Arno Michaelis became a white supremacist on a summer night in a deserted parking lot, drinking beer, listening to his friend’s Walkman. “There was this point in the song when the guitar faded and people started shouting, ‘Heil, Heil.’ It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. In that moment I was like, ‘Wow, I am a warrior, and I have been waiting all my life for this moment.’”
After his friend played him that song—“Heil the New Dawn” by Skrewdriver, a skinhead punk rock band—Michaelis, then 17, went home and listened to the entire album. As a disgruntled teen walking around suburban Milwaukee in a studded leather jacket, he identified with the ethos behind the music, which for him was “about breaking things and pissing people off.” Michaelis described himself as one of the poorest kids in a well-to-do neighborhood, who couldn’t afford to go to karate classes with his friends, so he identified with the skinheads in the band.
“This was a group of poor, working class kids in England who couldn’t afford the flashy clothes of music groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones,” he said. “They wore steel-toed boots because they worked on the factory floor and suspenders because most of their clothes were hand-me-downs.”
He channeled his aggression into the lyrics of his favorite punk songs, yelling at the walls of his bedroom, but soon those walls weren’t enough of an audience for him. Along with four of his closest friends, Michaelis created his own skinhead punk band, playing white supremacy-inspired punk music in basements and bars across the suburbs of Milwaukee. “I don’t have any musical talent, but I can scream really loud and make people crazy on stage.” His band, One Way, quickly developed a following.
When Michaelis was three, his mother found him standing on top of the stove, all four burners on high, in his footie pajamas. “I was a fearless, wild kid.” He’d regularly climb 15 feet up a tree, find new ways of unlocking the front door, and smear pots of Vaseline all over his living room walls. Eventually, his parents took him to a child psychologist. Instead of medicating Michaelis, as his parents expected, the doctor told them he was gifted. “From that point on, I was constantly told how smart and wonderful I was,” Michaelis said. “As long as it wasn’t too expensive, I was allowed to do anything I wanted.”
At school, Michaelis became a bully. He jumped from group to group, terrorizing the quiet, anxious kids in his class. He read Greek and Norse myths and played Dungeons and Dragons in his free time, obsessed with the idea of becoming a warrior. “[I fancied] myself an unstoppable fighter who made his own rules,” Michaelis wrote in The Washington Post. He regularly drew battle scenes of Vikings smashing in each other’s skulls.
By the time he turned 16, Michaelis had started looking for other targets for his anger. He settled on a group he calls the “Peace Punks,” a group of activist punk-rockers who used punk music to advance a political agenda. When Coors made headlines for its unfair hiring practices, the Peace Punks vowed to boycott the beer company. “They really pissed me off. At the time, I didn’t think punk was about caring about anything. It was about smashing things.” Michaelis exclusively bought Coors beer for the rest of the year. He constantly wore a Coors hat.
At the end of his sophomore year, Michaelis dropped out of high school. Along with his friends and fans of the band, Michaelis would regularly get drunk and walk around Milwaukee, vandalizing stores owned by people they didn’t like. “Once in a while we’d attack black people,” he said. To recruit new members, Michaelis would walk into high schools and drop off stacks of fliers. The design was red, with a large swastika in the center and the words, “N*****s Beware” written across the top. Soon, their group started to attract national attention. That attention allowed Michaelis to meet with with other skinhead groups across the country.
Michaelis’s skinhead band grew into The Northern Hammerskins, which eventually became part of Hammerskin Nation, one of the best-known skinhead organizations in the country. Michaelis was part of the white power movement for seven years. When he became a single father, he says he reached a turning point. One night, after coming home covered in someone else’s blood, he realized he needed to rethink his life. “I knew what I was doing was wrong all along, but I poured all of my energy into suppressing that knowledge,” he said in an interview with UpWorthy.
The so-called alt-right is a hate group, Michaelis says, talking about the Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville. And he wants no part of it.
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