White Supremacy on Trial

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Christopher Phelps

IN OCTOBER 1990, an Oregon jury returned an 11-1 decision against white supremacist Tom Metzger, his son John and their organization, the White Aryan Resistance (WAR).

The verdict awards $12.5 million to the family of Mulugeta  Seraw, a Portland man killed by fascist skinheads in November 1988. Of the $10 million in punitive damages, Tom Metzger must pay $5 million, John Metzger $1 million, WAR $3 million and Ken Mieske and Kyle Brewster, two of the skinheads who murdered Seraw, $500,000 each. The court also directed the defendants to pay about $475,000 to Seraw’s family for unrealized future earnings and $2 million as compensation for loss of his company.

The astronomical dimensions of these figures mean the practical ruin of the Metzgers, until now America’s most successful and vicious neo-Nazi organizers. Anti-racists should take heart. But the verdict has also invited inflated estimations of the potential for the legal system to remedy racism.

“The jury said there will be a new season of justice in the Northwest,” said Morris Dees, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) attorney from Montgomery, Alabama, who led the suit.

“I’ve always felt that if [the Metzgers] didn’t exist, these young men wouldn’t have acted the way they did,” said Portland Mayor Bud Clark.

If only it were that simple.

Is “Hate” The Problem?

Liberal elites take from the Metzger decision the lesson that the problem of “people who hate” and “hate crimes” can be resolved through policing, legislation and the courts.

The left should not follow their mistaken line of thought. Although the judiciary is an important arena, an anti-racist approach based on it primarily (let alone exclusively) suffers from errors in analysis and strategy.

Analysis: Pundits, social workers and political elites now refer to fascism as “hate,” and to bigoted violence as “hate crimes.” This rhetoric of “hate” contains a measure of truth (it must have taken a good deal of pent-up rage for three adolescents to beat Mulugeta Seraw to death without provocation), but it obscures more than it explains.

It is a poor form of social analysis that explains a mass political movement through psychological epithet, as did Portland’s Daily Oregonian in a feature article during the Metzger trial. In “Why People Hate,” an Oregonian reporter interviewed a number of psychologists and concluded, “So, people who hate others actually hate themselves—or at least what’s happening to them.”(1) But not all bigots are nuts or even particularly angry. Tom Metzger is not short on love for himself or his noble struggles on behalf of white civilization. Psychology can lead us to deeper insights about human behavior, including brutality and authoritarianism, but fighting bigotry will require a more sophisticated understanding of the problem than the “hate” theorists have advanced. The problem is not “hate” so much as the far right, not crime so much as racism.

Strategy: The courts and legal system mediate social conflict. They set limits by extreme and flagrant racist abuses and insurrection, whether of the left or the right. The function of the courts in suppressing extreme rightist criminality should not blind us to their ordinary, deeply racist patterns of operation. Courts respond to balances of social forces when deciding issues, as may be seen in the current see-saw between the anti-abortion and reproductive rights movements.

The Trial’s Meaning

The significance of the Metzger trial can only be understood if attention is paid to the details of the decision. Much confusion has already arisen from the failure to understand that the court found against the Metzgers on the basis of their violent actions—not their repulsive speech.

The collaborators in bringing the suit, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL), established the Metzger’s vicious beliefs with material evidence WAR’s newsletter printed an article about a new skinhead activity called “bashing” described as “a new sport in which hunting parties of white youths seek out non-white individuals and seek to break their bones.”

John Metzger wrote a science fiction piece about a group of white heroes who attack and kill the “cesspool of non-white hordes.” Metzger’s associate Carl Straight appeared with skinheads on the Morton Downey, Jr. Show and bragged, “I teach these people to break bones and crush skulls.”

Tom Metzger, in a tape-recorded speech, asked a skinhead audience if they knew “why Jews are worried about skinheads.” To cheers and laughter, he said, “It’s because they kick ass.” In an editorial, Metzger wrote that he was tired of “crying in the beer halls” and wanted only “honest casualty reports.”

These newspaper articles and tapes, however, were not the mainstay of the trial. They were introduced only to establish a context for understanding the Metzgers’ directives to their agents to incite violence in Portland, leading directly to Mulugeta Seraw’s death. While the free speech issue is crucial to the anti-racist movement in general, it was secondary in this case.(2)

Former WAR agent Dave Mazzella testified that he and two other Metzger followers, Mike Barrett and Mike Gagnon, arrived in Portland and began indoctrinating members of the skinhead group East Side White Pride only weeks before Seraw’s murder. Mazzella said Tom Metzger had counseled use of baseball bats, later used to kill Seraw, since police might buy the line that the bats were for sport.

Mazzella, Barrett and Gagnon were with the killers-to-be passing out Metzger literature downtown a few hours before Seraw died. Less than ten minutes before the murder, Mazzella and the killers were in an apartment discussing Metzger’s politics and drawing a picture of a Black man shot in the brain.

Three days after the killing, Mazzella told police investigators that he was in Portland working under the direction of the Metzgers, but it was not until the following summer that he decided to contact the ADL and “come clean.”

Evidence supports Mazella’s story. A few weeks after the killing, Tom Metzger used his “Aryan Update” phone system to say that the skinheads may have done a “civic duty” by killing Seraw. Metzger also described Mieske as a “young freedom fighter” who received life for winning a fight with an Ethiopian.”

The jury found against the Metzgers on three counts giving substantial encouragement or assistance to the skinheads who killed Seraw by sending an agent to Portland to incite them to violence; being reckless in choosing Mazzella their agent because they knew he had a violent and criminal history; and conspiring to commit violence against Black people, a civil rights violation.

Metzger put up an oftentimes sophisticated defense, comparing his situation to suing the Catholic Church fora parishioner’s bombing of an abortion clinic after a particularly fiery pro-life sermon. Apparently, however, Morris Dees was more convincing: “This case is not about free speech, but about killing an innocent man by the incitement, encouragement and even the direction of the third-highest agent of the White Aryan Resistance.”

Unrepentant Nazi

Predictably enough, Tom Metzger is unrepentant. And he was not “stupid” to defend himself, as Dees said in a post-trial news conference. Metzger can still rebuild himself around a myth of persecution, and his claim that he couldn’t afford a fancy lawyer will help him do that.

Still, Metzger’s statement that he won’t be stopped in the ”puny” town of Portland is comical. Metzger has been severely damaged and will probably never recover from the suit—not financially, at least.

Other political figures have turned verdicts against them to their advantage. Adolph Hitler was arrested for his botched Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, resulting in the temporary dissolution of the Nazi Party. But Hitler, unlike Metzger, made his trial an occasion for gain, and in the course of it persuaded a significant section of Germans that he was a patriotic hero. Although jailed, Hitler was a martyr, and prison gave him time to write Mein Kampf.

Metzger, by the end of his trial, was pathetic, not heroic. His closing argument was hardly the stuff of inspiration: “We need four people who have the guts to hold out. Well, I don’t think we’re going to get it.”

Metzger doesn’t have much of a chance to rehabilitate himself. He could begin a guerrilla war, and has already threatened insurrection, saying he has “nothing to lose.” But he does have more to lose: his freedom, maybe his life. Another, more logical course would be to appeal the decision, perhaps soliciting outside legal help for this round.

A Secure Verdict

Even if Metzger appeals, the decision that left him destitute will stand.

Metzger’s ability to legitimize himself and get the case overturned hinges on his argument that East Side White Pride was in contact with many neo-Nazi and Klan groups, and that he was singled out by the SPLC for his vulnerability, not his responsibility.

To demonstrate this, he will first try to discredit Dave Mazzella, whose strange history and unreliability were the focus of much of the now media’s “news analysis” of the trial.(3)

But Mazzella’s claim to have been a liaison between the Metzger’s and East Side White Pride is supported by a letter from John Metzger introducing him to Ken Mieske, as well as by a deposition from Mike Barrett, another former Metzger agent, who corroborates his story.

The Metzgers’ guilt is thus virtually certain, both morally and legally. There are bound to be repercussions on the far right. The Metzger verdict came at about the same time as David Duke’s near- election in Louisiana to the U.S. Senate. The lessons are obvious: Preach white power, organize the skinheads and rouse the rabble, and they’ll nail you Shed the robe, adopt populist rhetoric and run for office, and you can take the helm of a state Republican Party and capture sixty percent of the white vote.

Whether the Duke phenomenon can extend roots outside Louisiana, or even last long there, remains to be seen. Coupled with aggressive new attacks on affirmative action from the Bush administration and a deepening recession, however, its potential viability is unquestionable.

The Lessons for Our Side

The left also has important lessons to draw.

The press was superficial, covering the trial as a personality clash between Tom Metzger and Morris Dees. But the real out-of-town hero was not Dees. It was the national anti-racist movement—in which the SPLC is only one part, not nearly as important as the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal
The biggest hero, moreover, was not in the courtroom. It was in the streets. The grassroots movement, spearheaded by an anti-bigotry group called the Coalition for Human Dignity, met the challenge of the Metzger trial with its greatest organizing victory to date.

Since Seraw’s murder, the movement had organized dozens of anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist demonstrations and benefits. None compared to the day before the trial, when several thousand people marched five miles through the city to downtown Portland. The march was a spirited and militant challenge to racism in a city that has become famous for its high “hate crimes” rate—over 100 every year.

The trial in this way revealed the exciting possibilities for building mass coalitions to counter the far right. The increase in fascist skinhead attacks and other bigoted violence have brought together many people, especially the most likely victims: people of color, gays and lesbians and Jews. The voluntary legal representation of Seraw’s family by Portland attorney Elden Rosenthal symbolized to some progressive Jews the possibility for a Black-Jewish alliance that has not existed since the early 1960s.

But the trial also pointed to an Achilles heel in the politics of the anti-racist movement Democratic Governor Neil Goldschmidt declared the months October through November to be known as Justice, Equity and Harmony months for Oregon City bureaucrats and corporate leaders sponsored events that limited the aims of the movement to the end of “hate” and “hate crimes” in the name of “dignity and diversity.”

Lost in this bourgeois liberal answer to fascism, which is welcomed and sought by part of the grassroots movement, is an understanding of white supremacy as rooted in systemic racism—of the need for radical social change, not just the rejection of vulgar racism. The slogan of “dignity and diversity,” like the label of “hate crimes” was initiated by progressives, but now it is progressives who should scrutinize their value.

The jargon of anti-racism, paradoxically, has been in good part accommodated within a quiescent politics favorable to ruling groups who are happy to preserve the current state and society.

Our interest is not in that sort of “dignity and diversity.” Anti-racists need to recognize that we face not only avowed white supremacists but also liberal cooptation. Our politics must condemn oppression and exploitation, explain the connection between structural racism and fascists like Metzger, and promote democratic revolution. If we do not move in that direction, our effort to create a new society will be easily turned despite our best intentions into a defense of this one.


  1. Jann Mitchell, “Why People Hate,” Oregonian 17, October1990, E1, 5.
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  2. Initially, there was some debate over free speech issues. The ACLU argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the Metzgers could not be constitutionally found guilty of inciting the killers by things they said or published, unless evidence demonstrated that they intentionally tried to inflame the skinheads and that Seraw died as a result. The National Lawyers Guild opposed the ACLU position. Portlander Stew Albert–former Yippie editor of the Berkeley Barb named as an unindicted co-conspirator” in the Chicago 7 trial, now active in New Jewish Agenda—called Oregonian columnist Phil Stanford to express concern that any decision against Metzger be on the basis of his intentional action, not general pronouncements. Subsequent to the ACLU challenge, the lawyers representing Seraw’s family dropped counts that charged Metzger with publishing or negligent material, thus bringing the free-speech debate to a close. See “ACLU brief says 2 Metzger counts should be dropped,” Oregonian, 6 Oct 1990; C1, C5: “Lawyer’s Guild unit files brief backing damages,” Oregonian, 9 Oct 1990: A12; “Suit Dodges 1st Amendment issues,” Oregonian, 19 Oct 1990: E6; and Phil Stanford, “Remembering the First Amendment,” Oregonian, 19 Oct 1990: E1.
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  3. See Phil Stanford, “Check your flight jacket at the door,” Oregonian, 15 Oct. 1990: B3; Phil Stanford, “More difficult than good versus evil,” Oregonian, 22 Oct 1990: B1; Jim Redden, “Can This Man Be Believed?” Willamette Week, 24 Oct 1990.
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May-June 1991, ATC 32