Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.
Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest today is Arno Michaelis. Arno is an American from Wisconsin, a former skinhead who was the founder of one of the largest racist skinhead organisations in the world and he spent years of his life committing terrible acts in the name of white power.
But, then his life changed dramatically when he did an almost complete about turn becoming a champion for compassion and understanding as he forged the life after hate.
In 2012 Arno met and started working with Pardeep Kaleka whose father had been recently murdered when a white supremacist shot and killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Arno and Pardeep have since formed a deep friendship. They have written a book together called, “The Gift of our Wounds” and co-founded the organisation, “Serve 2 Unite,” which works with students to create inclusive compassionate and non-violent communities. And by the way, Pardeep is also a guest on another episode of The F Word Podcast.
So, hello Arno. It’s wonderful to speak to you today on The F Word Podcast. Just wondering where you were speaking to me from.
Arno: Thank you, Marina. I ‘m here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the United States and it’s a delight to be on the Podcast.
Marina: Arno, I’m going to ask you something that you are asked often and I hope you don’t mind going into it again but I’m just interested in what drew you to the white power movement and how do you learn to hate people? Is it something that comes from your upbringing or is it a reaction against something? Can you pinpoint anything in your childhood or teenage years that actually made you to decide to take that path?
Arno: The simple answer is that hurt people hurt people even though I had a fairly idyllic childhood compared to billions of children on this planet. I grew up in a nice house, in a nice neighbourhood, my parents were together and they both loved me very much. My father’s alcoholism made life very difficult for my mum and growing up seeing my mother suffer, I started lashing out at other kids and developed a habit for it.
So I became addicted to the stimulation of causing trouble and very much like substance abuse, the amount of substance that gives you a high the first time, doesn’t get you high ten times later so you need to keep escalating it. So, I went from being a bully on the school bus to fights in the school yard, to breaking and entering to vandalism. I started drinking myself when I was fourteen. By the time I’m sixteen I am a full-blown alcoholic. I had been violent since I was a little kid. I had an addiction to causing trouble and repulsing civil society and that was when I was introduced to white nationalist ideology through white power skinhead music.
But, it was really arbitrary. It certainly wasn’t through my upbringing. Neither of my parents were racist, that wasn’t taught to me. It was attractive because in the late 1980’s it was so shunned by society. It very much seemed to be a culture of the status quo. And if someone could have convinced me that the status quo was white supremacy and fascism I could just have easily became so-called anti-fascist. The flavour of violence extremism was completely arbitrary. That was just the one that I happened to be introduced to and I happened to gravitate to in the late 1980’s.
Marina: And, what kind of violence would you get into? Was it like being part of a gang? Was it a sense of belonging? Was it very random? Clearly it escalated.
Arno: At the beginning it was very akin to a common street gang. I was really just a drunken hooligan looking for validation for the violence I was already engaging in. But, the more I delved into the ideology of white nationalism, the more the violence picked up this romantic cast of I’m a white warrior fighting for the future and the survival of my race.
And the more that narrative took hold, I think the more vicious the violence became and the violence we perpetrated, we would just get drunk and go out in the city and attack people at random. There were times when we attacked people because of their skin colour, because we thought they were gay or we thought they were Jewish. But, more often than that we just attacked your average white guy and afterwards we would just say he was a race trainer, which is the highest order of enemy for a white nationalist.
Marina: How long did that last, Arno, being part of the movement and at what point did it feel like it wasn’t the right path for you?
Arno: I was involved in white nationalist groups for seven years from 1987 to 1994 and right from the beginning, I knew what I was doing was wrong. That was part of the exhaustion that built for seven years to bring me to the point where I was finally looking for an excuse to leave.
In the same way that a heroin addict knows it’s wrong to not only do heroin but to steal to support their habit or even prostitute themselves, they don’t care as long as they’re getting that fix and that’s how I was. I knew it was wrong to hurt people and to hate people and to fly swastikas around in people’s faces, but I didn’t care because it gave me that rush that I was looking for in the same way any other junkie would chase the high.
The big factor in leaving was exhaustion and the exhaustion came from that knowledge of my wrongness. But, it also came from all these things that happened in my life that contradicted the narrative I was trying to adopt as my identity. That narrative being that first of all race is a thing and that I’m different race than other people according to the colour of my skin and that that makes me different from everyone else and superior to everyone else and at war with everyone else.
And, I would meet people like a Jewish boss or a lesbian supervisor or black and Latino co- workers who treated me with kindness when I least deserved it and defied the hostility that I was constantly trying to cultivate. Every time that happened it really drove home how wrong I was to the point where I finally became so exhausted that I was looking for an excuse to leave.
And, that happened in 1994 when my girlfriend and I broke up. Our daughter was 18 months old. A couple of months after that a second friend of mine was murdered in a street fight after a concert where my band had played. At that point most of my friends were incarcerated, so it hit me that if I didn’t leave, death or prison was going to take me from my daughter.
Marina: So, Arno, as you came out of the movement, which I think must have been a very courageous thing to do, you clearly started to reflect on all the damage you’d done. So, I am wondering, of course, where does forgiveness fit into your story?
Arno: I always remember, Marina, when you and I first met and you had asked me to become part of The Forgiveness Project. I was very intimated, for one. I had also just met people who had just been through the most horrific trauma you could imagine, losing parts of their body in a terrorist attack or having a parent or a child murdered and violent extremist attacks and I didn’t feel worthy to be among them for one, and I also felt like nobody will forgive me.
There is no one I need to forgive and you pointed out that the people who showed me kindness really had to forgive me on the spot and in order to do so and that more importantly that journey of self-forgiveness is really a poignant one.
Marina: And, in terms of facing your past head on really, have you thought about how to make amends? Have you thought about what self-forgiveness does mean for you?
Arno: My main driver for self-forgiveness is that if I am hating myself for the harm that I have done, I’m not going to be able to help other people stay out of hate groups. I’m not going to be able to help other people get out of hate groups. I’m not going to be able to help people along the same path that I have taken.
So, for me it is a very tactical process. And, it by no means even implies that the harm that I have done is OK or that it’s forgiven or that it’s off the table. I’m going to carry the harm that I have done to my grave and I should. But, if I let that harm continue to harm me, I don’t believe that I’m honouring my victims. I think the way to honour the people that I’ve hurt and the people who are hurt by broken white kids that I set loose on society is to fix broken white kids and give them a lesson that there’s a better way to live their lives and I can’t do that if I beat myself up.
Marina: I just want to share here a piece of a recording that I made with Arno a few years ago when he was in London and we were doing some events around violent extremism including a talk in the East London mosque. This recording is interesting to me because he goes into a little more depth about forgiveness and love and self-forgiveness.
Arno: I think about how forgiveness has transformed my life and why it’s something worth pursuing.
It’s important to think about it in the simplest of terms of what do I want in life and actually, I want what everybody else wants in life, which is I want to be happy and I want to be successful. And, in many ways that translates for us human beings into I want to experience love. I want to experience love for myself and love for other human beings.
And, in my experience, it’s not possible to experience love without forgiveness. If you are attached to some harm that was either done to you or that you have done to someone else, you carry that harm with you everywhere you go and bearing that burden you just logically can never be happy. How can you be happy when you are experiencing trauma over and over and over again?
And, forgiveness allows us to detach from the trauma. You always have the experience of going through it or causing it, but you can’t really reach a point where you are not hurting other people and you are not hurting yourself without just kind of acknowledging the trauma and saying, yes, that happened. I’m going to learn from it. I’m going to move on and I’m going to try to bring about a world where that trauma is less likely to happen. When you can reach that point, those are the types of experiences that bring true happiness into our lives.
Marina: And, there is one other thing that Arno has said about forgiveness which I actually often quote as I think it shows brilliantly how unconditional forgiveness doesn’t only serve the person giving, but can actually bring about the dramatic and unexpected change in those being forgiven, too.
Arno said, “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 the way from there to here.”
Anyway, in the Podcast I then went on to ask Arno about a specific example of the kind of unconditional forgiveness shown to him.
Can you just describe what happened in the McDonald’s? You went to McDonald’s once and this woman saw the tattoos you had. I think it’s a very pertinent story, actually. It says a lot.
Arno: Yes, so early on in the seven-year process I was trying to adopt this toxic, violent, extremist ideology as my identity which meant that I had to hate black people on sight and it was very difficult to do that in many situations, especially when people greeted me with a smile and kind of showed me their humanity. There was an incident where I went to McDonald’s every pay day to get a big mac. In the McDonald’s I went to there was an elderly black woman working behind the counter and she had this presence about her where she had this beaming smile that was kind of like the sun. It just shone for everybody. It didn’t care who you were, what your background was, the smile was just there and it was very powerful and it made it very difficult for me to hate her on sight and that alone made me uncomfortable.
But a couple of times of going into McDonald’s she saw a swastika that I had tattooed on my middle finger on my right hand. And, she said, “What is that on your finger?” in the same way my grandma would scold me when I was beating up my little brother. And, rather than say, “It’s a swastika because I’m a white warrior fighting for my people, you savage, mongrel mud race, blah, blah”, like we would talk amongst ourselves; instead of saying all that I just looked down at my steel-toed skinhead boots and said,” it’s nothing”. And she waited until I looked up again and she said, “I think you are a better person than that. That’s not who you are”.
That was an incredible act of bravery on her part but also it was an incredible act of power. In taking that approach with me she was putting herself in a position of power, in a position that ultimately changed the course of my life. It was a big part of that growing exhaustion.
Just to be clear about things, this morning I had a shaved head and at that time I had a two-inch gash on my forehead, from being hit with a lead pipe, with stitches. I had swastikas tattooed on me. I had a swastika on my jacket. There was no mistaking who I was and what I was about.
And, she would have been completely righteous had she said get out of my store you racist bastard. She would have had every right to do so, but had she done so, she would have validated everything I was trying to believe rather than contradicted it. And so by seeing that humanity in me what she had forgiven me for in order for her to do, she blew holes in this whole house of cards that I was trying to construct as my identity. And, that to me is power. That’s defiance, I think that is a really important thing to think about in today’s society.
Marina: OK I just want to share here something Arno said to me once which really explained to me extremist thinking.
He was describing the extreme views he once held as being as fragile as a house of cards and therefore, needing to be protected by the armour of certainty and I love that expression, “the armour of certainty” and this idea that such strong views are actually so fragile. And, Arno said that when he took the armour off it was incredible because it took him to a whole new level of connecting with fellow human beings. As he said to me, “Being suddenly vulnerable, I could now connect with the vulnerability of others”.
So, Arno then spoke about the whole concept of making amends, having been stripped of the armour of certainty.
And, is there an element there of atoning for your history of violence and hatred by helping others come out of the movement?
Arno: Yes, there certainly was at first. I have been doing this for eleven years. I went public with my story in 2010 and when I started there was very much a kind of an atonement cast to it, but nowadays I do it for its own sake. I think it’s more powerful in that way. It’s more pleasant and it’s more genuine if I’m helping people from the sheer joy and purpose of serving others rather than trying to right some wrong.
I’m a Buddhist nowadays so the moment is where we all live and while past shapes us and our experience is always going to be part of us, we do have a choice as to whether or not we want that to define our future and define the moment we are living in.
Marina: And, tell me, Arno, how you came to meet Pardeep. How you came to write a book with him. How you came to work in Serve 2 Unite with him. How did that come about?
Arno: I went public with my story early 2010 and by August 2012 I had built a bit of a platform as the former white supremacist guy. I had a bit of media. I had already done a couple of hundred speaking engagements by then. And after the attack that happened on August 5th 2012, the following day I was piled on by media from all over the world to get my perspective on this horrific attack.
And I really felt an obligation to talk about how important compassion is and first and foremost that we as a society have compassion for people who have been the targets of hate. But, secondly to point out that compassion is the answer to hate. I really think that the definition of hate is the wilful denial of compassion.
So, if we see someone’s behaviour and you say, “I don’t care what happens to that person and in fact I hope they suffer for their actions”, that’s hate as far as I’m concerned. And, so compassion is the answer we can see someone being hateful and understand that they are doing so because they are hurting and because they’ve been through trauma that hasn’t been processed in a healthy way, that is the process of compassion. And, so I spoke a lot about that in the media that I’ve done.
Marina: So I’m going to play here another part of the 2016 recording that I made with Arno because I think it’s interesting what he says publicly about hate speech and the big debate about whether hate speech should be shut down and censored.
Arno: I’m personally very opposed to laws against hate speech. I think they’re totally counterproductive. I know as a former white supremacist that had we had laws like that in the United States, we would have made all kind of hate from it. “See, they are afraid of what we have to say. The Government’s afraid of us and they are trying to shut us down and now we are victims. Now we are being persecuted. We are being oppressed just for speaking our mind. Just for having our thoughts”.
So, it tends to fuel the hate speech much more than suppress it and hate speech happens one way or another. You can’t outlaw racism. You can’t outlaw hate. These are emotional and mental processes that need to be dealt with as you deal with any other mental or emotional malfunction. You deal with it from a healing standpoint rather than a law enforcement standpoint.
That being said, if we can cultivate a culture where healing is a practice, and where compassion is a practice, kindness is a practice, that’s going to make a society that’s less conducive for hate speech to happen.
Marina: Anyway, I then went on to ask Arno how he came to meet Pardeep Kaleka whose father had been murdered by a white supremacist.
So, Arno, you’d heard about the shootings at the Sikh Temple. You had been asked all sorts of questions about it partly because, I believe, the shooter, Wade Michael Page, had been part of the racist skinhead group you co-founded. But, when did you actually come to meet with Pardeep?
Arno: A couple of months after the shooting Pardeep reached out to me via email and we emailed back and forth, we exchanged phone numbers, we made arrangements to meet for dinner. And, when we sat down for dinner, we talked for four hours and we talked about our daughters and our fathers and our lives. We touched on the shooting and white nationalism and things like that, but it really was kind of just it was almost a passing in our conversation.
I think that’s really something powerful to contemplate that while we were brought together by this horrific hate crime, our relationship is a lot more than that. And I think that’s a model for society in that, yes, race and racism are still causing massive suffering on this planet, as they have for five centuries, but there’s more to life than that and in order to truly overcome and heal, we need to see the goodness of our day to day life and connect in those places and I think that’s a medicine to create an environment that’s not conducive to hate and separatism.
Marina: Ah, thank you so much for that, Arno. I always love hearing what you have to say about what draws people into hate and even more importantly, what gets them out. So, thank you so much for joining me today.
Arno: Well, likewise, Marina, I miss you guys and I cannot wait to get back across the pond.
Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.