Photograph by Jeff Pearcy
From the age of 17 Arno Michaelis was deeply involved in the white power movement. He was a founding member of what became the largest racist skinhead organization in the world, a reverend of self-declared Racial Holy War, and lead singer of the race-metal band Centurion, selling over 20,000 CDs to racists round the world. Today he is a speaker, author of My Life After Hate (http://mylifeafterhate.com), and works with Serve2Unite, an organisation that engages young people of all backgrounds as peacemakers (www.serve2unite.org).
I grew up in an alcoholic household where emotional violence was the norm and as a kid who was told I could achieve anything, I reacted to that emotional violence by lashing out and hurting people. I started out as the bully on the school bus, and by the time I was in middle school I was committing serious acts of vandalism.
As a teenager I got into the punk rock scene which for a while was the ultimate outlet for my aggression. But, like any other addiction, my thrill seeking needed constant cranking up, so when I encountered racist skinheads I knew I’d found something far more effective. I joined up for the kicks and to make people angry.
I was also enamoured with the idea of being a warrior, and as a skinhead, here at last was my chance to be a warrior for a magnificent cause – to save the white race! I truly believed white people were under threat of genocide at the hands of some shadowy Jewish conspiracy. It made total sense to me, probably because nothing else in my world was making sense.
So I assumed an identity where all that mattered was the colour of my skin. I remember one Thanksgiving dinner, when I was very vehemently and drunkenly spouting off my views, my mother said to me, ‘Well, Mr Nazi, did you know that you’re one-sixteenth Indian?’ That completely shut me up right there and then, but later that night I went back to my own house and continued to drink beer out of glass bottles – until I broke a bottle and slit my wrist with it. That’s how convinced I was that my racial identity was all I had.
Once I’d stepped down this path, violence became a self-fulfilling prophecy so the more violence and hatred I put into the world, the more the world gave it back to me, which of course only further validated all my paranoia and conspiracy theories. I wallowed in violence as a means of self-destruction and stimulation. Using white power ideology as justification and profuse alcohol abuse as a spiritual anaesthetic, I practiced violence until it seemed natural, becoming very proficient in aggression. With my bare hands, I beat other human beings to the point of hospitalization over the color of their skin, their sexuality, or simply just for the adrenaline rush. Kids trying to emulate me did much worse.
I radiated hostility, especially towards anyone with a darker skin complexion than mine, and I had a swastika tattooed on the middle finger of my right hand. One time I was greeted by a black lady at a McDonald’s cash register with a smile as warm and unconditional as the sun. When she noticed the swastika tattoo on my finger, she said: ‘You’re a better person than that. I know that’s not who you are.’ Powerless against such compassion, I fled from her steady smile and authentic presence, never to return to that McDonald’s again.
It wasn’t until I became a single parent at age 24 that I began to distance myself from the movement. I’d lost a number of friends to either prison or a violent death by now and it started to occur to me that if I didn’t change my ways then street violence would take me from my daughter too. And once I began to distance myself from the constant reinforcement of violence and hatred, suddenly it began to make much less sense to me. At the same time I began to feel I had an identity of my own – and so for the first time I allowed myself to listen to whatever music I wanted to listen to, and watch whatever TV shows I wanted to watch – not just what had been approved by the white power movement.
Soon I got immersed in the rave scene, which couldn’t have been more different from the skinhead scene. While there was still a lot of drug use and irresponsible behaviour, there was also a lot of forgiveness. I was embraced and accepted by people who formerly I would have attacked on sight, and that was a very powerful thing for me. But it took me a long time to work through my feelings of guilt and remorse for the harm I’d caused.
I had effectively been on a ten year bender but once I quit drinking in 2004, I felt the need to really make a positive impact and speak out publicly against racism and hatred. In 2007 I began writing a reflective memoir and co-founded the online magazine Life After Hate. When I was younger I thought I had created my challenge by declaring war on the world but I’ve come to realise that responding to aggression with compassion is much, much more difficult than to respond to it with anger and violence.
Forgiveness is a sublime example of humanity that I explore at every opportunity, because it was the unconditional forgiveness I was given by people who I once claimed to hate that demonstrated for me the way from there to here.