Is Gus Van Sant, Ok? Ken “Death” Mieskie’s, Gus Van Sant, the death of Mulugeta Seraw, punk rock, Portland, and LGBTQ intersections with Fascism by Quinton Mitchell

In memory of Mulugeta Seraw

I. Opening Thoughts

II. Gus, Ken Death, A Hate Crime, Portland, and Punk Rock

III. Gay Fascism. Horny for Nazis? And, Remembering Darby Crash of The Germs

IV. Early Punk and Fascism as Irony but later as Reality

V. Was Van Sant a little irresponsible about his relation to Ken Death? Did he know his view?

VI. What was happening in the Ken Death’s Portland of his youth and early adult years?

I. Opening Thoughts

Racism in the U.S. state of Oregon has been discussed ad nauseam. People can’t control the past, however, it doesn’t mean we can’t continue to learn from it and improve for its failings.

Overall, Oregon is a great state with great people, many who are accepting, which I know from my time in college having known many people form the state, yet, I would argue it is still a “Pass-over state” with not much economic opportunity outside the Portland area, meaning there is a lot of poverty and lack of diversity, and these can lead to racism.  

The state of Oregon I would argue has done a lot to face up to its “sea to shining sea”, Oregon Trail, Manifest Destiny past of being established as an all-white Anglo-Saxon Protestant utopian state. However, some say the gestures of self-reflection and combating racism may simply be performative gestures of “wokeness”. However, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) has done excellent documentaries discussing racism in the state’s past while also showcasing the contributions of people of color such as Portland’s historic black neighborhood of Albina. During the George Floyd Protests in the Summer of 2020, Portland was one of the main cities with Antifascist activists protesting police and exposing that some of the police force had connections with right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, etc. (See article: ‘Disturbing’ texts between Oregon police and far-right group prompt investigation by Erik Ortiz, published February 15, 2019, by NBC News).

However, in the wake of MAGA America, and staring at the potential of a DeSantis Fascist state come 2024 or beyond, where DeSantis and his Florida Republicans have espoused anti-LGBTQ rhetoric with his “Don’t Say Gay Bill” and other fascist moves such as bills limiting the press, removing books discussing BIPOC history, banning political parties, and taking over college boards for being too “woke” (with woke simply meaning not conforming to conservative, white, and male heteronormative standards at this point), this “Aryan” ideal of having the Northwest be an “all-white” area is still a lingering cause to many white supremacists. With the news flaming fears, many people not from the Northwest are buying up land in pristine areas in the Northwest jeopardizing the environment, encroaching on wildlife, etc.  

Gavin McInnes, the annoying misogynist hipster founder of The Proud Boys – our modern day brownshirt thugs – talked about conservatives moving to Montana, which interestingly has a history of liberalism, progressivism, Democratic politics (e.g., John Tester), and a “to each their own” mentality in areas like Missoula and Bozeman. Yet, this might be changing as conservatives flood states like Montana, Oregon, Idaho, North and South Dakota, etc., because they see themselves as “refugees” from Democratic-ran cities that full of crime, minorities, communists, etc. Essentially, what every White Supremacist group wants, i.e., the Northwest Territorial Imperative (not to be confused with the progressive based Cascadia Movement).

Yet…the Pacific Northwest was home to many notable Right-Wing events, which I’ll get out the way. (1) William Luther Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries and The Hunter, which inspired terrorist Timothy McVeigh who killed 168 people with the Oklahoma City Bombing, and who inspired serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin who killed anywhere between 8 to 20 people, was a professor at Oregon State University and was inspired to support White Power as a response to the Civil Rights Movement – similar to how white racism is rising in response to the recent Black Lives Matter movement; (2) the White Power group, The Order, led by Robert Jay Mathews, died in a house fire caused by cops as he hid out on Whidbey Island in 1984; (3) In 2019, according to Chris Ingallis (2019) of King5 News, in Arlington, WA, north of Seattle, police seized weapons belonging to the Washington State Chapter of Attomwaffen, a group linked to multiple terrorist attack attempts in the United States including thwarted attacks on nuclear facilities; (4) The Aryan Brotherhood had a fortress in North Idaho near Lake Hayden; (5) Portland, Oregon was the birthplace of now defunct – allegedly -Volksfront; (6) In 2017, racist and convicted felon Jeremy Joseph Christian stabbed two men to death as they tried to defend a Muslim woman, etc.

A little-known fact about Oregon on top of its initial goal of being a WASP only state, according to Douglas Perry (2019) of Oregon Live, was that in 1936, before the US entered war with Germany, a Nazi warship cruised down the Willamette River, and Portlander’s cheered them on. Portland had a small German Bund or “social club” which passed out anti-Semitic flyers. Further, according to Silvie Adams (2019) of the Oregon Historical Society, stated that the German cruiser “Emden” chugged down the Willamette River with the Nazi naval flag, or ensign, at the stern. The ship moored in Portland at the foot of West Couch Street, just north of the Burnside Bridge (Adams, 2019). The photograph shows the flag at half-mast, likely honoring King George V of England, who died on January 20, 1936, the day the ship arrived in Portland (Adams, 2019).

We, or rather we should all know, that Oregon banned black people in its constitution, despite being an anti-slavery state loyal to the Union. The state also forcibly removed Native Americans from their ancestral lands and was also involved in “Yellow Peril” anti-Chinese sentiments of the mid to late 1800s. Further, we can add on anti-Japanese sentiments of the World War II era and anti-Mexican farmworker sentiments which is one of America’s more recent racist concepts (mid-twentieth century to present).

From personal experience, having lived all over the country, Oregon is sort of the boonies once you get outside Metro Portland, with little pockets of hippy areas like Eugene or Bend.

The many small towns dotting I-5 or elsewhere including the coastal areas remind you of towns stuck in the 1950s. They remind me of Castle Rock or Derry, Maine in Stephen King’s fictional universes. Rainy, dingy towns with Back to the Future-like Sunny Valley downtown areas, but with citizens straight from Raymond Carver’s alcoholic “kitchen soap opera” tragedies.   

Yet, the state is still very white, which is not a bad thing at all, it is what it is, but just a reality, and with that reality comes lingering issues such racism and racial violence, even if now pushed to the fringes of acceptable societal norms.

As a black man who has lived all over the country, including having Southern American roots, I can attest I’ve had more isolated racial incidents in the progressive Northwest than the “racist South”, mostly from mentally ill hobos or freely released junkies lurking near bus or train stations. Don’t get me started about the West Coast Hobo situation. It’s notorious.  

II. Gus, Ken Death, A Hate Crime, Portland, and Punk Rock

This paper however will go into details about famed director Gus Van Sant and his relationship with a Portland based Neo Nazi, Ken Murray Mieske, where with his accomplices, Kyle Brewster, and Steve Strasser – members of groups known as East Side White Pride and White Aryan Resistance (WAR) – murdered Ethiopian immigrant, Mulugeta Seraw on November 12, 1988, on Southeast 31st Avenue. Ken Mieske went under the alias, Ken Death, a punk rock persona in Portland’s punk and metal scene, which was known for hostility towards non-whites back in the 1980s. Mieske received life in prison, while Brewster served 13 years, and Strasser served about a decade behind bars.

It’s interesting to note that Kyle Brewster was later found at a Trump rally in Salem, Oregon and at Proud Boy events in Portland, Oregon, after his release from prison proving he wasn’t reformed, and should have received a longer sentence (or, at least a parole violation landing him back in jail). According to Oregon Live (2021) in its article, Kyle Brewster, convicted in notorious 1988 hate crime killing, seen at pro-Trump rallies in Salem, Portland, was stated has now living in Portland, Oregon. Per the same article, a 2012 essay by an unidentified man who claimed he had done time with Brewster in Oregon said Brewster helped radicalize him behind bars. The man stated that Brewster was a popular white prisoner and helped transform East Side White Pride from a racist street gang into a prison gang.

Further, David Holthouse (2017) of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in his article titled: Rude & Crude, mentioned that Brewster was lurking around Portland gang, The Brood, at one of their flophouses in Southeast Portland.

Mieske died in 2011 of viral Hepatitis C.

Tom Metzger, the racist leader of WAR, previously based out of the rural areas north of San Diego (with SoCal having its own history of Neo Nazism), flooded 1980s Portland with racist material. Portland and the Willamette Valley during this era had one of the world’s largest Neo Nazi populations. Jim Redden of the Willamette Weekly in 1988 wrote articles analyzing the Neo Nazi scene of Oregon. Redden wrote, “The Faces of Death: Street kid, actor, musician, skinhead—who is the real Kenneth Murray Mieske?” on Dec. 1, 1988, which was published 18 days after Seraw’s murder. In the article, Van Sant mentioned that Mieske was a “great actor”, but also music promotor/venue owner associated with Monqui Presents production company, Chris Monlux, stated Mieske was a street kid later turned musician who introduced him to death metal. Jack Yost, a former peace studies coordinator at Portland State University, knew Miseke was a street kid who was a byproduct of Reaganomics, i.e., poverty, wealth disparity, etc.

Gus Vant Sant in 1988 directed a short film called Ken Death Gets out of Jail where Ken talks about his jail experiences. It is interesting to note that according to IMDB, the film is listed under “gay” and “gay interests”.

Portland based LGBTQ author, Mannie Murphy, wrote the graphic novel  I Never Promised You a Rose Garden where according to Google Books, “…brilliantly weaves 1990s alternative culture – from Kurt Cobain to William Burroughs to Keanu Reeves to the Red Hot Chili Peppers – with two centuries of the Pacific Northwest’s shameful history as a hotbed for white nationalism: from the Whitman massacre in 1847, to the Ku Klux Klan’s role in Portland’s city planning in the early 1900s; to the shameful treatment of black people displaced in the 1948 Vanport flood; and through the 2014 armed standoff with Cliven Bundy’s cattle ranch”.

Mieske allegedly was a “houseboy” for a “Mr. X”, where a houseboy is a sort of house servant serving and “servicing” a wealthier older gay male patron, which would make sense considering the gay hustler/houseboy culture was analyzed by Van Sant in his film My Own Private Idaho starring Keanu Reeves and the late, River Phoenix.

Did Gus Van Sant know about Mieske more than thought?

Its sems Gus was quick to distance himself…

If so, does Van Sant have a responsibility to use his art as a means of exploring Oregon’s racism to create a better world? Did he use a lost street kid being brainwashed by Neo Nazism, instead of intervening and turning him on a better path?  

III. Gay Fascism. Horny for Nazis? And, Remembering Darby Crash of The Germs

Sometimes in contemporary politics because of concepts like intersectionality we seem to assume that various groups, such as people of color or the LGBTQ+ community are always allies. The truth is you have lots of homophobia in minority groups just as you have racism and white supremacy in gay or queer culture.

Simply because both are different from white male patriarchal heteronormativity (well, per as the theory of intersectionality goes or is understood in popular culture, I guess…), doesn’t mean they are allies necessarily. For example, Morrisey of The Smiths has been known to spout nativist rhetoric (which sucks because The Smiths are pretty dope, so, eh, separate the music from the artist?), Dave Rubin in the USA has shilled for the Republican Party as they actively try to de-legitimize his very existence, Michael Caignet (a French Neo Nazi convicted of pedophilia – I hate even typing that word…), Milo Yunniopolis (who argued for pedophilia – supposedly, he’s not “not gay”), Nicky Crane, Ernst Röhm (Chief of Staff of Hitler’s S.A.), Michael Kuhnen, Herbert Hoover (allegedly), Cecil Rhodes (allegedly), Richard Nixon (allegedly with Bebe Reboso), were all gay men who fought for white supremacy, almost as if they…lusted and pined for a preservation of what they consider a romanticized version of the Western “Greco Roman” male ranging from the “nymph nubile” form to that of the hyper-masculine (i.e., leather daddy).

I learned about a few of men above from an odd site called Conservapedia where in some of the articles the authors are trying to defend the compatibility of homosexuality with Nazism. Interesting… Weird…

Homosexual intersection with explicit fascism aside, legendary punk artists, Darby Crash, previously named Bobby Pyn, real name John Paul Beahm (born, September 26, 1958 – died, December 7, 1980), played and explored fascism, likely not as a real-world political ideology he wanted to come into a political reality, but rather as a social study though music, i.e., a punk rock headman as a type of cult leader. Darby Crash was interested in Hitler same as he was into Charles Manson, likely not because of he liked them necessarily, but he was curious about the dark side of human nature and what humans can do.

The Germs ran with this concept often wearing their iconic black sleeve armband with a blue circle, where the blue circle represented being loyal to the band, and to be loyal to the band one had to get a “germ burn”, i.e., have a cigarette put out on their wrist.   

IV. Early Punk and Fascism as Irony but later as Reality

Punk, especially early punk, often played with Nazi imagery to show hypocrisy of the societies they lived in, mostly in the 1970s which were racked by austerity, de-industrialization, messed up war veterans, poverty, the fall out of the hippie movement, etc. Many kids of the early punk movement had parents who fought in World War II, so a way to scare parents was to wear poorly scribed Swastikas. Many punk youths saw themselves as rebelling against their hippie and/or way more conservative older WWII parents, so instead of peace and love, they adopted a postmodern cynicism with watered-down Nietzschean philosophy.

Some got the irony or joke of fascism (for example, Siouxsie Sioux wore a Swastika before but she learned her lesson being assaulted for doing so, yet, later went to perform songs like Israel in the actual state of Israel), while others used fascism to stare into the face of evil or ponder an amoral or at worst an indifferent universe (e.g., Joy Division’s first release features a Hitler Youth and a Joy Division was Holocaust brothel notable in post WWII “stalag” fiction, e.g., think Ilsa the She Wolf of the SS released in 1975). Others such as the later Oi punk of the late 1970s, referred to as boneheads by original non-racist Skinheads, took the fascist imagery seriously and became full Nazis associated with the UK National Front, and this type of punk was re-imported back into the USA by the 1980s, notably in areas like Orange County, which had a notable Skinhead population (i.e., Huntington Beach in John Birch Society Orange County). White street kids who found themselves in serious hot water, i.e., LA County Jail, or worst, the California State Prison System, teamed up in the racially segregated system of the prison system. The already racist culture of prison mixed with the once faux racism of certain punk scenes, and punk in many ways became a recruitment tool for white supremacist gangs. Angry kids from the suburbs found themselves in actual Nazi gangs, having to “put in work” to gain protection. Released inmates indoctrinated by racism and/or scarred by the violence of prison life, would return to the blue-collar white areas, and spread their messages, especially as crack cocaine in the early 80s, sold by lost and impoverished black or Hispanic youth exacerbated racial tension, white flight, etc.

For Darby Crash, a sensitive kid, playing with fascism was a persona rather than his real self, even though his persona got the best of him, as he later died of a heroin overdose, with this death largely overshadowed by the death of John Lennon. Darby Crash and his band The Germs, which featured Pat Smear (real name Georg Ruthenberg, who is a Jewish and black American), are noted as inventing or rather being pioneers of “hardcore punk” or at least West Coast Hardcore Punk (the title of East Coast could be given to the Bad Brains) which was different than the high-brow yet fashionable London scene of Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, but also different that the “too cool for school style” of The Ramones from the Tri-state area.

Hardcore Punk of the West Coast, in part pioneered by producers like Geza X, was sloppy, playful, ironic, kooky, but with an underlying mania and aggression, while East Coast Hardcore Punk was more political and one could even say more multicultural (for example, the D.C. punk scene), even though the Dead Kennedys from San Francisco – a bastion of left-wing ideology – inserted political awareness into West Coast punk.

West Coast was violent and jittery, kooky but serious, playing with anachronistic fashion often coopting greaser or Mystery Science Theater aesthetics, but it was also faster which is a notable West Coast influence on music in general going back as far as Surf Rock of the 1950s with its emphasis on “whipping out” such as in the sounds of Dick Dale with his song Misirlou, Jungle Fever, OohWhee Marie, etc.

This is all notable because this hardcore punk scene likely traveled up the interstate of Portland and Seattle, which had an already pre-existing garage rock culture dating back to the 1950s such with bands The Sonics from Tacoma and The Kingsmen from Portland.

Mieske’s stage name of Ken Death is like the naming convention style of Darby Crash.

What’s the difference between the two? Darby pulled off being an actual musician with a professionally produced record, whereas Ken Death…was a street kid who didn’t amount to much. His violent actions in Portland were likely stemmed from a sense of failure, on top of a closeted homosexuality, and his racism filled the void between who he really was (gay) while also what he couldn’t be (successful).

It is now largely accepted that Darby Crash was gay or bisexual (in the biopic film, What We Do Is Secret, Crash called his sexuality “relative”). Darby being featured in The Downfall of Western Civilization, with a girlfriend was largely believed to have been staged to his keep his sexuality hidden. It is also possible, just a theory, that Darby’s suicidal tendencies in his later life could been in part depression related to being closeted gay or bisexual young man in a hyper-masculine scene. Crash was inspired before his punk days by Davie Bowie, where Bowie is iconic for his gender bending persona’s notably Ziggy Stardust.

Ominously songs like Five Years and Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide by Bowie seems to emulate the timeline of Darby’s pre-planned “romanticized” suicide, where he died in the hands of a female friend, Casey, or Kasey Cola. 

In one of Crash’s last performances at the Starwood in 1980, which he allegedly did just to buy enough heroin to kill himself, it can be heard in the crowd via footage of him being bullied about possibly being gay and Pat Smear seems to get into a physical altercation with hecklers.

This last section of Crash simply sheds light that many gay youths were likely attracted to the punk rock scene of its early years. A sort of “leather daddy” scene for young angry youths, but the scene overall emulated a hetero-normative patriarchal sensibility of aggression, violence, etc. Some were gay, but they were still men and the scene may have offered them outlet to mediate between both positions.

Ken Death may have been in a similar situation to Darby Crash, with Death maybe even ripping off Crash, but instead of suicide, he chose white supremacy and murder.

V. Was Van Sant a little irresponsible about his relation to Ken Death? Did he know his view?

Van Sant in his youth attended the Caitlin Gabel School in Portland but later returned and this city became the basis for many of his films from Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and Elephant. Van Sant was also close to controversial director Larry Clark who is famous for his film Kids which was criticized for its visceral depictions of adolescents having sex, even though it brought needed attention to underage sex and health risks.

Van Sant like Clark, and a later Harmony Korine, are gonzo, auteur, experimental directors with an emphasis on exploring the idiosyncratic fringes of society, which is very similar to author Hunter S. Thompson, a Louisville native, which is where Van Sant was born.

It’s important to note that Washington native, Chuck Palahniuk, LGBTQ author, who wrote Fight Club, lived in Portland was inspired to write Fight Club based on a prank club he was associated with. In Palahniuk’s book of memoirs, Stanger Than Fiction (2004), he talks about how he worked in hospice care taking care of men dying of sexual related illnesses in Portland, but also, he discussed loosely the concept of white privilege, describing whiteness as being “wallpaper”, i.e., the ability to be innocuous.

Portland was and is just a “weird place”. It’s not uncommon to see “Keep Portland” weird stickers in the area.

Yet, is it possible that Van Sant was more “intimate” with Mieske than known.

It would have been embarrassing for his burgeoning film director career to have been associated with a Neo Nazi, especially in a sexual sense, and it would have been embarrassing for Mieske (Ken Death) who posing as a tough male archetype in the punk, metal, and white power scene. If anything, maybe Mieske’s previous life as a gay hustler street kid on the dangerous streets of Portland, confronted with a faltering music career, on top of pre-existing racism, led him to overcompensate for his tough guy role and he did the unthinkable…murder an innocent man.

There’s nothing much known publicly about Ken Mieske’s life in his childhood, but maybe he suffered abuse, possibly even sexual abuse, however, I am not saying that to insinuate that being gay is a result of abuse, i.e., I believe people are born that way.

VI. What was happening in the Ken Death’s Portland of his youth and early adult years?

The goal is to paint a scene.

The Portland Blazers won the NBA Championship in 1977 which must have united the city which has a history of racism yet having a small albeit iconic black community in Northeast Portland in the historic Albina neighborhood which is now gentrified. Yet, in 1985 you had the police choking death of Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson, a security guard who was trying to stop a crime but was killed by police anyways.

Ken Mieskie, if he went to high school and simply wasn’t a street kid his whole life, may have gone to Madison or Grant H.S. in the Eastern part of the city, and I speculate this only because Mieskie was a member of Eastside White Pride. He was born in 1966 meaning if he finished high school and on time, he would have graduated around 1984 at 18.

The Eastside of Portland seems to have a more diverse population hence racial tension. Also, by the mid to late 1980s, Portland was hit by crack, and the crack trade brought gangs from California. As you saw more Crypts, white people likely started siding with white power gangs. Also, we can’t forget about the Pacific Northwest’ history of…serial killers, such as the I-5 Killer, Randall Woodfield, who attended Portland State University and was caught in 1981. Portland’s infamy by the 1990s caught the eye of TV producers and the show, COPS, had many of its earliest episodes there.

Some links:

Isla She Wolf of the SS, an example of Naziploitation, released in 1975,

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