Johnson said. “They’re not just thinking to express their opinion. They are the same kind of people who, 30 years ago, fomented the murder of Mulugeta Seraw. They’re the same kind of people who, frankly, beat, maimed and killed others in our community, whose names we don’t talk about.”
In December 1980, Seraw moved to Oregon from Ethiopia to live with his uncle, Engedaw Bernahu, in Beaverton. Seraw worked in the service industry and at a small Catholic school in Beaverton and is described by Bernahu as hardworking, kind, respectful and an avid soccer player.
At the time he was killed, Seraw was trying to break up a fight between East Side White Pride members and his friends. According to Bernahu, Seraw was never a fighter.
“Mulugeta lived as a peacemaker and died as a peacemaker,” Bernahu said.
Jim McElroy, Seraw’s civil lawyer, also spoke at the conference. He served on California’s Hate Crimes Commission and testified before legislative committees on hate crimes, and also worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He sued Tom Metzger, founder of the neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance—which Seraw’s killers were affiliated with—for “vicarious liability” in Seraw’s death.
“Mulugeta would be alive today were it not for the acts of Tom and John Metzger,” McElroy said.
The connections between racism, policy and social movements
There were several breakout sessions during the conference, including one dealing with how policy can be used to combat racism. The session was held by Eric K. Ward, executive director at Western States Center; Juan Chavez, civil rights project director at Oregon Justice Resource Center; and Amy Herzfeld-Copple, deputy director of programs at Western States Center. During the session they presented a study done for DHM Research on white nationalism, which they applied to groups such as Patriot Prayer in Portland.
“When I talk about the white nationalist movement, I want to distinguish it from what we know as white supremacy,” Ward said. “White supremacy is a historical and present-day system of disparities that are largely embedded in the need for exploitation.”
Ward went on to differentiate white supremacy from white nationalism by explaining how the latter goes beyond control and exploitation of vulnerable communities to attempted removal of those communities from society altogether.
“[White nationalism] seeks to create a white-only ethno-state,” Ward continued. “And it believes that it is in conflict and in battle with the United States of America.”
According to Chavez, white nationalists hope to intimidate and threaten people, and it’s convenient for them to use the legal system.
Speaking about the far-right and white nationalist groups holding rallies in Portland—such as Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys—Chavez said, “I think the question is: Why hasn’t anybody been prosecuted? Why hasn’t anyone been charged? When is it a true threat?”
Chavez went on to reference the “Unite the Right” neo-Nazi rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 17, 2017 and the lawsuit the city took up with Jason Kessler, American white supremacist, neo-Nazi and rally organizer for Proud Boys. He discussed the existence of a clause in Virginia’s Constitution that also exists in Oregon’s Constitution, which could be used to press charges against demonstrators who dress in para-military gear and cause a disturbance.
“Social movements impact policy, they impact narrative, and they impact everyday life,” Ward said. “And like social movements grounded in inclusion, social movements grounded in exclusion do the same thing. It is why in the last 20 years you have seen a reshaping in the debate around immigration. The conversation now is no longer about exploitation, but removal.”
Also in attendance at the conference was Linda Castillo, a member of the New Portlanders Policy Commission Advisory Committee and immigrant integration practice advisor for the New Portlander programs, which works to integrate immigrants and refugees into the city.
“The most important part of this conference for me was hearing Eric Ward talk about what we can do in terms of policy and accountability to actually start to use the rule of law to change this kind of environment we have,” Castillo said. “It’s a natural, fair democracy that’s interracial, multi-ethnic, intersectional. That’s what’s important.”
Bridging racial divides
Randy Blazak, chair of Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime and former PSU sociology professor, spoke about the history of racism in Portland at the conference. He said hate crimes have long-lasting, traumatic effects on communities.
“Here we are 30 years later still talking about this crime and it shows you why hate crimes are qualitatively different than other forms of crimes, especially violent crimes,” Blazak said. “It has made a mark on this city that has still not healed.”
Cecil Prescod, a minister from New York at Ainsworth United Church of Christ in Northeast Portland, came to the conference because he said, as a person of color, Seraw’s death resonated with him deeply.
“I was so wrapped up in my own world, I wasn’t even aware,” Prescod said. “When his murder happened, it was like a wake-up call for me. It motivated me to move beyond my philosophical thinking to become more of an activist and organizer.”
Blazak said what he calls the “white bubble” shields white people from the racism prevailing in Portland.
“There is a white bubble of people who do not know this history and don’t know the traumatizing effects these issues—both big like this murder and small like microaggressions—have on communities of color,” Blazak said. “The more education and acknowledgement we can do, the more reconciliation we can do, the more meaningful it will be to those communities.”
Castillo echoed Blazak’s sentiment on the divide that exists between white people and people of color when it comes to the level of knowledge about racism in Portland.
“It was important to highlight this heavy, difficult story and share how long this has existed in Oregon, in Portland,” Castillo said.
Castillo pointed to the rise in hate crimes taking place across the nation, attributing it to the kind of rhetoric and movements that have influenced mass shooters as well as the language being used around immigration issues.
One such shooting involved a 51-year old man named Gregory Bush who shot and killed two Black people, Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones, on Oct. 24 at a Jeffersontown, Ky. Kroger. Bush reportedly told a white bystander, “White don’t kill whites,” after the shooting.
Another hate-fueled shooting took place a few days later when a 46-year old gunman named Robert Bowers killed 11 Jewish worshippers on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. According to a CNN report, he used anti-Semitic slurs, targeted Jews on the social network Gab, and blamed Jews for helping migrant caravans in Central America.
President Donald Trump called the group of Central American migrants making their way toward the U.S.–Mexico border an “invasion,” and made baseless claims about “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” being a part of the group.
Blazak said the real value of the conference was in bringing people together with their shared stories as a way to move forward and work toward building community within existing systems.
“We can never rest; there’s always work to be done,” Prescod said. “We have to be unafraid of telling the story. We need to be aware of what’s happening today, making comparisons. And then continue to offer a different worldview and a different way of creating what I would hope is a more just and peaceful society.”