`We're About Family. Not Racism -- Skinhead Schism -- A Movement Prone To Violence Finds Itself Divided Over Racism

PORTLAND - It's nearly 1 a.m. at the Satyricon, and the band in this downtown rock club is belting out an intense, rasping number. Under the fluorescence of black lights, patrons, some wearing rings in their noses, are glowing sort of purple. Bodies are flailing around and crashing into one another.

A message scrawled on the wall of the women's bathroom says, ``Ken Death we love you.''

It's a twisted tribute to Kenneth Mieske, a former skinhead and singer in a local band called Machine. Mieske's stage name came from the kind of music he played, an obscure form of rock 'n' roll known as ``death metal.''

The alias took a more macabre meaning after Mieske pleaded guilty to the November 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian citizen. Mieske, 23, is now serving a life sentence in prison.

On Oct. 8, a $10 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Seraw's family will go to trial here. Mieske is a defendant, along with the more well-known Tom Metzger, 52, and his son, John, 22, of the California-based White Aryan Resistance (WAR).

The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Southern Poverty Law Center will represent Seraw's family, alleging that the defendants are responsible for his death because they inflamed racial hatred among the skinheads.

As the trial nears, there are signs that, despite the writing on the Satyricon's wall, the racist skinhead organization the Metzgers are accused of building is being undone. Not by lawyers and judges in a courtroom, but on the street by other skinheads.

Nonracist skinheads (including the Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or SHARP) began cropping up in East Coast and Midwest cities about three years ago. The SHARP emblem is a skinhead, half black and half white, nailed to a cross - suggesting that the racists have crucified the public image of their nonracist former comrades.

Portland SHARPs say they're the ``real'' skinheads.

``We're running the Nazis out,'' said a SHARP hanging around downtown Portland one recent morning. ``They're not real skinheads. Please don't even call them skinheads.''

But three young men certainly looked the part the next evening as they stepped from the shadows of an apartment building on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and swaggered up the sidewalk, shoulder-to-shoulder.

In one form or another, they all wore the uniform: shaved heads, Doc Marten high-topped English work boots (the steel-toed kind Seraw was kicked with the day he was bludgeoned to death), rolled-up jeans, nylon flight jackets, and patches.

What did they think of the SHARPs' claim that they've run the Nazis out of town?

``Does it look like we've been run out of town?'' said one, his suspenders dropped down to signal he was ready to fight.

No. Between 200 and 300 ``hard-core'' racist skinheads are still in the Rose City, according to Portland police.

In the months after Seraw's death, the racist skinheads became even more active in Portland, according to Bob Hughes of the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service. The number of harassment incidents went from about three or four a month to 12 a month.

Within the past few months, however, racist skinheads have been relatively inactive, police say. They've been relegated to the southeast side of town, rarely venturing to their old haunts downtown.

The SHARPs, along with more mainstream youth groups, such as Portland's Anti-Racist Action, have been waging a war of pressure and intimidation against the racist skinheads for about nine months, said Scot Nakagawa, a member of ARA and another group, Coalition for Human Dignity.

The struggle began within Portland's so-called alternative music scene, with concerts and rallies and poetry readings in clubs such as the Satyricon.

``Ken Death and some of the bands that attracted the racist skinheads came straight out of the scene, so there was a lot of enthusiasm to take it back from the Nazis. It was very much an organic movement.''

But, according to police, it's also become a movement prone to violence, primarily because of the SHARPs.

The SHARPs ``are just stirring things up,'' said Loren Christensen, a police officer assigned to Portland's Gang Enforcement Team. ``They're equally as dangerous as the racists.''

In the past month, SHARPs have been linked to a stabbing, two beatings and a drive-by shooting, Christensen said.

In April, Adam Eleto, a racist skinhead, was attacked and stabbed by a group of SHARP skins, according to police. Eleto, 22, was alone and did not provoke the fight, said his father, Louis Eleto.

The recent beatings occurred simultaneously at a 7-Eleven store near where some racist skinheads live. Two teen-age girls associated with racist skinheads were dragged from the store and beaten with a hammer and club, Christensen said.

``Those Nazi skinhead girls were just minding their business,'' said a woman who was on duty at the store. ``I saw them swing that hammer and I went for the phone.''

``Loren Christensen has been trying to discredit our organization since day one,'' said David Lamb, a SHARP officer. ``We bring attention to a Nazi skinhead problem that he's always tried to downplay.''

``It's a touchy issue,'' says Deni Yamauchi of the Center for Democratic Renewal, a civil-rights organization that monitors hate groups nationwide. ``You don't want to support SHARP carte blanche. On the other hand, you don't want to help the Nazis by not supporting SHARP.''

``Let's face it,'' says Brent Emery, a downtown security officer, ``If you're going to run out a group that hangs out on the street, who better than a group that hangs out on the street?''

Randy - ``just Randy'' - is a Nazi skinhead, and proud of it.

Standing under a street light, his arms folded on his chest, he answers questions with the rhetorical flair of a polished debater.

``You want to talk prejudice and discrimination, try being a Nazi,'' he says. ``I'll give you my Doc Martens and my jacket, and I guarantee you'll get stabbed.''

Showing off an ugly puncture wound, he says a SHARP stabbed him with a screwdriver the week before.

``There were two of them and two of us, and we were just asking them questions when this little . . . gets all shaky and lunges at me . . . He punctured a lung.''

A big kid with thick, rosy cheeks, Randy is 17 but looks older.

He says he's the leader of a racist group called the America Front.

Why racist? He answers with his own question:

``How come when some black kids at school were wearing shirts that said `black power,' that was OK? But how come when I wear a shirt that said white power, I get thrown out of school? Why am I a racist when I say I'm proud to be white, but it's OK for them to say they're proud to be black?''

Randy claims to be ``full-blooded German.'' As a child, he read everything he could find on Nazi Germany.

``People have no idea what National Socialism is all about. They think it's bad, just because Hitler decided to take things a bit too far by killing all those Jews.''

Randy didn't learn that reasoning from his parents.

``They were part of the hippies thing in the '60s, so they're real liberal. They have a problem with this,'' he said, fingering the Ku Klux Klan cross symbol stitched to his jacket.

Randy began hanging around skinheads at 13. Those were the days when the racist kind ruled Portland.

``Now we can't even go downtown without getting attacked by the SHARPs. You think we don't like to go shopping downtown? You don't think we'd like hanging out with their girls? Everything was just fine before Mark Newman showed up.''

Mark Newman stands near a downtown park bench in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Over his shoulder, a theater marquee reads ``WILD AT HEART.'' A handful of other young SHARPs - including three young women - are gathered around Newman as he expounds on the fight against racism.

``We are a militant organization. We don't go looking for fights with racists. But we will defend ourselves,'' he begins.

Newman, 24, admits there have been ``slips'' when SHARPs started fights, ``but we threw them out for it.''

There are only about 50 SHARPs, but the group claims hundreds of supporters and hangers-on.

A tall, lean man, Newman is the force behind the SHARPs. Like the group he represents, he displays an odd combination of warmth and aggression. As a skinhead, he's an imposing sight. But he has an easygoing manner and a magnetic personality that draws people to his cause. Raised in Portland, Newman left home seven years ago and traveled the country as a circus roustabout. He became a skinhead years ago while living on the streets in Philadelphia.

``I was coming out of a punker stage when the skinheads took me in.''

Newman returned to Portland last September, armed with flyers and literature that he handed out to skinheads and other young people, trying to convince them that racism didn't belong in the movement.

Karen is one of the converts. She's 16, and was once a member of the Eastside White Pride, the group that produced Seraw's killers.

``I thought it was rewarding to hate people. It made me feel better than them,'' Karen says.

Unlike Randy, she says her racism was learned at home.

``My family is extremely racist. And it's worse now. They're always telling racist jokes and saying things to upset me because they know I'm not that way anymore.''

``I saw her at a coffee shop with her flight (skinhead jacket) on,'' recalls Newman. ``I didn't know her, so I walked up to her to see where she was coming from.''

``When Mark asked why I was a racist, all I could say was um, um, um. He helped me see the ignorance of it all.''

That's what being a skinhead is all about, Newman adds.

``We're about education. We're about family. Not racism.''

The family part is right, according to Eric Anderson, an anthropology teacher at Yakima Valley College. Anderson spent the summer of 1985 hanging out with skinheads in San Francisco, working on his master's thesis.

Kids fall into the skinhead movement for a variety of reasons, he said. A primary one, though, is to gain acceptance they don't get at home or school.

``So they form their own family units,'' Anderson said. ``In general, when kids feel they're on the fringes of society, or they're being excluded from society, they create their own.''

The original skinheads were black youths from Britain's working class in the late 1960s. White kids soon adopted the look. They loved street fighting (one reason for the shaved heads is that it gives opponents nothing to grab), but they were racially tolerant. They hung out with black West Indians and favored ska music, a forerunner of reggae.

When Britain's economy turned bad, so did the skinhead movement, which allied itself with far-right politics. Skinheads blamed immigrants for taking factory jobs. And ska gave way to oi, a hard-driving form of rock, which includes blatantly racist lyrics.

The skinhead movement came to the United States as part of the British punk-rock movement of the late 1970s. Although some of the early U.S. groups welcomed minorities and Jews, others - adopting swastikas and badges - declared war on them. Many also added gays to their hate list.

White supremacists in the U.S. began looking for recruits along those fringes sometime around 1987.

``The Metzgers did a really good job of recruiting skinheads, especially (John) the son,'' Anderson said. ``They appealed to this street warrior image. Most of the skinheads were violent anyway, but the Metzgers gave them a more coherent ideology, a target and reason for using their violence.

``When I was with them I could see it coming. They'd shout `Heil Reagan,' beat up homosexuals, call themselves Republicans. At the time, I thought these kids were really primed for some outside group to step in and say: `What you want to be is Nazis or fascists. We'll show you the way.''

The newer nonracist groups like the SHARPs, he says, are ``defining themselves in the way that skinheads defined themselves in 1968.''

Maybe so, but Randy wants an end to the skinhead schism - a truce with the SHARPs.

``We'd be willing to let them exist,'' he says, ``but they want to attack us. So that means we're between a rock and a hard place. If we don't fight back, we lose. If we do fight back the liberal press says we're just dumb, stupid hate-mongers.''

Randy urges the police ``to do their job'' and keep the SHARPs at bay.

``I'm not in a gang. I'm in a political organization that believes in National Socialism. This is America. We can hate who we want and we can like who we want. But the SHARPs want to change that.''

Newman agrees only with the last part.

``Hopefully, someday we won't need to be SHARPs,'' he said. ``We'll just be skinheads again.''