More than five decades after the Civil Rights Act changed U.S. law, former skinhead Arno Michaelis says, racial hatred is translating into violence in America and around the globe.
“White nationalist attacks have escalated all over the world, and the death toll is growing,” Michaelis said Thursday at Saint Vincent College as part of “Not Hate-Not Here,” an event sponsored by the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition.
Michaelis, 48, sports horn-rimmed glasses, a trimmed beard and neatly cut hair. Tattoos covering both arms are the only suggestion of a former life — when he helped found the neo-Nazi Hammerskin Nation and performed in a hate metal band flashing a swastika tattoo as he pranced onstage shouting messages of hate and death to the world.
He describes the ideology that consumed his life for seven years as an illness.
“And we need to cure that illness,” he told the crowd who gathered at the Fred Rogers Center on the Unity campus.
Carlotta Paige, co-founder of the Diversity Coalition, said that illness continues to run deep, just below the surface in many communities across the region.
Like Michaelis, an author and sought-after speaker, Paige and the coalition work to counter those currents.
While such sentiments weren’t visible Thursday among roughly 200 people gathered to hear Michaelis, local headlines reflect their existence.
There was the Oct. 27, 2018, attack on the Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 worshippers and wounded six others, an alleged skinhead attack at an Avalon bar in July 2018, a photo of a Ku Klux Klan flag hanging inside a township facility in rural Westmoreland County, white nationalist posters plastered at the University of Pittsburgh.
In its annual survey released this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 36 hate groups operating in Pennsylvania — which ranked eighth nationally. Across the United States, the Alabama-based civil rights legal advocacy group in 2018 counted 1,020 hate groups, a 30% increase in four years.
Of those, eight operate in Pittsburgh or other parts of Western Pennsylvania. Those groups range from anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT groups to white and black nationalist groups. The law center also listed another dozen groups that operate statewide, including Identity Evropa — the white supremacist group behind the offensive posters placed on Pitt’s Oakland campus in 2017.
Web of hate
Michaelis, who grew up in suburban Milwaukee, cautioned that vulnerable, hurting youngsters are learning the ideology of hatred and extremism online with groups as varied as ISIS, M-13, Antifa and white nationalists.
The onetime skinhead gang leader said he has worked with former members of those and other groups. One commonality emerges among those who join: “Every time, it’s a hurting person who is looking for a sense of identity,” Michaelis said.
Researchers with the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors online hate speech, found extreme groups that promote such philosophies are increasingly leveraging the reach of small online sites through mainstream platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Robert Bowers, the accused 46-year-old gunman in the Tree of Life slayings, had posted anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant comments online prior to storming into the synagogue and opening fire on congregants, authorities said.
As recently as last month, Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old accused in the El Paso Walmart massacre that killed 22 people and wounded 24 others, is believed to have posted a white nationalist manifesto in an online forum.
Michaelis, who consults with tech platforms, said they are working to combat such influences.
‘Eaten from within’
Meanwhile, keeping ideologies and identities forged in online forums from morphing into mass shootings that some now label domestic terrorism has become a major concern for those in law enforcement and the legal community.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of such ideologies on social media, said David Hickton, a former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania who heads the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security. He said individuals who once would have been considered as fringe as those who insist the moon landing was staged are gathering adherents online.
He said law enforcement hasn’t been given the resources to counter such threats.
“We’re being eaten from within,” Hickton cautions.
Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at Saint Vincent College and former federal prosecutor, said existing laws are sufficient to address hate crimes, but he doesn’t discount the threat hate groups pose.
“The ideology of hate is very real, is very tangible and very dangerous,” he said.
“But the greater challenge for law enforcement is to focus on hate groups and understand how hate groups operate and develop models to predict when speech is going to morph into something else,” Antkowiak said.
L-O-V-E over hate
Michaelis insists the answer is simple — and it lies in one of his favorite maxims from Fred Rogers.
“Everything that human beings do is either because of love or a lack of it,” he said.
Michaelis said an elderly black woman who worked at McDonald’s opened the door to change for him when she remarked on his swastika tattoo.
“Her smile was beautiful. It shined like the sun. … She saw the tattoo, and she said, ‘What is that on your finger? I know that’s not who you are. You’re a better person than that.’ That moment of kindness illustrated beyond a doubt how wrong I was,” Michaelis said.
He said those comments, coupled with the kindness of a Jewish employer and his love for a young daughter, who is now 26, helped him leave the skinhead movement and start on a new path.
In 2012, Michaelis expanded his efforts when he met Pardeep Kaleka, a first-generation American whose father was murdered in the August 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., that left six people dead and four wounded.
Michaelis said he was filled with grief when he learned a member of the skinhead group he helped form carried out the attack. Michaelis met Kaleka, and the two immediately found common threads in their lives. The Sikh and the former skinhead joined to create Serve2Unite, an organization that promotes nonviolent education efforts in schools and communities.
Six years later, the two celebrated their unlikely partnership in a joint memoir, “The Gift of Our Wounds.”
Where a swastika once was emblazoned on Michaelis’ middle finger, another tattoo now spells out a different-yet- powerful message across his hand: L-O-V-E.