One-time skinhead Arno Michaels helps youths respond with compassion
His Kindness Not Weakness outreach program challenges diverse audiences to show the kind of 'warrior' strength needed to practice nonviolence.
Julie Sanders's students at Cascade Academy in Beaverton, Ore., have seen violence in their lives. Some have been exposed to crime and gangs. So Ms. Sanders has them read about people who have survived conflict. "That way, no matter how hard their lives are, the kids know that change is possible," she says.
Mr. Michaels is tall, and when he speaks his hands spread out from long, tattooed arms. His unusually low voice can get rough from overuse. He was joined at Sanders's school by a colleague, Frank Meeink.
They began by describing their childhoods. And before long that meant talking about how they had hurt people.
Twenty-five years ago, Michaels was a racist skinhead. Growing up near Milwaukee, by age 16 he was deep into the punk fringe culture and being radicalized with horrific speed. Crazed with hate for people of any color or sexual orientation except his own white heterosexuality, he found a high in the drunken, brawling skinhead life.
He stayed in the radical white-power movement for seven years. In his self-published book, "My Life After Hate," Michaels recalls jeering at an African-American family as their home burned in a fire.
Racism gave Michaels and his crew all the excuse they needed to cause harm to others. But extremism has consequences. People he was close to in the movement went to prison or died violently.
Michaels joined two of the most notorious racist groups in American history. "We practiced hate and violence, and we became very, very good at it," he says. (The names of the racist groups are intentionally not mentioned here.)
Michaels was the vocalist in a 1990s hate band called Centurion. He once recorded lyrics advocating racial war; the lyrics are still listened to in the world of "white power."
Today the memories of the savage attacks he made on people haunt him like a ghost, he says. But now he is a different man, an open-minded person who admires his diverse colleagues and friends.
He's also cofounder of Life After Hate (LAH), which publishes an online magazine about "noble human qualities – patience, forgiveness, compassion."
Michaels tells his story to young people, hoping to promote the notion of basic human goodness. "If a kid goes to school and bullies someone every day, they're going to grow apt at being mean," he says. "We use our stories to illustrate that escalation."
Stepping away from violence takes a different kind of strength.
"We use the word 'warrior' – someone with the courage to respond to aggression with compassion. That's the challenge we're putting out to these kids," he says.
After Michaels's visit to Cascade Academy with Mr. Meeink, who had been a skinhead in Pennsylvania, Sanders wrote about her students' reactions on Michaels's website, lifeafterhate.org. One student said: "I realized that I have a mix of both of your experiences. I've been asked to and have done things I'm not proud of. Before you came, I was thinking about going back to my old ways. But you both showed me I can accomplish great things. Thank you for planting this positive seed."
Through LAH's Kindness Not Weakness outreach program, over the past two years Michaels and his LAH colleagues have talked to diverse audiences about nonviolence.
At a Kindness Not Weakness event, the speakers are humble as they speak to youths half their age. Observers say this humility is one of the campaign's strengths.
Today Michaels is an optimist with a ready laugh. He doesn't think of himself as a teacher, but as a "character development practitioner." (By day, he's an information technology consultant in the Milwaukee area.)
"I think it's important for humans to have challenges to overcome and progress through," Michaels says. "When we were our horrible teenage selves, we really didn't engage with any constructive, healthy challenges. And there's nothing more challenging than responding to aggression with compassion."
Michaels recently spoke at a hip-hop dance competition in Wisconsin. The instructor told him that the kids, mostly teenagers, would often mock each other with homophobic slurs.
In his speech, a video of which is available on LAH's website, Michaels describes the deaths of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager killed in Mississippi in 1955, and Matthew Shepard, a young gay man killed in Wyoming in 1998. "The raw material of fear and ignorance that brought [these two events] to pass was the exact same stuff" in both cases, he says.
The room falls quiet. "I attacked a gay man because I was drunk," he says. "I broke his face. And I laughed about it. That was almost 20 years ago. I'll never forget that night.
"But I have the power to transform that act of stupidity into something positive, and I can share that with you guys, to hope that you can learn from my mistakes."
Michaels's LAH colleagues include cofounder Christian Picciolini and Meeink. Both have written books about their skinhead pasts.
Sammy Rangel, also with LAH, has been speaking for years about his past life as a Latino gang member. Shortly after meeting Michaels, the two spoke together in 2011 at Walter Reuther Central High School in Kenosha, Wis.
"I think their partnership was very exciting, in part because Michaels came from a comfortable city suburb and Sammy from poverty," says Andy Baumgart, vice principal of Reuther high school. "It was unique for the students to see that it doesn't matter where you're coming from – if you aren't careful about your choices, you can end up in a place of hate."
In meeting former criminals and terrorists, Michaels was struck by the similarities of the paths that led them to join violent movements. His parents showed him love as a boy, he says, but their arguing, and his own taste for thrills, drove him deep into the punk scene.
Michaels and a friend, often drunk and decked out in swastikas, studied ideology and paramilitary skills with a hate group in North Carolina. They decided they needed to prepare for an imminent war between races.
Michaels's change began with the birth of his daughter in 1992, which brought with it the hope of a different life for her. "My world had been narrowed. The only people I could interact with were other racist white people," he recalls. "Exhaustion was becoming a factor [too]. It was getting more and more difficult to deny the humanity of the people I was supposed to hate."
By the mid-1990s, he had dropped out of the skinhead scene. He began building his career in information technology. By 2009 he was sober. To deal with his past, he used meditation and began writing his book. "I do have times where I think about the people I hurt," Michaels concedes. "I have kind of a waking nightmare."
Not everyone is a fan of Michaels's efforts toward reform. Skeptics in Milwaukee still have doubts about his transformation. And hate groups enraged by his new message might seek revenge on him, he says.
"I told [Michaels] it's almost necessary to forgive yourself in order to be as effective as you can be," ex-Latino gang member Mr. Rangel says. "Even if you feel you're undeserving. Children are very concrete in their perception of people. If you don't practice what you preach, they'll sense it."
Later this summer Michaels will speak to a violence-prevention group, which is expected to draw a crowd of about a thousand people, many of them kids from Milwaukee's inner city. "I just want to be an asset to the world around me," he says, "and to get others to do the same."
• For more, visit http://lifeafterhate.org.
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