Note: Because we often remember the names of the far-right perpetrators but not their victims, the author has intentionally omitted the names of all the murderers in this piece and only named victims.
November 13 marks the 29th anniversary of the murder of Mulugeta Seraw. Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant, was killed in 1988 when a gang of Nazi skinheads crushed his head with a baseball bat on a small side street in Portland, Oregon. His death became the best known of dozens of murders that were part of the last popular wave of organized racist groups before the current resurgence of white supremacy driven by the “alt-right.”
A federally funded study says that almost 450 people have been killed in the United States by the far right since 1990 — and this is likely a conservative number. White supremacists don’t just desire a racist future in which people of color, Muslims, Jews and other historically oppressed groups are exterminated or expelled: They work actively to make it happen. And even without having the governmental power to do this explicitly, far-right activists have committed a continuous series of murders, bombings and assaults.
Seraw’s death was just one of at least 40 murders by Nazi skinheads between 1988 and 1996 — a number that doesn’t include murders by other racist factions, like the Ku Klux Klan.
However, for those of us who came of age in the punk rock scene or lived in Portland, it was Seraw’s senseless death that we recall the most. The city was shocked by the violence, even though it had come to be one of the centers of the Nazi skinhead scene, which in 1988 had exploded in a wave of popularity.
Seraw’s story is told in Elinor Langer’s A Hundred Little Hitlers. Seraw was born into a family of farmers in rural Ethiopia in 1960, and later moved to Addis Ababa, where he lived through the massacres of the late 1970s. In 1973, his uncle Engedaw Berhanu moved to the United States to pursue his education, and in 1980, he helped bring Seraw to Portland. Seraw worked as a custodian in an elementary school and took classes at a local community college, until he started driving a bus for Avis at the Portland airport, making $5.80 an hour. He sent money home to his young son in Ethiopia, and was active in the city’s tight-knit Ethiopian community.
In the early morning of November 13, 1988, Seraw was in a car with two friends after a party, parked in front of his apartment on a small street that was only wide enough for one vehicle to pass through. A car full of Nazi skinheads drove up. What should have been a momentary inconvenience turned into racial insults and violence. In the fight, Seraw was hit from behind with a baseball bat, and then again as he was crumpled on the ground. He died soon after.
While the death caused a great outcry in Portland, the involvement of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) boosted the visibility of this case. The Portland Nazis had murdered Seraw after spending the day with a recruiter for Tom Metzger’s group WAR, the White Aryan Resistance. WAR was a large national neo-Nazi group that, unlike other Nazis, was actively courting the new wave of racist skinheads. The SPLC, which had previously bankrupted a major KKK group in a wrongful death suit, used an unusual legal maneuver against Metzger: On behalf of Seraw’s family, they sued Metzger in civil court as an “agent” who was legally responsible for encouraging his subordinates’ crimes. The SPLC won a $12.5 million ruling against Metzger and three others, weakening his organization. It would go on to win lawsuits against other racist groups. (In a reprisal of this approach, the SPLC is currently attempting to sue Andrew Anglin, who runs the “alt-right” neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.)
By the late 1990s, the Klan and Nazi resurgence faded, although this did not stop members from continuing to commit gruesome murders.
The list of people that the far right has killed is overwhelming. Moreover, their violence is wide-ranging; the murders range in both scale and target. There are mass casualty events, the most deadly being the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by militia movement members, which killed 168. But smaller ones are more frequent. Six died in the August 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin, massacre at a Sikh temple. In June 2015 nine were killed at a Bible study in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
A number of serial killings are linked to the movement; for example, a neo-Nazi sniper killed as many as 22 between 1977 and 1980. Others butchered whole families: In Seattle in 1985, four members of the Goldmark family, including two children, ages 10 and 12, were killed because the murderer — wrongly — thought they were Jewish Communists.
Even the more prosaic murders have great variation. People of color are frequent targets, as are all historically oppressed groups, including Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and LGBTQ people. Police and homeless people are often killed. Antifascists are a frequent target, from the November 1979 Greensboro massacre in North Carolina, where five were killed at a “Death to the Klan” rally, to the August 2017 death of Heather Heyer, who was killed in a car-ramming attack after a fascist-led rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Far-right activists also kill other members of their movement with a surprising regularity, for being suspected informers or over political disputes. And it’s not uncommon for them to murder their own family members and close friends, such as when an Arizona neo-Nazi border patrol vigilante killed four people — including his girlfriend and her child and grandchild — in May 2012.
After Heyer’s death at Charlottesville, a lot of people asked, “How could this happen in the United States?” But many of us were flummoxed by this question. In May 2017, in Portland, a man who had just been seen sieg-heiling at an “alt-right” rally murdered Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, who intervened to stop his racist and Islamophobic abuse of two young women. And those weren’t the only far right murders this year.
In February in Olathe, Kansas, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was from India, was killed by a man shouting “Get out of my country!” In March, Timothy Caughman was killed by a man who traveled to New York to kill as many Black men as he could. In May, Richard Collins III was killed by a man with connections to online racist groups. And in September, Bruce Cofield and Donald Smart were randomly murdered, allegedly by a man whose house contained a copy of a Hitler speech. And these don’t include two killings of family members by Klan and “alt-right” members.
When I went back to Portland this October, the deaths of Best and Namkai-Meche were still on everyone’s minds. In the late 1990s, I lived around the corner from the site of Seraw’s murder, and would think about him as I passed by. I went with some friends to his grave to lay a wreath. He would be 57 years old now, if not for the murderous rise of the 1980s Nazi skinhead movement.
This November 13, let us remember Mulugeta Seraw — as well as Bruce Cofield, Donald Smart, Heather Heyer, Ricky Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Richard Collins III, Timothy Caughman, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and all of the hundreds of recent victims of the far right.