July 14, 2018 — Editor’s note: This is part two of a monthly series we introduced in our July 11 edition. In the months ahead, we will examine the different forms of growing intolerance in our society, beginning with racism. Our hope is to gain a better understanding of why intolerance — racial, political, geographical, religious, gender-based, etc. — not only exists but seems to be growing. Our hope is that understanding the soil can help change what takes root. The following article contains strong themes and language.)
On Aug. 5, 2012, a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc. The temple was preparing a free meal to all visitors without regard to one’s religious beliefs or ethnicity, which is a tradition of Sikhism. The supremist opened fire on the congregation, murdering six and wounding four.
The shooter then took his own life.
Though the exact reasons for the shooting are unknown, he was part of an organization called the Northern Hammerskins, a white supremacist group that was known for its violence toward anyone who did not hold their beliefs.
Arno Michaelis didn’t know the shooter, but he knew others like him. He was one of the founders of the Northern Hammerskins — a hate group he had left years prior. After the shooting, Michaelis met with Pardeep Kaleka, the eldest son of Satwant Singh Kaleka, the president of the Sikh temple who was gunned down in the attack. They met at the request of Kaleka, who had been haunted by the question of “why?” Given that Michaelis had written an autobiography about his experiences with white supremacy in the book “My Life After Hate,” Kaleka felt if anyone had answers, Michaelis could provide them. Eventually, the meeting led to a book collaboration — “The Gift of Our Wounds” — and the creation of Serve 2 Unite, a group that works with young people of all backgrounds to cultivate compassion and kindness.
“The idea of Serve 2 Unite came about because we didn’t want the atrocity to stand unanswered,” Michaelis said. “It was about transforming it into something that would inspire and bring people together — bring about a society where that kind of violence is less likely to happen.”
The two have taken their message across the world, and will be coming to Florence tomorrow, July 15, to talk about their mission.
For Michaelis, much of the healing process comes from speaking about his own ties to white supremacy: why he joined, how the movement affected him, how certain groups ran and how to get out of them.
To understand his story, it’s important to look at the ideology that he once believed, “The flaws of which are glaringly obvious,” Michaelis said.
“The ideology really started to crystalize for me with the Church of the Creator,” Michaelis said.
The Church of the Creator, which is now known simply as “Creativity,” is a white supremacist religion that is “decidedly anti-Christian and very anti-Semitic,” Michaelis said. “It was all based on race and Darwin laws of nature.”
There was a lot of pseudoscience involved, the reasoning muddled. In short, Creativity viewed white people as an entirely different species than everyone else.
“We saw the last 500 Years of white supremacy in the world as evidence that white people are better than everybody else, and that their rightful place was on top of society,” Michaelis said.
But it wasn’t always like that, proponents believed.
“We believed the Jewish conspiracy began with ancient Rome, assuming that Romans were blonde haired white people,” Michaelis explained.
It began with Rome’s sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the siege, more than a million people were reportedly killed, the majority of which were Jewish. Of those Jews who didn’t parish, they were prisoners. Thousands were forced to become gladiators and die in the arenas. With such little means of resistance left, how could they fight back?
“In order to take down the Roman Empire, the Jews came up with the idea of Christianity,” Michaelis said of Creativity’s theory.
Jesus would be a ruse to convince the Romans that they should turn the other cheek and start loving their neighbors. Through that, the Christians would release them from slavery. The many gods would turn into one, and Rome as they knew it would be wiped from the face of the planet.
“That can be spun to say the fall of the Roman Empire began with emperor Constantine.” Michaelis explained. “It was after his reign that the fall of Rome really began. In a couple of hundred years, it was over. That’s historical fact. But I don’t know of any historians who would agree that Christianity was concocted by the Jews. But that was the story we told ourselves.”
And with that power, the conspiracy goes, the Jews would be able to “kill all the white people on the planet that had been going on for thousands of years,” Michaelis said. “‘If we didn’t do something about it,’ we thought, ‘the white race would be completely wiped out.’”
That’s a common theme in white supremacy, Michaelis explained — the genocide of white people, fueled by an active conspiracy.
But with overwhelming evidence against their theories, how can they turn a blind eye?
“History is always written by the victors,” said Michaelis. “People want to believe that their version of history is an objective, ironclad fact. When in fact, history is a subjective thing. It depends on your perspective.”
Take the facts you like, and dance around the rest, he said.
“Anything contrary to that was a Jewish lie,” Michaelis said. “And now we get to a very important prerequisite to believe any of this s--t.”
Anything that did not come from their news sources was propaganda, “A fake Jewish lie,” said Michaelis.
If there was a news story that was critical of the movement, Jewish conspiracy. If there were mistakes in the reporting? Jewish lies.
“If there’s a news story where people take it up a notch and make us look stupid, we said the Jews are trying to make us look bad,” Michaelis said.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to white supremacists. He brought up Antifa groups, stating that if any news organization was against the supremacists, they were just corporate media.
“You cannot have extremist ideology without the means of dismissing inconvenient information,” Michaelis said. “And this happens from all sides and all different factions of extremism.”
But sometimes, history and science are hard to ignore.
In a recent issue of National Geographic, the whole concept of race was deemed misconceived.
When scientists set out to assemble the first complete genome, they found that all humans are closely related. Everyone has the same collection of genes, and they all come from Africa.
“This all gets down to what is white,” Michaelis said. “Who is white, and who is not white?
In a 2017 article published by the health and medicine publication STAT, white supremacist Craig Cobb learned that he was 86 percent European and 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.
Cobb called the findings “statistical noise.”
This led researchers to look at what other white supremacists who did DNA testing thought of the results.
Some were happy with the statistics. “Pretty damn pureblood,” one said, suggesting that being 100 percent white wasn’t needed.
Others used the results as an excuse to say that organizations like Stormfront are actually diverse, making it impossible for them to be racist.
But many looked for ways to discredit the tests. Some stated that such tests were part of a conspiracy “... trying to confuse true white Americans about their ancestry.”
Cobb went shopping, according to STAT. He redid the test from a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his worldview. Whatever the numbers he found, it still came out he wasn’t all European. But the mere fact that there could be differences in the numbers from test to test “proved” to him that the test was invalid.
The takeaway? If you don’t like what the scientific evidence says, discredit, distort or lie about the science.
Because if they did not, how they view themselves would fundamentally change.
“I understand people’s fear of change,” Michaelis said. “Everything that white supremacist groups do all boils down to suffering and fear. And that fear is typically fear of change. Fear is one of the most toxic elements in human society that you can have, and it’s also a glaring sign of a very poor group who has to motivate people through fear.”
And instead of being afraid of being “erased,” the white supremacists are trying to do something about it.
Creativity followers didn’t refer to themselves as white supremacists, which would imply they wanted to rule over the races — which wasn’t true.
They wanted the rest of the races gone.
“We wanted our own homeland,” Michaelis said. “The Church of the Creator’s moto was ‘This planet is ours.’”
They wouldn’t talk about mass extermination. It was an impossible task that had never been tried before — as they denied the Holocaust.
“All the other races on earth depended on the white race for survival,” Michaelis said in explanation. “They were eating our food and living off our money. If we just stopped supporting them, they would all ‘wither on the vine,’ which was the phrase they used all the time.”
One way to stop supporting them? Start a race war.
“People talk about it all the time,” Michaelis said. “There was a real common effort to kick the race war off and then hunker down and come out when the dust clears — and we can take over. That was a ridiculous idea that came up quite a bit.”
It’s a rationale that continued long after Michaelis left the scene.
On June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). He came in during bible study, sat down, quietly listened. He then began to disagree with some of the points the parishioners had made.
When the parishioners began to pray, Roof pulled out a gun from his fanny pack and aimed it at an 87-year-old woman. Before he pulled the trigger, the woman’s nephew asked why he was doing this.
“I have to do it,” he said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go."
And that’s when the shooting began. The nephew was first to go, after diving in front of his aunt to save her life. A total of nine people were killed.
“He wanted black people to riot and attack white people in response to what he did. Fortunately, he was proven utterly wrong and failed miserably. The people of Emanuel AME refused to capitulate. They chose a path of forgiveness and love.”
Even though AME chose the path of forgiveness, others do not. White supremacists have other plans to start a race war.
Pictures taken in August 2017 have become iconic: Young white men, carrying tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi Germany slogan “Blood and soil.”
They were gathered in protest of the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. At least, that was the stated purpose, according to Michaelis.
“The reason there were so many people in Charlottesville is because they could count on Antifa being there,” he said. “That’s why they showed up in their shields and their helmets. They were going to go brawl the anti-fascists, and the anti-fascists were happy to play that role.”
There weren’t that many Antifa members in Charlottesville when the riots broke out. Most of the anti-supremacist protesters who went to Charlottesville were peaceful, but some anti-fascists seemed to come looking for a fight.
Anti-fascist militants (also known as Antifa) are a disparate collection of groups who share some of the same beliefs. While they may use the idea of Antifa as a way to strategize together, it is not a structured movement.
“The standard for Antifa ideology is anti-capitalism, anti-racism of course,” an Antifa activist told Time Magazine in August 2017. “Those are kind of the two main pillars. But within that, encompassed, it also comes with being anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ableism, anti-transphobia, anything like that and just protecting people who are marginalized and oppressed.”
They use direct action against groups who hold different beliefs. While some groups choose to focus on online activism, others aim for physical confrontation.
In Charlottesville, who threw the first punch remains unclear.
“I do agree with Donald Trump,” Michaelis said. “There were two sides to Charlottesville, and it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. You can’t clap with one hand, and you can’t have a riot without one side to fight the other side. The violent opposition in this day and age is absolutely feeding white supremacy.”
If you have a common enemy that you can point to, and count on showing up to fight you, then that will instantly galvanize you to fight.
“Groups like Antifa who think they’re going to violently stop white supremacists are doing absolutely nothing of the sort,” said Michaelis. “They are in fact making them more powerful than they’ve ever been.”
All of this would lead one to believe that there is some master plan by the white supremacists that is being carried out with precision. According to Michaelis, that’s far from the truth.
“Hammerskins were kind of loosely organized,” he said of the organization he helped create. “There would be meetings and picnics, but it was an excuse to drink.”
Like Antifa, many of the white supremacists didn’t have a typical hierarchy. They liked it that way.
“I was never much one for titles and stuff, like ‘commander,’” Michaelis said. “They just want to act like they got their s--t together.”
In fact, particularly in his early years, Michaelis said he was hostile to any sort of leader.
“We had no hesitation beating up anyone who tried to challenge our top of the heap. That happened quite a bit,” Michaelis said.
However, the Church of the Creator was a bit more organized. Michaelis liked its ideology and the money it put into the movement. But even the organization’s recruiting was rag-tag.
“They would pick a town, tell their followers to go there. They would hand out magazines. Those who were interested got invited to a party, get them drunk and have them hand out more magazines. That’s really all there was to it,” he said.
Michaelis likened it to a failure of organizational culture.
“Our organizational culture is hate and violence,” he said. “Go figure, but that’s not going to make for the most functional organization.”
“When you hurt people, it hurts you,” Michaelis said. “It damages who you are. It traumatizes you.”
The brutal beatings he doled out — and took — wore on Michaelis. Doubts began to creep into his mind. He had worked with minorities, who had “worked their a—off,” he said.
They would show up on time and sober, things that Michaelis couldn’t do.
A Jewish man hired Michaelis and his friends, despite the fact they wore swastikas.
“Over and over again, I see people being better than we were. Every day. I denied it and would read a white power book or blast my white power music,” he said. “I was constantly fleeing reality in order to maintain the facade of white supremacy.”
And then there was the television show Seinfeld. It was one of his favorite shows at the time and watching it every week was one of his few joys.
His girlfriend worked on the night it premiered, so Michaelis taped it.
“But I couldn’t very well write Seinfeld on the tape,” he said. “If my white power buddies came over and saw it on the bookshelf I would be a race trader for enjoying this essential Jewish humor.”
So he labeled the tape his daughter’s second birthday party, knowing that no one would ever ask to watch that.
His girlfriend was also a skinhead, and his daughter was born, in part, because they felt it was their duty as white people to do so. A year and a half after the child was born, Michaelis said he was exhausted and looking for any excuse to get out.
“That excuse came in the form of another friend of mine being shot and killed in a street fight. It was just a few months after I became a single parent when my daughter’s mother and I broke up.”
So, he took his child and left.
“I felt a huge sense of relief and freedom when I walked away from them,” he said. “You believe those things as long as you’re in it and spending all the energy to deny all the contrary information. Once you stop expending that energy, just the flaws of the ideology become so glaringly obvious that it wasn’t difficult for me to set it aside.”
He spent some time trying to forget, but he couldn’t handle it.
“My motivation to start talking about my story was self-preservation,” Michaelis said. “It was destroying me to pretend it never happened. I just couldn’t do it.”
So, he started to tell his story. He helped form Serve 2 Unite, healing many deep wounds. He’s done work in preventing this ideology from spreading to the next generation. He has told his story to millions of people through books and cable news appearances. And hopefully, he said, he’s inspired some of those whom he left behind to reach out for a different life.
“I do regret hurting people and doing so much harm,” he said. “By accepting the regret and processing it with compassion, I can be at peace. I feel driven to serve, to heal, to listen, learn and connect. There’s a bit of atonement still, but it’s incidental.”
When asked about how he views the current state of affairs, Michaelis said he was optimistic. He holds a rock-solid faith in the basic goodness of humanity, and that the human condition today is far better than what is was 50 years ago.
“I don’t believe there’s any problem that can’t be solved if we’re not terrified of each other,” he said. “However, as it’s always been in human history, it’s been two steps forward, one step back. There’s always going to be people who are terrified of change. I believe that all human spirituality is a means of finding peace with change.”
But it’s not an easy task.
“I think that right now, we have an opportunity to have the conversation as a nation that we needed to have for so long,” Michaelis said. “That’s the only way we can heal and move forward.”
Michaelis, along with Kaleka, will be speaking at the Presbyterian Church of the Siuslaw, located at 3996 Highway 101, on July 15 at 6 p.m. for “Gift of Our Wounds: Forgiveness After Hate.” Pizza and refreshments will be served at 5 p.m. The event is free to anyone, but donations will be accepted.
In the next installment of this monthly series on intolerance, the Siuslaw News will be reaching out to local spiritual leaders to discuss what intolerance is, if it has a purpose, what they see of intolerance in society now and if there is a way through.
Note: This is part 2 of a continuing series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.