I have been talking about my past as a white power skinhead and my present as a human being dedicated to peace publicly since January 2010. And the question I am most frequently asked is: what made you change?
The simple, one-word answer: exhaustion.
The experiences that contributed to the exhaustion that ultimately had me looking for an excuse to leave “the movement”, as we called our loose coalition of hate groups, can be distilled into a series of moments.
A taste for violence cultivated since being a first grade school bus bully had a lot to do with me getting involved in white supremacy; violence that tasted much better if I was able to convince myself that it was justified.
Early on the thrill of dominating someone else, and the ensuing consternation of parents and teachers, was plenty of justification. As I grew older, I found that the thrill was magnified immensely when it happened in the context of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative.
First it was kids versus teachers, then whatever clique I led versus any other clique, then punks versus society, then the ‘white race’ that I had chosen to identify myself as versus everyone else on earth.
Throughout my punk days and early on in my skinhead phase there were fights where I was attacked because of the way I chose to look. Beating those attackers to within an inch of their life felt really good. But rather than imagine what it would be like to be attacked for my skin colour, instead of just my style of dress and hairdo, I bought into the construct of race wholeheartedly and sought to justify my own attacks on innocent people according to the illusion of separation that it empowered.
Even within the first few months of my hate group involvement, there were moments when I felt ashamed after committing violence against people who had not done anything to me. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. Each moment I spent wallowing in a desperate lie of separation from other human beings hurt me. And that made me want to hurt others more, instead of mustering the courage to ask myself why this was happening.
Identifying yourself via any sort of fundamentalist ideology, be it religious, political or racial, is an exhausting process. Change is the only constant we can be sure of. Other than that, the world is not a fundamental place.
Thus all the information I took in on a daily basis as a white supremacist had to be either spun to fit the twisted lens I chose to view the world through or rejected entirely. Enjoying culture like the Green Bay Packers, Seinfeld and favourite movies like Bladerunner and This is Spinal Tap was soiled by my racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. Many moments were spent in painful awareness of my hypocrisy.
But the most powerful moments that fed the growing sense of exhaustion that led me away from hate were ones rooted in love. Time after time during my seven year stint in hate groups, I was graced with kindness and forgiveness by people I was openly hostile to because of who they were. Refusing to let my inhumanity diminish theirs, people like a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor, and black and Latino co-workers modelled what it means to be a human being, when I least deserved, but most needed such a lesson.
Unfortunately, none of those teaching moments changed me on the spot, and they rarely do. But each moment in our lives plants a seed. When seeds are rooted in human love, they become impossible to suppress – not that I didn’t try my hardest to do so.
But no matter how much I drank, how loud the white power music was cranked, how many other disgruntled white kids I managed to surround myself with, or how much blood I spilled, the sublime power of human kinship prevailed, leading me from a world consumed by hate and violence to one firmly set in the basic goodness of human existence.
In 1994, a few months after becoming a single parent to my beautiful then 18-month-old daughter, the excuse I was looking for came when I lost a second skinhead comrade to street violence. By that time I had lost count of how many friends had been incarcerated, and it became clear that death or prison would take me from my little girl if I did not change my ways.
Today I work with Serve 2 Unite, an organisation founded in response to the Sikh temple shooting of August 5, 2012, when a white power skinhead, who was a member of the same gang I had helped to found in 1988, murdered six people and left another in a coma after driving himself mad via the same practice of hate that I had promoted.
Rather than let August 5 stand as the atrocity it was, Serve 2 Unite is an ongoing and growing defiance of the human disconnect that brought it to be. We promote creative learning among students aged eight to 18, inspired by engagement with former violent extremists and survivors of violent extremism. Our programme piloted in 2013 with about 80 students from the inner city and suburbs of Milwaukee. As of the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, we have over 700 students involved from Milwaukee schools and are expanding internationally, providing young people with a sense of identity, belonging and purpose.
These are universal human needs. If such needs are not met in a healthy way, they will be in a destructive way. Every day I am grateful for the moments in my life that demonstrated the difference, and I am excited to help create similar moments for others.
About the author: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Arno Michaelis was a leader of a worldwide racist skinhead organisation, a reverend of a self-declared Racial Holy War, and lead singer of the hate-metal band Centurion, which sold 20,000 CDs by the mid-1990s and is still popular with racists today. He is now a speaker, author of My Life After Hate and an educator working with Serve 2 Unite.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.