Arno Michaelis, a former white power activist, says he learned how to stop hate
Telling people they're wrong rarely works -- demonstrating what's right can, he says
Editor’s Note: Arno Michaelis is a former activist in the white power movement. He is the author of “My Life After Hate” and works with Serve 2 Unite, an organization founded to stand against violence and hate in the wake of the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin. Follow him @mylifeafterhate. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
After Charlottesville, many around the country and the world are talking about hate. I define hate as the willful denial of compassion, a lesson I learned from a Marxist who once told me, “I will never have an ounce of compassion for a Nazi!” It’s a definition of hate I learned the hard way.
I’ve come to understand this definition after a long journey, which includes seven years in hate groups as an active organizer, leader, recruiter and street fighter from 1987 to 1994. I recruited white people who were as angry as I was. I wallowed in violence during that time and got beat up as often as I beat anyone else up.
I grew up in a well-to-do suburb of Milwaukee. Compared with my classmates, my family was poor. By world standards, we were incredibly wealthy. My parents were together and both loved me very much. I was showered with affirmation by all of the adults in my life and reminded how gifted I was at every turn.
Yet I came from two long lines of alcoholism that resulted in a lot of emotional violence in the household. That twisted my adrenaline junkie personality toward lashing out at other kids, which soon became a habit that required ever-escalating, anti-social behavior to be satisfied. By the time I was a teenager, and drinking myself, I was all too familiar with hate and violence. White power skinhead music gave it all a seductive, glorious meaning.
Being on the receiving end of violence never made me any less violent or filled with hate. What changed the course of my life was the profound courage extended to me by those I claimed to hate; their kindness, forgiveness and compassion destroyed my narrative of oppression. As ridiculous as it may sound, I had myself convinced that white people were oppressed, and that there was a centuries-old Jewish conspiracy to exterminate us.
All of us human beings find what we seek in life. If we seek reasons to believe we’re persecuted, we’ll find them, as I did everywhere once I bought into the white supremacist narrative.
Fortunately, people I claimed to hate, such as a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor, and black and Latino co-workers, defied my hostility. They treated me with kindness when I least deserved it, but when I most needed it. These examples of how human beings should treat each other ultimately built upon an exhaustion that had me looking for an excuse to leave “the movement.” That excuse came in 1994, in two stages: single parenthood, and loss of a close friend to street violence.
When I was younger, my own pain motivated my hatred, which is how I know that many involved in Saturday’s “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville were ultimately motivated by their own suffering as well. Compassion for the trauma they’re going through – be it self-induced or otherwise – is tactically the most effective response. The narrative of violent extremism, which is the same us/them, black/white binary regardless of which political or religious dogma it emanates from, requires a bad guy at which to point fingers. When hateful rhetoric and actions are responded to with more hate – which is exactly what a willful denial of compassion is – the violent extremist mission is accomplished.
On August 5, 2012, a man like the one I used to be walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and began shooting. Before valiant police officers stopped him, this miserable, suffering person, who was a member of the white power skinhead gang I had helped to get off the ground back in the late 1980s, murdered six people and left an elderly holy man in a coma. Refusing to be subject to terror, the Sikh community opened itself to the broader American community like never before. The survivors, days after their loved ones were so senselessly taken from them, conceived an ongoing defiance of hate and violence called Serve 2 Unite, an organization I am deeply honored to be a part of.
Since April 2013, Serve 2 Unite has cultivated our common human identity among young people, from second grade through college, via a unique program of service learning and global engagement, stitched together through the arts. Defying the blistering segregation in our hometown of Milwaukee, Serve 2 Unite students have demonstrated the need to cherish diversity rather than fear it.
Because white supremacist terrorist Wade Page murdered six people five years ago, Serve 2 Unite has reached tens of thousands of young people in more than 40 Milwaukee-area schools and beyond. We bring young people together to solve problems and to love one another. What Serve 2 Unite does is racism’s worst nightmare, and we’re just getting warmed up.
As the dust settles in Charlottesville, many Americans want to know what we as a society can do about this disheartening situation. Most people really just want to live their lives in a safe place where everyone matters.
For that to happen, humankind must reconcile the ongoing fallout from five centuries of white supremacy. It’s a festering wound that has never been properly cleaned – though many have tried. To continue and ultimately complete this painful process we, as a society, must engage in very difficult conversations. We need to talk about why “Black Lives Matter” needs to be said. We need to talk about privilege and oppression. We need to talk about a history of broken promises – 40 acres and a mule, treaties with indigenous peoples. We need to listen to those whose experiences we can never truly understand, but from the common ground of the suffering and trauma that we all experience in our own way.
The root cause of all of the issues we face together as a human race is a disconnect from each other’s humanity – an inability, in short, to have compassion for one another and ourselves. This is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution, not a political one. That spiritual solution is found in service, and oneness, as demonstrated by the Sikh community after the shooting at the temple in Wisconsin.
So the next time members of the tiki-torch brigade rear their misguided heads, instead of screaming back at them, let’s organize interfaith, inter-community service events in authentic defiance of hate and violence. Joyful happenings such as a massive multicultural food festival to raise money for homeless veterans, or a collaborative community art project happening across the street can shut down debacles such as “Unite the Right.”
I’ve seen it happen. It works. Human kinship really can dispel the fear and ignorance fueling the narratives of all violent extremism, white supremacist and otherwise. Telling people they are wrong rarely gets through. Demonstration of what’s right reached me, and it can make all the difference in the lives of those who are currently consumed by hate, which directly results in fewer hate crime victims and better opportunities for the discussions that so urgently need to happen.