Episode Two Transcript
Episode Two: The Murder of Mulugeta Seraw
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.
He was an Ethiopian immigrant. He'd come here, and I guess he was a college student. You know, I didn't know him personally at all. But I mean, that's, just an innocent person. You know, who came here for school and a better life, and these guys killed him. (((KATU clip))) Reporter: The crime took place here on SE 31st early Sunday morning. Three Black men, all from Ethiopia, were sitting in this car talking. When one left to head for his apartment, another car pulled up. Three young white men jumped out and began beating him. There were also two women with the three skinheads, women who stayed in their car, but who shouted encouragement. Interviewee: They never say anything. Just the girls, they screaming inside and they say, "kill," you know, "kill him" or "beat him" you know. Reporter: Dead is 27 year old Mulugeta Seraw.
We're all hanging out at this apartment on 21st street. There was like 20 of us. Someone brought the news that they'd killed somebody. That those people that we've been fighting, and it was, like, silence. We were all like, "oh my god, this is, this is real. Shit. This is real." We knew that it was, but having someone killed like that. I mean, it was like a sadness and kind of, like, we realized that what we'd actually been fighting was something that we totally needed to fight.
The murder of Mulugeta Seraw hit the city hard. Even today, many Portlanders remember the moment when they first heard the news. People who lived in the Kerns neighborhood, site of the murder, were shocked to learn of their racist neighbors. This was not shocking to Black and queer Portlanders, Indigenous people, immigrants, and punks, all targets of the young neo-nazi gangs. City leaders could no longer gaslight frightened teens or marginalized populations; it was the beginning of a civic defense that would forever change Portland.
Welcome to Episode Two of It Did Happen Here, The Murder of Mulugeta Seraw. I'm Mic Crenshaw, your host for this episode. (short musical interlude)
A young man named Mulugeta Seraw, was an Ethiopian student at Portland State University, was beaten to death by neo-nazi skinheads on the streets of Southeast Portland.
That’s Scot Nakagawa, an activist and organizer. We’ll be hearing from him a lot throughout this podcast.
Those neo-nazi activists were affiliated with a group called East Side White Pride. And they in turn were affiliated with a national organization called The White Aryan Resistance, which was led by a man named Tom Metzger who was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and, many suspected, a member of an underground neo-nazi group called The Order that was involved in a number of famous murders and millions of dollars of burglaries of, mainly of armored cars. We understood this group was very dangerous. A couple of their members were. . . surprised people in the community, one was the leader of a popular Portland band. He was a big cultural figure in the alternative music scene here who was known by the name Ken Death. He actually was the star of a short film by the filmmaker Gus Van Zant called Ken Death Gets Out of Jail. So you know, I had some familiarity with Ken and the circle that he moved in. So that was a bit of surprise, though not as much as the surprise that Carl Brewster presented us. Carl Brewster, who was from an upper middle class family and whose mother was a progressive social activist in the city. So, you know, these things that defied stereotypes, these young men who brutally, really brutally beat Mulugeta Seraw to death with baseball bats and by kicking him, and for nothing. For some dispute over parking or something, shocked the city. Shocked the city that these were not your stereotypical street thugs, that they were highly sophisticated political thinkers, that they had national affiliations and that they, you know, specifically were who they were.
The news of the murder deeply impacted the punk community. We bring back punks Jorin and China, from the last episode to share their experiences.
They had moved from just being bullies of our scene to political actors that were capable of murder. They meant business. And I think it mobilized a lot of us to start being a little less passive. And we needed to do something.
There were some people that were sent up here. I feel like Tom Metzger sent them, they were, like, white Aryan Nations or whatever. . . They set up here and they had hits out on a couple of us. And so there were like, street fights. And I remember there was a concert, a bunch of us were there. And then these Nazis showed up, and they even had tasers, it was nuts.
Portland's power base - political, economic, educational, they did not respond well or quickly enough to skinheads.
That’s Ron Herndon, one of the most well known activists in Portland. Ron Herndon had been a student radical at Reed College, and later founded Portland’s chapter of the Black United Front. Herndon had decades of experience in organizing in Portland’s tightly knit black community, particularly around issues of race equity in Portland’s schools throughout the 1980s.
It’s, it's almost as if you see that you've got a cut on your hand, and it's not healing well and you ignore it and then you wonder why you've got poison streaming throughout your arm and then now it's spreading throughout your body. Something should've been done when you saw the cut. And when this organization and those who espouse that racist dogma, when it first came to town, they're putting out their little flyers and hate statements, there should've been a far more assertive response to that then. And I think that's the danger, that when this pops up, and it's quite cyclical, when it pops up there has to be an immediate strong response from every possible segment of society to it. If we ignore that we ignore it at our own peril.
Again, here's Scot Nakagawa.
The racist right in the United States is a permanent feature of American politics and requires constant vigilance. So that was something we learned and we learned very quickly. We learned how long the history was of many of the white nationalist groups that were active here in Oregon. We learned about the influence of groups like the Posse Comitatus here in Oregon, that goes back decades. The Posse Comitatus, whose ideology was basically, is basically a blueprint for the Bundy uprising and the occupation of the bird sanctuary in Malheur County. These kinds of groups and ideas have always been a part of the political mix, have always been limiting our democratic potential here, have always targeted communities of color, women, religious minorities, and have always been able to play a really significant role in determining what political outcomes we will have here in Oregon, all the way around the country. We, in studying that history also saw, for example, that the Ku Klux Klan was very active here in the 1920’s. That at one point, I believe it's true that about one in three white men in the city of Portland belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan here played the kingmaker in one Oregon election, helping to decide who the government would be. And were really active in trying to close down Catholic parochial schools. Their influence is something we still feel here. You know, one of the reasons why we have such a robust public school system here in Oregon, relative to many other places is because of the activity of the Klan. Part of the reason why we have such a powerful free speech clause in our Constitution is in part, the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. And so you know, they are part and parcel of the story of Oregon, they are part of the history here. And so, we should never behave as if, because they become less visible, they've gone away. In fact, they've always been here.
Racism has extremely deep roots in Oregon; uprooting white supremacy requires long term strategizing and relationship building to create community in coalition locally, nationally, and internationally. Black Portland had been building these kinds of coalitions for decades. Here's Ron Herndon again, describing the community that's supporting African liberation struggles:
During the late 60s, all during the 70s, every year there was a big march and rally here in Portland called African Liberation Day. And it was to support African countries who at that time, were still suffering from colonialism and apartheid, and that event every year was meant to bring attention to that, give support to the liberation movements. Black people here in Portland sent supplies, clothes, back to those countries. The communities were intertwined. There were efforts made between members of both communities to learn from each other, to support each other, celebrate and work with each other, invited people to their various events, holiday celebrations. So I think that's why it made it very easy for the Ethiopian community to reach out to us. I remember getting a phone call the day after he had been murdered and someone from the Ethiopian communities that I knew said that, “we need help. We don't know what to do. Can you come and meet his uncle and other members of the community?” So we said yes. There were about 4 of us who went to this apartment over, not too far from here in Southeast Portland, and what I remember walking in the room is all these women who were just crying, crying, crying. I met his uncle, and he asked us what we could do. And we said, well, one of the things we can do is we can have a press event to draw attention to this and we'll have a rally demonstration. So we did that. We had a press event and we got him in touch with an attorney so that he would know what he could safely say and what he probably shouldn't say in terms of what was going to happen going forward with the police investigation. So we did that and we had the rally on the steps of city hall and a couple hundred people came out from the white community, Black community and the Hispanic community to bring attention to what happened and to demand that justice be served.
We’ll now learn about Mulugeta Seraw from someone who knew him. Engedaw Berhanu, Mulugeta Seraw’s uncle. The speech was recorded at the Mulugeta Seraw Commemoration Conference sponsored by the Urban League of Portland to honor Mulugeta on the 30th anniversary of his murder and to study the history of anti-Black violence in Oregon.
Any time I speak about Mulugeta, I get emotional. I like to be emotional because he means a lot to me. Here we go. When I arrived in the US from Ethiopia on a student visa in March, 1973, I had no plan to remain in the US. My plan was to return home immediately after I completed my education. In fact, I was so eager to return home, that I received my degree in journalism from Walla Walla College, now Walla Walla University, in three years, in 1976. After I graduated, I was offered a position as director of the Seventh Day Adventist Publishing House in Adis Ababa, Ethiopia where I worked as a translator and editor before I left for the US. When I wrote my father to tell him the good news that I was returning home, as a big shot, I did not expect his reaction. He told me not to return home at that time. He said it was not safe for me to do so. You see, in 1976, Ethiopia was in the middle of a raging civil war. People were being killed in the streets randomly, especially young men. Instead, my father told me to send for my brothers and my nephew to bring them to the US where he thought they would be safer. After a few moments of indecision, not knowing when I would be able to return home, it dawned on me that chances for my returning to Ethiopia were getting slimmer and slimmer. I decided to go to graduate school in the US. In 1979, I enrolled in the Department of Sociology at Portland State University on this very campus. It was at that time I received letters from my nephew Mulugeta Seraw and from one of my brothers letting me know that they had graduated from high school and wanted to come to the US to further their education. By then, I had met and befriended a very kind couple, Clarence and Elsie Tupper who lived in Goldendale, WA. They were willing to sponsor Mulugeta and my brother. I sent Mulugeta and my brother I-20s, that's International College acceptance letters. Mulugeta completed the process and arrived in Portland in December 1980. I cannot explain the happiness was we feel, both felt when I picked him up at the airport. We had not seen each other since Mulugeta was a small boy. I marveled at how he had grown up into a handsome young man. You see, Mulugeta and I always had a special bond. He was the second child and the first son of my beloved older sister,Fetenech. She was the person I loved more than anyone else because she cared for my younger siblings and me when our young mother died. Unfortunately, she died at a young age, too. I felt it was my turn to help her children now. I was happy to have the opportunity to help Mulugeta. Mulugeta moved in with me in my apartment in Beaverton and he proved to be a very responsible young man. He quickly found a job, at first at a fast food restaurant, later at a small Catholic school in Beaverton. He became a favorite of both the students and the staff, the teachers. He was hard-working, caring, kind, and respectful. He also made a circle of friends from the small community of Ethiopians and Americans alike. He quickly was acknowledged as a leader and a peacemaker. He was also an avid soccer player. When I decided to move to California in January 1982, I suggested that he join me in my move, he politely declined. He said he liked living in Portland. He has his friends, his job, his school. He assured me that he could take care of himself. During the following years, Mulugeta and I and my family kept in close contact. We would attend relatives' weddings and other major events together. He would visit my family in California frequently during the holidays, and I would visit him in Portland occasionally. In the process, he and my young daughter established a very special bond during his frequent visits. She just loved his beautiful smile and sweet personality. The last time I saw Mulugeta was during Labor Day weekend in 1988 a couple months before he was murdered when we attended a relative's wedding in Walla Walla, Washington. He was very happy and still going to school. Then, I received a phone call on that fateful Sunday morning at 5 o'clock on November 13, 1988. The voice on the other end of the line said that Mulugeta was hurt in a fight early that morning. But intuitively, I knew that something had gone terribly wrong because Mulugeta was never a fighter. He always tried to stop fights. Even when he was murdered, he was not fighting, but he was trying to stop the fight between his friends and the skinheads. This selfless act demonstrates the true nature of Mulugeta's heart even in the face of danger. My beloved Mulugeta Seraw lived as a peacemaker and died as a peacemaker. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to Episode Two of It Did Happen Here. This episode is dedicated to the life of Mulugeta Seraw. Thank you for coming to earth. Rest in power.
For this episode, interviews were by Celina Flores, Ender Black, Erin Yanke, Mic Crenshaw, and Yugen Rashad and your host was Mic Crenshaw. It Did Happen Here is produced by Mic, Celina, and me, Erin Yanke. Our website is itdidhappenherepodcastdot.com, where you can find show notes, links, photos, and more.
Thanks to the bands for the music, and thanks to the participants for sharing their stories and experiences. Thank you also to the Marla Davis Fund, KBOO Community Radio, and to the rest of our production team: Icky A, Julie Perini, Moe Bowstern, and thank you for listening.