Former White Supremacist Speaks

Arno Michaelis gives his story of friendship and freedom from hate

PHOEBE ELLIS | THE SPECTRUM Michaelis spoke at the Century Theater in the Memorial Union.

Arno Michaelis, a well-known former white supremacist turned activist, spoke to a crowd of North Dakota State students Jan. 31. Michaelis has appeared on the daytime talk show “The View” as well CNN and MSNBC, but this time the former punk rock skinhead was at the Century Theater in the Memorial Union.

Michaelis started his presentation with a video that explained his current activism with Pardeep Kaleka, a member of Sikhism. Kaleka came into Michaelis’ life after the Sikh temple shooting in 2012 where six members of the church were killed by a member of the Hammerskin Nation. Michaelis said he helped found the group though when he was a skinhead. 

During the event, Michaelis talked about Kaleka’s father, Satwant Kaleka, who he said brought Kaleka to America where he worked hard to support his family. Satwant went from happily working 16 hours a day at a gas station to owning a gas station and other businesses, according to Michaelis. Kaleka was able to go to a prestigious school because of this. “They had literally realized the American dream,” Michaelis said.

Kaleka’s story collided with Michaelis’ when her father was gunned down while protecting his Sikh temple in Wisconsin during the infamous Sikh temple shooting. Michaelis said he fought off the shooter with a butter knife, holding the shooter up until the cops came.

Two years before the shooting, Michaelis said he publicly came out as a former white supremacist in 2010. Michaelis said he had developed a name for himself as the “that ex-white supremacist guy.”

Because Michaelis had formed the group that inspired the attack, Kaleka came to him for answers. According to Michaelis, Kaleka had two very simple questions: how can someone do this and how can we prevent this from happening. Michaelis had an analogy for the first question. He asked the audience if they had ever trained to establish a skill in a certain area. He went on to explain that when you do something every day for an hour or so, you get to the point where that activity is almost second nature. 

This is how hate and violence work, according to Michaelis. The idea of practicing is that, “It takes a thing that’s outside our comfort zone and brings them into our comfort zone,” Michaelis said. When people are indoctrinated in this way, they start to resent the good and beautiful things in the world, according to Michaelis. Michaelis said in the heat of his hate he actually got a tattoo of a swastika on his middle finger so that when he was confronted by a person of an undesirable race or someone showing kindness toward him he could flick them off with that finger.

Michaelis said this type of hate comes from a broken place. “Violence stems from suffering,” Michaelis said. This principle was integrated into his recruitment when he was a skinhead. “Recruitment was all based on blame and anger,” Michaelis said. The group would get new members by blaming the problems of young white men on African Americans and Jewish people. Michaelis said this cycle never actually solved the person’s problem, and in most cases, “The more you blame people, the less able you are to fix the actual problem.”

The answer Michaelis gave to the second question was that “a simple act of kindness can change someone’s life, change the course of history,” and the best way to fight the type of violence and hate that caused the Sikh shooting is kindness and the everyday practice of kindness. Michaelis said he was inspired by a black woman at McDonald’s, that when confronted by his hate, turned it around and excepted him as a person.

Michaelis said practicing kindness broadly is effective in fighting hate and violence. He has talked at 300 events just like this since he became, as he likes to say, a former white supremacist.

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