Oregon journalist Elinor Langer examines the Center's 1990 Metzger case and argues it was wrong-headed from the start in "A Hundred Little Hitlers."
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. A Personal Slant?
Langer's analysis of the crime, like many other arguments in her book, underscores her skewed perceptions of events. All too often, her own facts undermine the conclusion she seeks to present.
Langer's distortions continue when she likens the community effort to track down Seraw's killers to the sentiments of a lynch mob and she condemns the summoning of a grand jury as a dastardly "political intrusion" into the case. She is indignant because Portland, like most of America, has a history of racism and so denunciations of Seraw's death sound hypocritical to her.
But Langer utterly fails to convince the reader that a more muted response was warranted, especially in light of the community-wide violence committed by racist Skinheads that she herself documents in the book.
Langer is frustrated that Mieske, Brewster and Strasser pleaded guilty without a trial and considers their sentences too severe, yet she readily acknowledges that they committed — and confessed to — the crime. And while she is deeply dubious about the evidence showing how Dave Mazzella led members of East Side White Pride to commit violence, she seems all too ready to believe the self-serving statements of other Skinheads.
In addition to criticizing the Law Center for filing the civil suit, she chides SPLC Chief Trial Counsel Morris Dees for "demonizing" Metzger and describing him as "evil" to the jury and the press.
Langer's tone is not strident, but her book is a suppressed tirade nonetheless. She is no fan of Skinheads — in fact, she is a self-described liberal whose previous journalistic work includes a lengthy and critical exposé of the neo-Nazi movement published in the Nation — but Portland is her home and she is far too close to the story and sympathetic to her interview subjects to give readers a fair-minded assessment of the case.
Through lengthy interviews with the voluble Metzger, she chronicles his 30-year journey through the ranks of the radical right, from his support of the conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society and the 1968 candidacy of George Wallace to his embrace of Holocaust denial, right-wing tax rebellion, anti-immigrant vigilantism and the hate-filled theology of Christian Identity.
Langer recounts Metzger's rise to leadership in David Duke's Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and his founding in the early 1980s (with the help of his teenage son John) of the White Student Union, the Aryan Youth Movement and WAR.
Langer's biography of Metzger is thorough and does contain new information. However, it is in her self-described "moral accounting" of Metzger, as well as her affectionate tone, that Langer's portrait of him unravels.
Though clearly critical of Metzger's racism, she appears smitten by his loyalty to his wife of 25 years, as well as his supposed devotion to his six children. But Langer fails to note the obvious: countless members of the Waffen SS and modern neo-Nazi groups may also have been doting husbands and fathers, but a positive domestic temperament hardly mitigates their essentially reprehensible character.
When Langer is sympathetic to Metzger in this vein. but ignores her own reporting that he regards dragging his children to Klan cross burnings as "good, wholesome family fun," the reader is only further convinced that Langer's own facts offer some of the best evidence against her arguments.
A Hundred Little Hitlers purports to tell the story behind "the emergence of a new strain of American racism that openly associates itself with Nazism," but beyond Langer's political sketch of Metzger, the book is historically thin and offers readers no new analysis. This isn't surprising. Langer is so consumed with the Seraw case that she sees neither the forest nor the trees.
Instead, readers are left with a book whose central thesis turns reality on its head: the victims become more like perpetrators, and the men responsible for a homicidal hate crime are offered partial absolution through Langer's pen.
Here we have racists whose characters are sketched with pathos and nuance and whose troubled upbringings and challenged parents practically lend them an air of innocence, despite their violent criminality and despicable beliefs. Meanwhile, the outrage expressed by the community of Portland is dismissed as hypocritical, and the jury's verdict which bankrupted the Metzgers and war is portrayed as vindictive and unfair.
Langer claims to have unearthed important evidence surrounding the tragedy of Seraw's death, but the fact remains that his killing was a deliberate hate crime partly inspired by the Metzgers' racist words and deeds and the actions of their agent, Dave Mazzella.