Saturday, February 16, 2008

Elinor Langer

On November 12, 1988, a group of Portland, Oregon, skinheads known as East Side White Pride encountered three Ethiopians in a street fight, resulting in the brutal death of Mulugeta Seraw. A year later, Ken Mieske ended up pleading guilty to first degree murder. The other two, Kyle Brewster and Steve Strasser, pled guilty to manslaughter and assault.

Langer originally agreed to cover the skinheads’ trial for “The Nation,” but the accused bargained their way to prison; no trial was ever held. Research for her book began after she persuaded “The Nation” to run a special issue in 1990 on the murder and the neo-Nazi movement. Langer saw a link between the three men who beat Seraw to death, The Branch Davidian conflagration in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995.

Elinor Langer’s book about the incident, “A Hundred Little Hitlers,” vividly reconstructs the world of the skinheads: their origins in the punk scene, their basement shrines to Nazi power, their moments of glory on Oprah and Geraldo. She examines the long-standing radical groups that encouraged the movement, tracking the progress of such powerful figures as White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger through key bastions of the Far Right. In gripping detail, she follows civil-rights lawyer Morris Dees's efforts to prove Metzger responsible for the Portland killing.

“One of the skinheads lived near me,” explained Langer. “I had a babysitter whose boyfriend played in a band with one of them, and the other had been homecoming king at Grant High School.” Langer hoped her book would serve as a catalyst for debate and further research.

Langer has been a contributor to national publications since the 1960s, including The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, Mother Jones, and The Nation. Her biography of the American radical novelist and journalist Josephine Herbst was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award. She has received several fellowships, including the Guggenheim, Bunting, and the Open Society Institute. Besides teaching at Reed, she has taught writing at Portland State University and at the Mountain Writers-Pacific MFA Program.

Photo by Carla Perry

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