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Remembering 1988, Mulugeta Seraw, and one outcome

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We’ve been here before, and it was worse.

Portland is reeling from the flood of racist, white supremacist activity in our area, but it’s nothing new. But I’m not referring to the 1860s or 1920s; I’m remembering November 1988 and the murder of Mulugeta Seraw.

The Willamette Week ran a story last year detailing the death and aftermath of Seraw’s death, but for anyone who was around then, and especially those who came out to mourn him and stand against the racists of that era, what’s happening now is a reopening of that old wound. 

And it’s kind of unsettling to put it like this, but there was one good outcome to the story, one that has had some pretty important outcomes. We need to remember what is possible when we oppose the racists, not through violence but through peaceful, and legal, means.

Seraw was an Ethiopian living in Portland when he and some friends were attacked by skinheads. He was beaten to death, bludgeoned with a baseball bat and then kicked brutally by three racists with steel-toed boots. It was a savage murder and a gut-punch to the city. The three killers pled guilty and went to prison for the crime.

But these were not three random skinheads, disaffected youth or whatever. They were part of a well-funded organization to which the three killers belonged: WAR, the White Aryan Resistance. After Seraw’s murder and the conviction of his killers, some rather incredible happened:

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Morris Dees came to Oregon, sued Metzger for instigating the murder, and they won. They effectively destroyed WAR as a growing skinhead, white-nationalist organization through the mundane operation of suing them in civil court.

They won $12.5 million from WAR’s founder. My favorite quote from the WW piece:

Metzger [the founder of WAR] had nowhere near that much money. But [James McElroy, the SPLC lawyer who led the legal battle] collected more than $100,000. “The biggest asset we got was Metzger's house," McElroy says. "We sold it to a nice Hispanic family, which I thought was poetic justice.”

Metzger was still making payments to the Seraw family in 2013; I hope he still is.Henoc

WAR still exists, but the white nationalist movement that had been growing in the Pacific Northwest slammed into a wall. The racism didn’t go away, but the organized effort was gutted. It was an amazing outcome.

It’s unlikely that today’s fascists and white supremacists can be sued into oblivion today, not with the internet at their disposal and their spiritual leader in the White House, not to mention racist minions by the thousands in governments and law enforcement throughout the country. But the lessons of 1988 need to remain with us:

There are more of us who oppose the hate than those who work to sow its seeds.

Use the courts. Write new laws if necessary. Keep building the next better mousetrap.

Realize this is nothing new and it won’t end regardless of what we accomplish in the next year or two.

Hate and fear are wired deep in the human brain. They were developed by thousands of generations of humans long before civilization appeared (and civilization has, in too many cases, only deepened and sophisticated that wiring). This is not a new phenomenon; there’s nothing particularly onerous about contemporary Oregonians. We are not suddenly worse because a lot of hate-filled, fear-filled white people are organizing, marching, and publishing online.

We are the same as we ever were. We just have new tools and opportunities.

We are also better than we were for one simple reason: More and more of us are recognizing how our brains are wired and are taking active steps to change our selves. The Buddha taught that simply becoming aware of your thoughts is liberation. When one person wakes up to the hate, the fear, the ignorance within their own mind, they have taken that first step to liberation – to being a better human being.

So don’t fall into despair over what’s going on now, the anger and marches and rhetoric and the evil at the border; all of that is the revealing of what people are carrying in their hearts and minds. Far better to get this out in the open so that those who hate the ugliness are challenged to wake up and act.

Which is exactly what we’re seeing. You may feel disgust at the fascists and racists, but, please: feel the hope in seeing the refusal of so many Americans to accept that the hate is ok. These are tough times we’re going through, but it’s nothing new. It’s just today’s version. We will get through this and be better for it.

That’s just what humans do when they live from hope and compassion instead of hate, fear, and selfishness.

With the money the SPLC won against the organization that murdered his father, Henock Seraw received an education and became an airline pilot.

With the money the SPLC won against the organization that murdered his father, Henock Seraw received an education and became an airline pilot.

T.A. Barnhart