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Difference Maker

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.

By Josh AllenCorrespondent / August 3, 2012



Chicago

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.

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This spring Sanders invited Arno Michaels to her class. Her students had read his memoir, a confessional book that ends with the author, who is white, thanking Martin Luther King Jr. and Run-DMC.

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."

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