By Midge Pierce
Seventeen street capsigns featuring the likeness of Ethiopian Exchange student Mulugeta Seraw (murdered 30 years ago near Laurelhurst Park) now stand in the Kerns neighborhood as lasting reminders of Portland’s racist past, its current racially-charged violence and the Max murders just over a year ago.
Citing a 17% increase in hate crimes last year, SE Uplift (SEUL) has taken a lead role in honoring Seraw, supporting all those targeted by discrimination and stopping hate in its tracks.
SEUL was integral in a December symposium for the book, A Hundred Little Hitlers by journalist Elinor Langer who covered the trial that found an Aryan Resistance founder who spewed racist rhetoric liable in Seraw’s murder.
In addition, Portland United Against Hate, a community coalition in partnership with the City of Portland’s Office of Community & Civic Life, is piloting a system to document hate/bias incidents via reporthatepdx.com or to partner organizations.
These include Latino Network, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Unite Oregon, African Youth and Community Organization, Lewis and Clark Community Counseling Center, POIC+RAHS, Q Center, Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Fair Housing Council of Oregon, and IRCO Africa House.
SE Uplift’s Executive Director is asking Portland to work together “to bravely address the systems of oppression and discrimination that contribute to the perpetuation of hate and violence, and to nurture a Portland where all community members have the basic human right of safety.”
Last year’s Max train murders were a wake-up call for us all, yet the reality is, hate crimes have risen steadily recently, up some 17 percent since last year.
As white supremacists become ever more emboldened, Portland’s downtown seems to brace for violence every weekend as groups like the Proud Boys (now a declared terrorist group) come to town to prod Portland progressives.
Yet, residents are typically shocked and surprised when they learn our past includes the horrific murder of an Ethiopian exchange student thirty years ago in SE. To ensure we don’t forget, city officials and the Portland Urban League sponsored a multi-day commemoration culminating in the proclamation of a November Mulugeta Seraw Day.
As part of anti-racism efforts in the Kerns Neighborhood, the streetcaps funded by SE Uplift were dedicated last month on a quiet, little-changed corner at SE 31st and Pine St.
As neighbors watched, the League’s Nkenge Harmon Johnson, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and others including Seraw’s uncle praised the community for making new history to try to stop hate in its tracks.
Reacting to public outpouring over his nephew’s death, Engedaw Berhanu said,”I guess Mulugeta touched a nerve in this community.”
Speakers praised the community for being unflinching in the installation of reminders of the horrific event in which Neo-Nazi skinheads beat Seraw to death with a baseball bat.
Citing the surge of hate groups, Johnson said, “Our eyes are wide open…to white nationalists and those…who seek to make us unsafe.”
Each speaker called attention to bitter stories of hate and discrimination. SE Uplift head Molly Mayo called Seraw an extraordinary young man whose “life was taken too early by a senseless act of racial hate.”
Also on hand were the lawyers who worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center on a lawsuit that essentially bankrupted the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) held accountable for inciting the violence.
Lawyer James McElroy spoke of the life-changing event that led to his adoption of Seraw’s young six-year-old son Henock, now a middle-aged commercial airline pilot.
The official proclamation by Eudaly and Mayor Ted Wheeler claimed that not enough has changed in Portland, chiding the City for racial animosity and a lack of understanding of the “lived experience of people of color in Portland.”