Arno Michaelis founded a white supremacist gang and was frontman for a white-power metal band. Yet, as he tells Lindsay Kyte, his ideology could not hold up when those he hated met him with love.
From the outside, Arno Michaelis’ 1970s childhood was idyllic—two parents still married, a nice house with a big yard in a middle-class Milwaukee neighborhood, lots of love and positive affirmation. Yet inside his home, his father’s drinking led to his mother’s misery, and, caught in the turmoil of emotional violence, Michaelis developed his own addiction—to adrenaline.
A constant thrill-seeker, Michaelis craved chaos, and created it through lashing out and hurting others. “I started out bullying on the school bus,” says Michaelis. “I got thrills from other kids fearing me. I would fight in the schoolyard and on the streets.” By middle school, Michaelis was ramping up his antisocial behavior to get an even bigger rush, moving to vandalism and breaking and entering. By age sixteen, Michaelis was an alcoholic himself.
I loved punk because it pissed people off. And if you think a mohawk pisses people off, try a swastika.
Music had always been Michaelis’ passion and a refuge from his parents’ fighting. He started with the Beatles and AC/DC and then moved into punk, with The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Fear providing an outlet for his aggression. He got an even bigger hit of musical adrenaline when he found music that gave a context to his violence—white power skinhead music.
“I loved punk because it pissed people off,” Michaelis says. “And if you think a mohawk pisses people off, try a swastika. Swastikas really piss people off.” Michaelis and his friends decided to start not only a white power skinhead band, but also a white power skinhead gang.
Michaelis’ addictive personality became consumed with the white supremacy movement. He was an avid reader of mythology and fantasy, and the movement gave Michaelis’ violence a heroic narrative—he fancied himself someone who was saving the white race from oppression. “It was about fighting for your people and National Socialism. Anybody who didn’t like it was an enemy,” he says. “It was all very romantic and it really repulsed civil society, which also gave me a kick.”
Michaelis saw himself as a warrior, which to him meant “being someone who would perpetrate violence at the drop of a hat. That’s what I embodied as a white power skinhead.”
Michaelis became a powerful figure in the white power skinhead movement over the next seven years. He was a founder of the Northern Hammerskins, a regional branch of the largest racist skinhead organization in the world, Hammerskin Nation. He was the lead singer of Centurion, a white power metal band that sold over twenty thousand CDs. His whole identity was centered around the color of his skin and his race.
“As we radiated hate and violence into the world, the world handed it back to us,” he says, “often in multiples of the intensity. But rather than taking responsibility for the fact that we were the ones causing the hostility, we chose to see that as validation for our beliefs.”
As they banded together against society, often saving each other’s lives in street fights, gang members felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie they weren’t finding elsewhere. Yet there was also fighting within the group.
“It was a wolf-pack mentality,” Michaelis says. “Guys in leadership positions were constantly under threat from younger guys trying to take over. We had to fight to maintain our position at the top. It was constant violence, super dysfunctional, and codependent.” Women in the gang were usually in submissive roles—their place was taking care of the kids to repopulate the world with white people.
I practiced violence until it was natural, and the violence became who I was. I needed it like fuel.
Within a few months of starting the Northern Hammerskins, Michaelis’ best friend went to prison for a shooting. A couple of years later, another close friend was killed in a street fight. “Rather than take those things as a wake-up call, we just spun them to suit our narrative and cognitive dissonance,” he says. Music and literature that did not support white supremacist ideology was forbidden, isolating gang members from critical analysis of their actions.
The gang picked fights with those of a different skin color or sexual orientation. However, their favorite targets were white people they deemed “race traitors”—especially anti-racist skinheads, called “baldies,” whom they would drive hours to Chicago or Minneapolis to fight. “That was how much we needed that violent opposition to validate what we were doing,” Michaelis says.
In a racially-divided city like Milwaukee, the gang’s prime demographic for new recruits was white kids from schools that were predominantly Black and Latino, where they got beaten up because they were white. “That was ripe pickings for us to swoop in and place our narrative on this situation to explain it, and then offer protection and power if they joined us,” Michaelis says.
“I practiced violence until it was natural, and the violence became who I was,” he reflects. “I needed it like fuel, and I would beat other human beings to the point of hospitalization to get that hit of adrenaline.”
Yet amid the chaos and bloodshed, something within Michaelis was glimpsing something that didn’t fit his violent narrative—the kindness and compassion of people he considered enemies.
Somehow, the elderly Black female cashier at McDonald’s could see the potential for good in the tattoo-covered neo-Nazi standing in front of her. Spotting the swastika tattoo on Michaelis’ middle finger, she looked at him and said, “I know you’re a better person than that. That’s not who you are.”
Michaelis ran out of there and never went back. “The purpose of that tattoo was to flip my middle finger with the swastika at people so they’d be frozen like a deer in the headlights,” he says. “But when she met my hate with such compassion, I couldn’t fight back.”
This was one of many instances in which Michaelis’ Jewish boss, lesbian supervisor, or Black and Latino coworkers treated him with kindness and compassion when he least deserved it, even offering him sandwiches after he spoke with hate. His parents never gave up on him, even though Michaelis says he put them through hell. Maintaining his hate in the face of so many who refused to lower themselves to his level began to exhaust him.
“But I didn’t have the courage to answer that inner voice asking why I was doing this,” he remembers. “Even alcohol couldn’t distance me from the fact that I was beginning to be disgusted by my own behavior.” While none of those incidents changed Michaelis on the spot, he says they all planted seeds that highlighted how wrong his thinking was.
Michaelis had a child because he wanted to bring more white people into the world. But in the end, it was because of his daughter that Michaelis left hate groups, and because of her that he found Buddhism.
He was in his early twenties when his daughter was born. But when he saw a second friend murdered in a street fight, and lost count of how many friends in the white power movement had been incarcerated, he began to wonder if death or prison would take him away from her.
The final realization came when he saw his daughter playing with children of different races at daycare. “It struck me that they were all children—not Black children or white children, but the sons and daughters of mothers and fathers,” he writes in his memoir, My Life After Hate.
“I thought of all the people I had hurt, whether with my own hands or by lighting some psychopath’s fuse… How did their loved ones feel when they saw this person who was so special to them battered and broken? How horrible would it be to have my daughter exposed to such violence in the slightest aspect? Love for my child thawed a dormant empathy for people that I was never aware of.”
Slowly, Michaelis began to extricate himself from his identity as a white supremacist, putting together a new life by quitting drinking, getting a job as a computer service tech and IT consultant, repairing his relationship with his now-divorced parents, and attending university. And when his daughter was ten, she started reading books by the Dalai Lama and seeking solace in Buddhism.
“I didn’t really know what Buddhism was about, but just the fact that she was drawn to it interested me,” he says. He became so intrigued by his daughter’s interest in Buddhism that in 2009, fifteen years after leaving hate groups, Michaelis found himself on a cushion in a meditation class at a local Shambhala Buddhist center.
“I still had guilt for who I was, the mistakes I made, and I was resigned to never forgiving myself for what I had done,” he says. “I tried to convince myself I was at peace with that, but obviously no one can ever be at peace not loving themselves and holding that kind of a grudge against themselves.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever reach a point in my life where I’m like, ‘I’m forgiven, all’s cool,’” he says. “Even now, when something goes wrong, that part of me still says, ‘You deserve this.’ ” But through Buddhism, Michaelis could now meet this part of himself with compassion, sitting with it and even offering it words of love. “It’s easier for me to say those words now than it was even a year ago,” he says.
Self-forgiveness is a process, but one Michaelis says is part of the joy he feels in redefining his purpose in life. “I now know what the real definition of a warrior is,” he says. “A warrior is someone who is not subject to fear or aggression. That’s the kind of story I want for my life now.”
On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and turned a gun on the congregation. He killed six people and wounded four, then killed himself.
Michaelis was now a Buddhist leading a clean, steady lifestyle. He’d self-published an autobiography and was speaking at schools and colleges. But his past had just come back to deliver another blow. Wade Michael Page had been a member of the white power gang that Michaelis had started. He listened to Michaelis’ music. The son of one of the murdered men wanted Michaelis to help him understand why someone would do this.
So Pardeep Kaleka asked him, and Michaelis answered, “Practice. When you practice hate and violence, it makes your life so miserable that nothing but homicide followed by suicide seems to make sense. Things like love and compassion and forgiveness and kindness and all the most beautiful aspects of our human experience not only become unfamiliar but repulsive to you.”
The simplest and most powerful tool when you’re dealing with hateful ideology is to remember that hurt people hurt people. Violence stems from suffering.
Kaleka and Michaelis talked about their lives and their families, and as they got to know each other, they realized how much their different stories had in common, and how they both wanted to bring a message of shared humanity to the world. Kaleka invited Michaelis to be part of Serve 2 Unite.
Serve 2 Unite is a service organization that connects communities and young people with global mentors Michaelis describes as “superheroes of peace”—former violent extremists or survivors of violent extremism working to connect disparate groups. Serve 2 Unite’s students and educators have created community art projects, block parties, book drives for incarcerated people, and peace-themed PSAs on themes such as human trafficking, homelessness, veterans’ issues, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, religious intolerance, environmental issues, and the rift between community and police.
“The idea is never giving up on the basic goodness of people, especially in challenging times,” says Michaelis. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not taken on meditation practice. In Serve 2 Unite, interdependence and impermanence are central themes in everything we do. In Sikhism, the sense of interdependence is ik onkar, which means ‘God is one,’ and we’re all part of the same organism. I interpret that as the understanding that our actions affect everyone else and to be mindful of that with every step we take.”
Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis have written a book about their personal journeys and their work together. The Gift of Our Wounds will be released in April.
Arno Michaelis says he now defines hate as “the willful denial of compassion,” and says white supremacy thrives on violent opposition. “People who romanticize the violent opposition to neo-Nazis are playing right into the neo-Nazis’ hand,” he says. “They’re only helping them grow, recruit, and galvanize members.”
Michaelis says the only thing that reached him when he was so mired in hate was the demonstration of what was right. “Hate in the world will never be resolved by applying more hate,” he says. “The simplest and most powerful tool when you’re dealing with hateful ideology is to remember that hurt people hurt people. Violence stems from suffering, and people who perpetrate violence of any sort, whether it’s bullying in a classroom or a mean comment on Facebook or a world war, the people doing that are hurting. When we are mindful of that, we can respond with compassion, which interrupts the cycle of violence rather than fuels it.”
Michaelis says this doesn’t mean accepting or approving, or not trying to stop this harmful behavior: “But it does mean that we do it with compassion so we don’t exacerbate the problem by adding our own trauma and aggression in the mix.”
Michaelis says he reminds himself of this daily. “If someone cuts me off in traffic and I get angry, I tell myself I don’t know why they’re driving like that. Maybe their kid’s in the ER or they’re late and they’ll lose their job. That helps me stop the cycle of anger, and to have domain over my emotions, my mind, and my actions.”
He once lived a life steeped in extremism and violence, but today Arno Michaelis works to overcome hate through understanding, love, and compassion. And although he’s a Buddhist, his real teachers may be people like the cashier at McDonald’s, the woman who could see the goodness hidden behind the swastika.