Elinor Langer Book Takes Another Look At SPLC’s Civil Case Against Neo-Nazi Tom Metzger

An Oregon writer exhumes the 1990 civil case against neo-Nazi Tom Metzger, arguing that it was wrong-headed from the start.

A Hundred Little Hitlers:
The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America

By Elinor Langer
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003, 386 pp., $26

Editor's note: Because A Hundred Little Hitlers is in very large part a pointed critique of the Southern Poverty Law Center and its co-founder, Morris Dees, the Intelligence Report asked an outside expert to review the book without regard to any views the Center's staff may have. The editing of this piece, therefore, has been limited to minor stylistic points. Levitas is the author of the 2002 book The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right and a long-time commentator on the radical right. He also has written for the Intelligence Report before.

It has been 15 years since Mulugeta Seraw was bludgeoned to death by racist Skinheads on a darkened street in Portland, Ore. Seraw, a hard-working Ethiopian immigrant, and two companions were brutally beaten in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 1988, by three members of East Side White Pride: Kyle Brewster, Kenneth Mieske and Steve Strasser.

"Kill him! Kill him!" shouted one or more of the assailants' Skinhead girlfriends as Brewster pounded Seraw moments before Meiske smashed his skull with a baseball bat. Then, as Seraw tried to crawl away, Strasser stomped him viciously and Mieske delivered the fatal blow.

The crime sparked national headlines and local revulsion as well as a vigorous police investigation that led to a series of guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences. Mieske, 23, the death-obsessed lead singer of a heavy metal rock band, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received 30 years to life. Kyle Brewster, 19, a former high school homecoming king, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and assault and received 20 years with a 10-year minimum. And Steve Strasser, 20, pleaded guilty to similar charges and was given a 20-year sentence with a nine-year minimum.

Seraw's murder also led to one of the largest civil judgments of its kind in U.S. history when lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League persuaded a Portland jury to levy a $12.5 million verdict against White Aryan Resistance (WAR), its founder Tom Metzger and his son John.

In that case, the jury found the Metzgers liable for basically inciting the Portland Skinheads through the actions of Dave Mazzella, a violence-prone Skinhead who was the vice president of WAR's youth wing, the White Student Union/Aryan Youth Movement.

Most observers of the police investigation and the civil trial that followed, including those with close knowledge of the facts, readily concluded that the punishment fit the crime: After all, a gang of Skinheads with a history of racist violence launched an unprovoked attack on three black men, leaving one of them crumpled on the pavement, dying in his own blood and vomit. The Skinheads then fled the scene, burned the evidence and lied to police until persistent homicide detectives tracked down those willing to name names.

"Not so!" says Elinor Langer, author of a new book, A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America, which purports to offer readers a different set of facts and argues that the Skinheads' guilty pleas — and the successful civil prosecution of the Metzgers that followed — resulted from a "moral panic" which led to a terrible miscarriage of justice.

In Langer's twisted retelling of the case, race could not have been a motivating factor in Seraw's death because when the Skinheads first encountered the Ethiopians sitting in their darkened car, they supposedly had no idea that Seraw and his companions were black.

She is eager to inform us that one of the Ethiopians was drunk and sees the killing of Seraw as the result of a "confrontation," tracing its origins to mutual insults that were exchanged as both cars passed slowly down the street. But since when is an upraised middle finger in response to a racial epithet justification for murder?

Even more preposterous is Langer's attempt to convince readers that Seraw's death was accidental, despite the fact that Mieske — whose bedroom was a shrine to Nazism and who hoped to name his son after sadistic concentration camp doctor Joseph Mengele — shouted racial slurs before purposefully grabbing the bat, leaping from the car and wielding it with deadly force.