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Episodes

× 1: Setting the Scene - Portland OR 2: The Murder of Mulugeta Seraw 3: Building Community Defense 4: The Minneapolis Baldies and Anti Racist Action 5: They Thought We Were Everywhere: the Portland ARA 6: House Defense 7: A Research Capacity: The Work of the CHD 8: SHARPer Times 9: The Story of Jon Bair 10: Less Booted, More Suited 11: Nothing is Final

Episode One Transcript

Episode One: Setting the Scene – Portland OR


CELINA

This podcast contains lots of swearing and violence, occasional use of the n word, and other content that some people may find disturbing or offensive.

CHINA

There was a show at Pine Street, and it was, I think, Ken Mieske and Kyle Brewster it was their band, and it was called Machine. I tried not to go to skinhead shows, but turned out to be this massive skinhead crazy thing, and they were like, singing their crappy music, and they're all rioting and shouting and stuff, and I remember being there and I had Doc Martins, you know, the big thing to wear was Doc Martens and I had a nice pair of lady docs that I bought. I was 16. And I wasn't a big kid at all. And I remember them coming up to me, these girls, they were like, and they're probably 22. And like, why are you wearing white boots? Mind you these are black leather boots. And I was like, “they look black to me”. But I remember sitting up, up on the stage because I was scared. I mean, there was a lot of them there, and I was like, trying to watch my back. But on the stage is the skinhead band. I remember trying to get out, they actually had to sneak me out of Pine Street because they kicked a bunch of skinheads out because they were fighting, they were outside chanting, kill the, I'm gonna say it “kill the nigger.” They're talking about me. They were talking about me. I was this little black girl. And that's what they were chanting, you know? So the bouncers got worried. And there was a group of people there that I knew and they put a trench coat over me and snuck me out to this car. The guy's car wouldn't start. He got out. I think the driver was actually like Chinese or Asian, he went out they didn't want him. And I was in the backseat. I had two people on either side of me. There were skinhead bodies all over the car, they all had their straps, their bodies were plastered onto the car, they got a bat. They were trying to hit the window, and the guy's car wouldn't start. They broke the windows. Seriously, everybody in that car got like, punched or hit except for me. Finally the car started. Thank God! and we drove across Burnside back downtown. I mean, those people really saved my life. This is a week before they killed Mulugeta Seraw, okay? So this stuff was already brewing.

MIC

This mob scene could have happened anywhere and at any time in this racist empire known as America. But for China, the Black woman being interviewed about her punk rock youth, this was Portland, Oregon in 1988. Stories like China’s, stories of violence at punk shows and outright racism, were pretty common here back then.

CELINA

In November of 1988 when China got hustled into that car, about 400,000 people lived here, and about eighty five percent of them were white. The average cost of a single family home was seventy six thousand dollars, though that would soon rise astronomically. Oregon’s minimum wage in 1988 was three dollars and thirty five cents. The average rent for a room at the time was around a hundred bucks a month. Pizza was a dollar a slice. Young punk rockers in 1988 barely needed to work part-time to pay for a place to stay–or for a new pair of Lady Docs–which left a lot of time for hanging out. And the kids hung out downtown, which after five pm cleared out and was left to the hobos, the cops, drunks, drug dealers, street kids, punk rockers and skinheads.

MIC

At the time Portland had a lot of skinheads. They were often working class kids who were attracted to the camaraderie, the stripped down uniform, the menacing look, and the simple rhetoric: a shaved head, a bomber jacket, combat boots, suspenders, working class pride, and an embracing of violence. By the late 1980s, white supremacists started recruiting this local population, and Portland became referred to as “Skin City”, a haven for racist youth. Skinheads roamed downtown, northwest, and southeast Portland unhindered, in a drug and alcohol enhanced search for targets. Gays, men who did not fit masculine standards, interracial couples, lone punks, immigrants, Indigenous people and Black Portlanders all fit the bill. Anyone who attended a local punk or even rock show in the 80s knew that they might encounter violence at the hands of these bullies; the risk of violence was the price to pay for music fans in order to access the scene that kept their souls alive in the grim little city known to punks in those days as Doomtown.

CELINA

Then, late one night in November 1988 racist skinheads attacked a group of Ethiopian immigrants as they chatted in a car outside their apartment building in the South East working class Kerns neighborhood. 28-year-old Mulugeta Seraw got out of the car to fight with his friends against the boneheads, and went down under a baseball bat and multiple kicks from his three assailants, who left him for dead.

Three young men, ages 19, 23 and 24, were his executioners. They were not outside agitators. They were a punk rocker, a homecoming king with substance use issues and a street kid. They were restless homegrown racists itching for a fight on a Saturday night, egged on by their girlfriends and drunk on hate.

MIC

It Did Happen Here tells the story of an unlikely collaboration between groups of activists, immigrants, militant youth and queer organizers who used a diversity of tactics to confront blatant white supremacy. I’m Mic Crenshaw.

CELINA

and I’m Celina Flores. This is the story of how, thirty years ago, neo-nazis were chased off the streets of the Rose City. This is a people’s history- not an academic research project but the lived experiences of how people here became actively antifascist.

MIC

So let’s go back to the 1980s punk scene, a place frequented by underage kids, looking for an edge to test ourselves in the streets, a place where we could feel alive in the years of Reaganomics.

Here’s China again, and Michael Clark, who spent his youth as a white kid in the punk rock and skate scenes, to give their versions of Portland at that time:

CHINA

I was born and raised in Portland. I grew up first in north and northeast Portland. And that was actually a Black neighborhood. My mom moved us downtown to go to school.

MICHAEL CLARK

Downtown was a totally different story and the Greyhound station used to be on the other side of town and they had “The Wall” which was on the back side of the courthouse and 13 years old, you could buy any drug known to mankind there.

CHINA

Portland was smaller. I remember when they were building Pioneer Square. Before Pioneer Square there was a place called “The Wall” that people used to hang out on. This was way back even in the 70s.

CELINA

Portland was such a small-time city that the best place for kids to hang out those days was literally a stone wall in downtown Portland, where people bought drugs, took drugs, checked out each other’s outfits, listened to the newest hardcore tape on a crappy boombox and met up. Nowadays downtowns are privatized, enclosed, curated, and policed. ‘The Wall’ in downtown Portland back then was an unofficial public space, the ‘free’ square on the Monopoly board, where all types of downtown misfits gathered.

MICHAEL

Everybody was intermixed, and it was really interesting. There was definitely hierarchies. We had like the 80s rockers right? Total death metal guys, cliques of that, lots of punk rockers and at the time, ‘86, ‘87, the only skinheads that I knew of were white power skinheads.

CHINA

When I started to be involved downtown, there was a lot of street kids. There was like Rockers, it was punk rockers, skins and different kind of people, but a lot of people just hung out together.

MIC

If you asked the punks and skins at the time what kind of music they listened to, you might hear, (to paraphrase the Blues Brothers,) “We like both kinds of music, “punk” and “metal”. The nascent local thrash scene–with bands like Wermacht or Dead Conspiracy comfortably shared bills with local punk bands like Poison Idea and national metal acts like Slayer. Either way, between 1985 and 1990 you could pretty much count on Nazi skins showing up at most underground rock shows.

MICHAEL

I knew skinheads from being out at shows and from being on the punk rock skate scene. Everything I knew about them at the time was that everywhere they went there was trouble, that you better have friends with you if you were gonna run into them, and it was definitely violent wherever they were.

My personal experiences with them 13, 14, new pair of Docs, walking down Woodstock Boulevard and two carloads of guys pull up “hey you little... “, you know, yelling at me “give up the boots” and getting chased through southeast Portland. Also, gangs were really big. I went to Madison and Grant high schools so we had all a lot of diversity, Bloods, Crips, different Hispanic gangs, Asian gangs and a lot of guns and a lot of violence.

CELINA

Violence isn’t new to this formerly sleepy little city at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers; at the dawn of the 20th century Portland was one of the most dangerous port cities on the west coast. And in the late twentieth century, it was still pretty dangerous.

MIC

There was a stereotype back then of punks being menacing, crazy out of control and violent, terrorizing old ladies on the bus. The reality was being a punk on a bus in 1988 made you a target, from other teenagers, from homophobes, from rednecks, from cops, from jocks. If you were a punk you dressed and looked the way you did as a fuck you to society, and a lot of society took the message and said ‘fuck you’ right back. So take all of that and in China’s case, compound it by being a fourteen year old Black girl, and try to imagine the hostility she faced for just existing.

CHINA

I like punk rock music, I got exposed to it, I think I was listening to alternative radio, they would play some Vandals, and just old school punk rock. So I was listening to the music. And, growing up as a Black kid in Portland, Oregon, you know, I had already experienced being disenfranchised, experienced being excluded. So, you know, I think I just naturally started questioning society and questioning what was acceptable. And, you know, I started to kind of formulate ideas like questioning the system, formulating a kind of a state of mind, and you know, so the music appealed to me, the style appealed to me, and you know, being a kid, I didn't have money. So, punk rock style was something that I could access. You know, I could shred my shirt I could wear like, but it was a style that I felt I could relate to everyone at my school was wearing like Guess jeans and expensive stuff. I didn't have money, like that. I was coming from a single parent family. We just didn't have money. So then when I, you know, I started to interact with people and stuff, there was a lot of talk, was mostly white kids, all white kids, what am I saying, mostly. People would talk, you know, say the N word a lot. And then I remember them saying, “well, not you” for a minute, I'd be like, “hey,” and then I started thinking about it. Like, it was a real uncomfortable feeling didn't feel good. I always felt kind of, you know, like unsafe.

MIC

Racist incidents in the punk scene became a regular part of China’s teenage life.

CHINA

When I first came downtown, I remember these three girls, they were all older than me. I was like, 13 or 14. They said that I stole the bus pass to buy dope. I don't even know what dope was. That's how naive and dumb I was. And so these girls started attacking me. You know, they jumped me! Kinda being the kid that I was, I mean, I was like, scared at first, but I just got in. I mean, I fought back and, somebody hits me, I'm not going to stand there and be hit. So, I gained respect. But I've never, that's always just hurt my heart because I was just a naive kid. But I didn't want to fight anybody, I didn’t steal from nobody, you know, so I gained respect right there just because I was able to fight and that's, so that's what it was like in the beginning, being part of this, this scene.

There was a prevalence of white supremacist attitudes. There was like this group, Eastside White Pride. And a lot of the people that were affiliated with them were, they weren't like shaved bald, but they would have like long hair. They're kind of white people that were basically racist. Like most white people, you know, they're just more blatant, probably more real with it. That's where the, the Nazi skinhead movement evolved from in Portland.

I was with a friend of mine and three men called me the N word. My friend was older and he was like, “hold on” and he took a skateboard and just hit ‘em upside the head. And they hit me with a bottle and I'm like, you know, but he just cracked him upside the head with the skateboard and we're like, really fighting. So this was happening because of who I was: a Black girl. I was a kid with nowhere to live. I didn't have any education. Nobody was listening to me. I was getting police brutality. I was getting skinhead brutality. I had to be strong as fuck. Okay, I had to be so strong.

JASON

I grew up in Portland area. I spent a lot of my youth tearing around downtown skateboarding and was involved in the punk rock scene, especially from ‘85, ‘86 on.

CELINA

That’s Jason; who later organized with the group Anti Racist Action or ARA. We’re going to hear from him throughout the podcast.

JASON

There were quite a few traditional or oi skins that were not racialized. It was very fluid.

MIC

‘Oi or ‘traditional’ skinheads is a classification that comes out of the UK skinhead scene. As the skinhead scene became more partisan, communists and anarchists on the left, fascists on the right, traditional skins tried to take the middle path. They were class conscious and nationalisitic, but otherwise apolitical. As fascist violence increased this middle path became increasingly untenable.

JASON

Some of them went white power, some of them on the fringes still hung out, but didn't get quite as involved. Other people were wearing crossed-out swastikas, but they all still knew each other. They were still part of this loose fabric.

I was still just a punk kid going to shows and didn't know a whole lot of those people personally. I'd met a few through going to treatment and aftercare programs and what like that as a teenager, and then witnessing them becoming racialized. They definitely started to make a presence at shows and there would be confrontations between skinheads that had become white power and those that were still on the fringes and like, you know you better figure it out or get in line or don't show up with that crossed out swastika next time I see you. But nothing had really, really moved too rapidly. And then there was a beating of a guy downtown, an Asian man. And there was a few other incidents that happened and it just started getting worse and worse. So often they would spend the shows just beating each other up or beating up anyone that got in the way. And then it grew to where there'd be 10 to 20 of them. They stepped up their recruitment efforts. So the old Pine Street Theater, 9th and Pine. That, and the old Starry Night down on 6th and West Burnside were the two big clubs that they made presences at.

MIC

’The ‘Asian man’ Jason mentions was 27-year-old Singapore native Hock-Seng “Sam” Chin. In March of 1988 three skinheads harassed him and his family outside a downtown restaurant yelling, ’Get out of the Country!’, an anti-immigrant taunt that we still hear today from Proud Boys and other racists. Chin stood his ground and was not severely hurt. But in a news article from May of 1988, the city’s of Portland’s refugee coordinator dismissed the attack on Chin, saying racist skinheads were not a threat to Portland’s immigrant populations.

CELINA

Over and over, people who survive attacks have called for redress, only to have the experiences be brushed off as isolated incidents. The pattern where police and city government ignore lived experiences of marginalized people creates an environment in which skinheads in the 80s, and racists today, are able to have space and power. This pattern of downplaying racist attacks in Portland reflects the deep white supremacy at the roots of the city–and of the nation. Here’s Jorin, another white punk kid from Portland who became part of Anti Racist Action

JORIN

The big impact was going to shows, which, first of all, were significantly fewer back then. So you know, we were pretty excited if we had a good show to go to once a month. Pine Street Theater was one of the main venues that we would go see either local or touring bands. My recollection was it was always kind of scary. Early on, I have less of a recollection of political orientation being as much of an issue. We didn't really think of them as boneheads or Nazi skinheads. They were just skinheads. And they were typically bigger. They were often older. And they were bullies. One of the elements was like, were they going to ask us what type, what size our shoes were. I remember being probably 14 or 15 years old and being outside Satyricon in Old Town and seeing a kid get curbed for his boots. Kind of from that point on, I was always terrified that something like that could happen to anyone.

MIC

To give a little more perspective on how skinheads impacted the local scene, here’s a letter to the editor sent in May of 1988 to Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative newsweekly:

CELINA

“Skins do a lot of their gathering at concerts and shows where they intimidate everyone from the door person to the kids watching the performance. They travel and fight in packs. It’s hard for even the largest door person or bouncer to repel twenty skins who descend on the door at once, demanding to be let in for lower prices, or ignoring the fact that they have been ’86’d’ from a venue for causing violence in the past. In the pit at hardcore shows, male skins gang up on individuals who ‘looked at them funny’ and slash innocent people with their spiked rings. Female skins beat up girls in the bathroom at Pine Street Theatre, with no provocation whatsoever. The skinheads drink outside the venues where there are shows, increasing the need for paid security outside, as well as inside the club. They carry baseball bats with swastikas on them, knives, brass knuckles, etc…

How can a club owner or employee ever criticize one skinhead without the fear of having all the establishment’s windows broken by the gang? You can’t throw out one violent skinhead without incurring the wrath and retribution of all of the skinheads. Before almost every hardcore show, rumors ran rampant about who or what the skins are ganging up against on this particular night. I have heard them threatening people who dared to stand up to them, that they would kill them next time they encountered them on the street. No matter how hollow these threats may turn out to be, it’s terrifying to the lone individual who actually does see skins on the street every day.

The escalation of the number of skinheads in Portland in the last two years is absolutely staggering. It’s amazing how cool it has become to dress in a bomber jacket and boots, purchase a Skrewdriver t-shirt, and a few albums. I’ve lost count of how many kids I’ve seen shave their heads and adopt the uniform in just the past few months. I cannot believe that they are all ignorant of the political beliefs that go along with the outfit, and it seems likely that at least some of them will be joining their look alikes in gang-type intimidation in the future…

Please do not print my name or address. If you publish this letter just sign me, Intimidated.”

MIC

Let’s not forget the foundations of all of this: Oregon’s history as a state deliberately constructed by its settler founders as a Protestant white homeland. Despite the strong presence of the city’s militant left wing culture, Portland was still an overgrown backwoods town, full of rednecks and racist cops, where white supremacy was, and is still, upheld by decree, vigilante violence, and institutionalized oppression.

Portland is also geographically isolated. San Francisco is a 12 hour drive; Seattle is four hours away. At the time, plane tickets were expensive, and not everyone had a crappy car, and bus travel was excruciating. As a result Portland has tended to turn inward and developed a vibrant and unique alternative culture. In the late 70s and early 80s the first wave of punk swept through Portland, giving us the Wipers who rose to national prominence fronted by lead singer and lyricist Greg Sage, a gay man. Fred and Toody Cole from the Rats (and later Dead Moon) grew out of 1960s hippie and anti war countercultures. A pair of teenage sisters led the band the Neo Boys. Portland’s original punk scene, like a lot of early punk scenes in the US, was experimental, home to queer people and women who offset clichés; weirdos who brought an art vibe, self described mutants, and other folks who didnt’ fit in with mainstream culture.. By the mid 1980s many of these original punks supported the scene off the stage, they worked at record stores, designed posters, established and staffed over-21 punk venues like Satyricon and Blue Gallery, and DJed late night radio shows.

CELINA

It was quite a different scene by the mid 80s. Years of the Reagan administration's vicious policies against the poor, the mentally ill, and single moms among others, along with the rise of the Christian right sharpened tensions. The teenage punks of 1987 were angrier and even more alienated than their artsy predecessors. Their music was faster, more aggressive. Poison Idea a local band who formed in 1980, specialized in alienation, nihilism, and self-destruction.They played with blistering speed and rabid intensity. In the mid 80s they were the only local band that mattered, the Kings of Portland Punk.

PATRICK MAZZA

During the 80s, barely any kind of the alternative culture people lived east of 39th. You could be an artist, you could live on a few hundred dollars a month. And that was a lot of the reason for the vibrancy of the scene, there was some space and latitude.

MIC

Patrick Mazza covered Portland’s changing music scene, and was one of the few local writers who wrote about hardcore. Mazza was a white activist and journalist in his thirties during the late 80s; he wrote a music column for a left wing newspaper that was published and edited by his late brother Dave, called the Portland Alliance.

PATRICK MAZZA

Portland had gotten a national reputation for being a place where skinheads could come and you know, even among a punk community, there was this weird tolerance for intolerance. For city of our size, we had the most skinheads per capita. I mean, it was like skinhead capital. Skins came from typically poor and lower class backgrounds. They were not prosperous people. So a lot of young white people who felt vulnerable joined for common defense. We know the history of Oregon, the Klan history of the 20s, the bar on black people living in Oregon. So that kind of racist white undercurrent was still there. And so they could kind of mesh in you know, with the rest of the working class, and they came in and did indoctrination. The Aryan Nations people came in and said, “Well, you know, you know why you, why you're all screwed up. It’s all those Blacks and Jews, all those people taking your jobs and it’s not your fault.” And so you got an increasing ideological element to it. They were beating up on Black people beating up on gays. This was going on for a number of years.

CELINA

One of the punks indoctrinated by nazi organizers was a former street kid named Ken Mieske, also known as Ken Death. Ken Death was a charismatic musician in Portland’s hardcore scene who worked a security job at punk venues. We mentioned his band at the beginning of this episode, when China escaped the mob of racists. By 1988, when Ken was 24, he was running with the skinhead crew East Side White Pride.

PATRICK MAZZA

Ken Mieske was a visceral guy who was violent. That's what got him to be security chief at Monqui productions at Pine Street theater. The first I saw Ken Mieske was in this short that Gus Van Zant had done that he showed at an event with William Burroughs. It was quite a night, it was an amazing night. Then my next encounters was when I became a music columnist for Portland Alliance.

CELINA

In 1986 Patrick helped organize a benefit show at the Pine Street Theatre to raise funds to support closing the Hanford Nuclear Waste Dump on the Columbia River.

PATRICK MAZZA

We decided to, you know, stage this benefit at Pine Street. The people at Monqui Productions who were running Pine Street at the time, said, “you better get good security’. We really didn't know what was coming at us. Originally it was supposed to be MDC, it stands for Millions of Dead Cops, BGK from Netherlands, and Cheetah Chrome from Italy.

MIC

Cheetah Chrome is a punk guitarist who is most known for playing in the Dead Boys. The band from Italy that played this show was actually Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers. When Mazza says Cheetah Chrome, he means Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers, the band.

PATRICK MAZZA

As the rumblings about the show got into the air, MDC said no we're not going to come . Night of the show, the skinheads turned up in large numbers, 60, or something like that. Ken Mieske, Ken Death, who was security chief for Monqui, he let some of his friends in. Our person working the door let some of them, they left their baseball bats at the door. When Cheetah Chrome opened, they started Seig Heil-ing. The lead singer for Cheetah Chrome said, “we're not gonna to play. Our fathers died fighting you're kind of scum. We're not gonna to play for you.” All of a sudden the entire floor disintegrates into little clustering, arguing groups of people, people arguing with the skinheads. This was 1986. This is my, my Portland Alliance column: “The next day I was I was told that a number of local bands are going to do the same as Cheetah Chrome , refused to play when people are pulling Nazi crap in the audience. We spent the next couple of days with band members Antonio of Cheetah Chrome told me that even though the group didn't get to play, it was the best show they ever had. “Cheetah Chrome wants something beyond music,” he said. They want communication with the audience and something that will change peoples’ lives. They gave people some inspiration to stand up. That did not set off the wave against the Nazis. It took the killing of Mulugeta Seraw to do that.”

ERIN YANKE

Thanks for listening to Episode One of It Did Happen Here. To learn more about Portland’s racist roots, watch Walidah Imirisha’s presentation ‘Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History’. You can find the link for that, and more content like show notes and transcripts at our website: itdidhappenherepodcastdot.com Interviews for this episode were by Barbara Bernstein, Celina Flores, Erin Yanke, and Mic Crenshaw; your hosts were Mic Crenshaw and Celina Flores. It Did Happen Here is produced by Mic, Celina, and me, Erin Yanke. Our next episode tells of events that led to the brutal murder of Mulugeta Seraw.

Thanks to the bands for the music, thanks to the participants for sharing their stories and experiences, thanks to the Marla Davis Fund, KBOO Community Radio, and to the rest of our production team: Icky A, Julie Perini, and Moe Bowstern, and thank you for listening.