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Mulugeta Seraw remembered 30 years after his murder
Ethiopian refugee Mulugeta Seraw was remembered as a beloved immigrant and victim of racial violence on the 30th anniversary of his death.
Seraw was living in Southeast Portland when he was murdered by a racist skinhead on Nov. 13, 1988. The killing shook Portland and led to a landmark civil lawsuit that exposed underlying racial tensions in the city.
On Tuesday, the Urban League of Portland and Portland State University co-sponsored a conference that explored the consequences of the killing — and the continuing presence of far-right extremists who emerged following President Donald Trump's election. It took place on the same day the FBI released new statistics showing hate crimes increased 17 percent last year, the third annual increase in a row.
"We have come together here today to remember, to learn and to change," said Portland Urban League CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson, who opened the conference. "We can make things different because we choose to."
According to Johnson, the events that led up to Seraw's murder 30 years ago are not that different than what is happening today in Portland, with the emergence of far-right groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys.
"These thugs that take over our streets every other weekend are not to be taken lightly. They are the same kinds of people who fomented the murder of Mulugeta Seraw," said Johnson, who called for 15 seconds of silence to acknowledge other people of color who have been harassed, injured and killed in Portland.
The event was held at the University Place Conference Center in downtown Portland. Participants included Seraw's uncle Engedaw Berhanu and lawyers who brought a successful civil lawsuit against California white supremacist Tom Metzger for his role in the incident.
"Any time I speak about Mulugeta, I get emotional," said Berhanu, who talked about Seraw's decision to seek a better life in America. He said his nephew was a responsible young man whose death had a devastating effect on his family.
Jim McElroy, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center that filed the lawsuit, gave a history of the events leading up to the killing, including the role played by Dave Mazella, a California skinhead sent to Portland by Metzger to better organize the skinheads.
Elden Rosenthal, a Portland attorney who served as co-counsel with SPLC founder Morris Dees, warned that we are living in dangerous times.
"We have to do everything we can to save this country from the pressures that can lead to anarchy," said Rosenthal.
The conference included presentations on Seraw's life, the history of anti-black hate in Oregon, and how to respond to hate crimes. Co-sponsors included the Ethiopian Community of Portland, Portland United Against Hate, SE Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Portland's Office of Equity and Human Rights, Multnomah County, and other agencies and organizations.
Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a congressional resolution that says the 28-year-old Seraw was typical of refugees who come to America seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
"This horrific case galvanized the city, as well as the state of Oregon, to stand up to hate crimes and acts of violence by the neo-Nazi movement in the Pacific Northwest," the resolution states. "While this brutal slaying happened 30 years ago, it remains fresh in the minds of many who lived through that time and for people who still experience discrimination and hate today."
The resolution also noted the attack on a MAX train by a self-proclaimed white nationalist that left two men dead and one seriously wounded on May 26, 2017. The victims were coming to the defense of two women of color whom the attacker was verbally abusing, including one wearing a hijab.
Seraw was living in an apartment in the Kerns neighborhood when he and two friends were confronted by a group of racist skinheads who had been drinking on the night of Nov. 13. Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat during the confrontation by Ken Mieske, a member of a racist skinhead gang called East Side White Pride.
Three skinheads, including Mieske, were arrested and pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes for their roles in the incident, including murder. Afterwards, the Southern Poverty Law Center, assisted by local attorneys, filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Seraw's family, accusing Metzger of being responsible for the killing because he had been in contact with some of the skinheads. A Multnomah County jury agreed and awarded Seraw's estate $12.5 million.
Only around $175,000 was ever collected, however, mostly from the sale of Metzger's house.
The day after the conference, street sign "toppers" honoring Seraw were scheduled to be mounted by members of Seraw's family, Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, and representatives of the Urban League of Portland, the SE Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, the Kerns Neighborhood Association, and others. A public event was slated at Southwest 31st Avenue and Pine Street, where Seraw was killed.
Later on Wednesday, the City Council was scheduled to consider a proclamation declaring each Nov. 13 to be Mulugeta Seraw Day in Portland. Among other things, the proclamation says Portland remains an unwelcoming city for minorities, despite the lessons learned from Seraw's death.
"Portland's progressive reputation often hides its lack of diversity, the safe space our demographics create for racial animosity, and the lived experiences of people of color in Portland," reads the proclamation introduced by Eudaly and Mayor Ted Wheeler.
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