In the fall of 1988, in Portland Oregon, an Ethiopian student and taxi driver named Mulugeta Seraw was murdered by a group of White Power skinheads who called themselves East Side White Pride. Portland has been, since the mid-1980s, one of the centres of youth-driven radical white suprematism, as groups like the Northwest Hammerskins and other skinhead groups have emerged out of Portland’s eclectic underground culture.
The Pacific Northwest has been designated as a Homeland for White Americans by various segments of the White Power scene since The Order (also known as “The Silent Brotherhood) emerged as a Neo Nazi paramilitary vanguard, operating out of rural Washington, in the early 1980s. More recently, the former American Nazi Party leader and current founder of the secessionist Northwest Front, Harold Covington, has been pushing this idea of the Northwest as a locale for white settlement which he calls the Northwest American Republic. I’m not sure where this vision leaves the various Indigenous groups who, at the very least, have given the Northwest so many of its place names.
|A seal of the Northwest Front which covers Oregon, Washington, and Idaho states. The now largely inactive Aryan Nations (thanks to a crushing multi-million dollar lawsuit launched by the Southern Poverty Law Center) was based in rural Idaho.|
At the heart of the over-representation of Skinheads of the Nazi variety were two media forces, the rise of daytime talk shows like Oprah, Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo, and others, which, according to Joshua Gamson’s 1998 book Freaks Talk Back, were significant because provided a forum for voices often marginalized by most other forms of media. The other force in media was Tom Metzger, a former Grand Dragon of the California KKK and electronics technician and entrepreneur who hosted a monthly public access television program called Race and Reason which was distributed to various audiences via VHS tape. It should be noted that an appearance of Metzger and his son on Geraldo, where a violent melee resulted in the host’s broken nose in 1989, remains one of the most referenced moments in both studies of White Power subcultures and histories of Talk television. During the 1980s Metzger was also the figurehead of a white power organization called WAR (or White Aryan Resistance) that recruited Skinheads and encouraged violent confrontation with non-whites as a matter of duty.
A Hundred Little Hitlers is The Nation journalist Elinor Langer’s account of the story of Seraw’s murder and its aftermath. Her primary achievement with this text is to take the material for what could be an especially lurid true crime book and humanize all of the agents involved. Langer, of course, creates a powerfully sympathetic portrait of the victim of this particular episode of xenophobic rage, but she also adds colour to her renderings of the perpetrators as well. She does not invite the reader to feel for the members of East Side White Pride, but she does strive to represent them as not strictly hammer-fisted thugs, rather as people who have struggled through fractured lives towards the situation that led them to their doom (Seraw murderer Ken Mieske, or ‘Ken Death’ - a name relating to his status as frontman for a death metal band rather than his willingness to kill - died in prison last summer). She notes that many of the skinhead neo-nazis were street kids who admired Hitler’s virulent racism and his impoverished adolescence. When Langer discusses the (ultimately successful) civil suit launched by Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Centre against Tom Metzger, she is critical of Metzger’s racist venom AND some of Dees more underhanded legal tactics.
Langer is a Portland resident (at the time of her book’s publication) and her text reflects that. The author frequently inserts references to her own situation into her narrative of these events, noting, for example, the proximity of her home to that of the family of one of the Neo-Nazi murderers. Langer’s book is an examination of all of the lines of social force an event such as a hate-murder produces, from the impact upon Seraw’s family at home in Ethiopia, to the multitude of effects at its Portland epicentre including upon the author, a neighbor to the crime.