Former skinhead shares his life after hate

Wisocnsin Gazette/December 30, 2010

"I hurt many innocent people," former racist skinhead Arno Michaels states plainly, painfully. "Not only with my hands, but by infecting others with hate and setting them off. My ‘hate metal' band Centurion sold over 20,000 CDs of brutal music designed to incite atrocity. It's still popular with hate groups today."

During the past year, with the destructive effects of bullying receiving national attention, Mequon native Arno Michaels has promoted peace and compassion. The Life After Hate enterprise he started in 2009 engages in community anti-violence programs and is developing an anti-bullying curriculum. The online magazine "Life After Hate" and Arno's just-published memoir, "My Life After Hate," are dedicated to highlighting what Arno sees as the innate human need to both give and receive compassion.

The earnest, repentant 40-year-old recently answered questions about his journey from hate-monger to humanitarian.

Will Fellows: What are the origins of your attraction to hate?

Arno Michaels: I don't know if "attraction" is the right word for my relationship with hate. But I certainly did have an attraction to violence, and hate was a justification for violence. That hate was justified by a claim of love for the white race. We would often describe and justify our hatred by citing love: If someone was attacking your spouse or child or other loved one, you would hate them, right? Hate was seen as a natural response to being under siege, and according to our dogma the white race was under siege: Jews had been conspiring to eliminate the white race for thousands of years. Multiculturalism was a Jewish plot to defile the white gene pool. All nonwhites were active enemies.

WF: When did your attraction to violence begin?

AM: As far back as I can remember, I found violence thrilling. As a very young child I tormented my younger brother, then other kids at school, moving on to anyone I could pick a fight with as a drunken punk-rock teenager, which led to my skinhead period.

WF: How did your connection with white-power skinheads come about?

AM: At first I was attracted to the skinhead counterculture simply because I wanted to lash out and piss people off. Embracing the swastika and the racial views of National Socialism accomplished that in spectacular fashion. Once I started down that path, the hate and violence I radiated into the world began to come back to me and seemingly affirm all of the paranoid bullshit I had bought into.

WF: So, what started as generic bullying and hooliganism grew into race-based hatred?

AM: I went from a drunken brawler to a militant who declared war on the U.S. government in the name of the white race. When a close friend of mine went to prison for a self-defense shooting that involved unethical police conduct, the case affirmed for me the white racist tenet that the police are agents of the Jews and will stop at nothing to take us down. When another close friend was murdered in a street fight with Latino gangbangers, it was further proof that nonwhites were dangerous savages.

WF: What was the status of gays in your hate hierarchy?

AM: Homosexuality was seen as a sick perversion of the natural order, an unnatural and unhealthy lifestyle choice, a symptom of the sick society that Jews were scheming to bring about. White men and women who were recruited into homosexuality wouldn't produce more white offspring, further reducing the already sputtering white birth rate. Like everything else we didn't like, homosexuality was seen as part of the Jewish plot to take out the white race.

Along with a desire to clean up society, seeking out gay people to attack had something to do with making a statement about our own masculinity. Gay people were generally easy targets. Anytime we encountered them we would hurt them if we thought we could get away with it, sometimes even in broad daylight in crowded areas. I believe the first time I was arrested as a skinhead was for attempted gay-bashing. A friend and I were caught in the alley behind a gay bar, armed with axe handles.

In one incident, I broke a gay guy's eye socket with my elbow when he tried to respond to the taunts of my buddies. I will be haunted by that man's broken face till the day I die. Today, my outspoken opposition to discrimination against LGBT people is driven as much by that memory as by a zeal for human rights in a broader sense.

WF: How did anti-gay hatred compare to race/ethnicity-based hatred?

AM: Both types of hatred are rooted in a fear of difference. Skinheads, like other fundamentalists, seek uniformity. Just as we pointed out and belittled African lips, Asian eyes and other racial/ethnic differences, we were always vigilant for differences in sexuality. The slightest bit of femininity displayed by a male was grounds for assault.

As whites, we didn't worry about having to prove how not-black we were. But it was always important to keep your distance from homosexuality. Any good white man worth a damn had to either have a steady girlfriend, wife or a steady wake of female conquests to prove how not-gay he was. For those guys who weren't a hit with the ladies, being called a faggot was always a concern. They would try to establish their heterosexuality by bashing gay men, verbally and physically.

WF: Did you ever get to know any gay people?

AM: I did have an uncle who was gay, who was ostracized by my family. I saw him as a tormented and mean person, which I blamed on his homosexuality instead of on how he was treated because of who he was. Back then, I cited my uncle as my personal connection with the sickness of homosexuality. He died alone in a mental hospital, and my aunt later took her own life in response to the guilt she felt for betraying him. Today, I cite my uncle's sad story as my personal connection with the sickness of intolerance.

WF: What was the beginning of the end of your hate career?

AM: In 1994 another comrade was murdered in a street fight. The thought hit me that death or prison could take me from my daughter. After seven years of involvement I started to distance myself from the movement. Without constant reinforcement, the hate began to fade. The more I allowed myself contact with people of forbidden cultures, the better it felt to let go. As I discovered how much more fun life was, I actually felt like a hedonist! Being partial to extremes, I wallowed in the polar shift from hate to love. I was embraced by an incredibly diverse group of loving and forgiving friends.

WF: How do you sustain your Life After Hate vision in the face of relentless bigotry?

AM: No one will ever be perfect. Mistakes will always be made. But as we learn the reward of choosing compassion over aggression, and more of us understand that we are all of a single human family, those mistakes will cause less harm and more growth. Only change is constant, so there can be no goal of constant peace, only the honor of its constant pursuit.

Arno Michaels' book, "My Life After Hate," is available through or at People's Books in Milwaukee. Will Fellows is a Milwaukee author whose most recent book is "Gay Bar."

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