T-Shirt of the Week: WEEK 16

tsotw-button-1.jpgSome people believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. I believe you can tell more about a person by the t-shirts they have worn. This is the story of my life, as told by the t-shirts I have worn.

WEEK 16: My twentieth birthday was just under three weeks away in November 1988 when Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death by neo-Nazi skinheads in Portland, Oregon. Seraw was an Ethiopian who came to America to study at Portland State University. On the night of November 12, Seraw got into a confrontation with three skinheads, who killed him by bashing his head in with a baseball bat.

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At that time I was going to school at a community college and working part time at a video store that was within walking distance of the where the murder had taken place. I remember the day after it happened, one of my friends said to me, “Some skinheads killed a black guy last night.” I thought for sure he must have been mistaken. The skinheads in Portland were a problem at that time, but it was mostly some guys picking fights at clubs, or trying to jack people for their Doc Martin boots.

When I found out that it was true, that some Nazis had killed some guy, I was ready to declare war. Much of that time seems foggy now, but the one thing I remember clearly was being angry. I wanted revenge.

My mother was terrified. I think she actually thought I was going to be the next one killed. I’m sure a lot of mothers of a lot of guys my age worried about their sons. I’m sure I was a little scared too, but mostly I was pissed off. I remember very clearly wanting to fight someone, maybe even kill them, but I was also very afraid that I could get killed myself.

The fear of getting killed had been very real for some time, after having witnessed a murder at a hip-hop concert several years earlier. Gang violence was on the rise in the hip-hop community, and there always seemed to be a fight at clubs or parties. Portland had already had its first gang-related, black-on-black murder (the victim being a cat I knew in high school), but the skinhead killing was something different. This was a modern-day lynching.

Like a lot of black guys my age, I was concerned about getting caught in the crossfire of some gang-related beef. But shit like that almost seemed predictable and avoidable. You were at a party and too many brothers in red or blue were there, you could sense some shit was going to break off, and you boogied out the door. But the violence with the skinheads was more random than some bullshit at a party, or wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood. The neo-Nazis went out hunting. I remember being in a state of constant awareness at all times, ready to fight, and possibly kill, if need be. Luckily, I was never put into that sort of situation.

Seraw’s murder helped to galvanize Portland, at least for a while, and there was a massive anti-racism movement that came to life in the aftermath of the tragic event. An organization was formed called the Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD), of which my mother was an early member. The CHD was all about fighting racism, and raising awareness for the trial surrounding Seraw’s killing. By late 1989, I had become involved with CHD, and helped plan the October Rally, a massive event that included a march through Portland, and a concert.

This shirt was designed and came out at this time. CHD put the shirts out, but I’m almost 100% positive that it was designed by a guy named Steven Birch, who was a local musician and very active in the scene back in those days. You would see people wearing this shirt a lot, especially as the battle lines between racists and non-racists were drawn. This was back when Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) were running around the city making war with the neo-Nazis. A group of black SHARPs came to town from Chicago, and there were stories practically every night about them and the local guys going out Nazi hunting.

Somehow, miraculously, I managed to never get into a fight during this time. I’m not sure how it happened, because I had become one of those people out in the forefront of all the activism. My picture was in the paper, and I was on television, and even though threats were made, no one ever came after me. There were a few occasions where it looked like some shit was about to go down with some of the local Nazis (who were growing out their hair at this point), but there was always some ARA or SHARP guys around, and they loved to fight, so I never had to mix it up. The SHARP guys were cool, but they freaked me out, because they just loved to fight. The closest I ever came to really throwing down was at the old Pine Street Theater, when some Nazis sucker-punched a friend of mine. I caught sight of them as they were leaving the building, and I gathered up a crew to trade punches with them. But as we were leaving the building, I ran into some of the SHARP guys. They asked me what I was up to, and I said, “We’re going to fuck up these Nazis that sucker-punched my buddy.”

They looked at me and said, “We’ll take care of it.” And that’s what they did.

Several years ago, the A&E program City Confidential did an episode on the Seraw killing. If you’ve seen this episode, then you’ve seen me, because I was interviewed for it.

I haven’t worn this shirt in many years, and while I would like to think many things in this city have changed, I know that’s really not the case. This week there is a big neo-Nazi skinhead concert scheduled for Portland, which serves as a reminder that hate is still alive and well.

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