CBC broadcast the story of a former neo-Nazi skinhead whose past is so ugly and violent it is hard to imagine his metamorphosis is real. Some question whether the transformation he claims to have made is possible. Others say until he faces his victims and makes restitution, or until he does time in prison for his crimes, he cannot be forgiven.
I cannot crawl inside his mind, but I listened to the program, checked out his work and am prepared to hope.
Arno Michaels was a violent, hate-filled racist and a virulent homophobe. He tells his story on the Forgiveness Project Web site. The whole story is worth reading. This is an excerpt:
I wallowed in violence as a means of self-destruction and stimulation. Using white power ideology as justification and profuse alcohol abuse as a spiritual anaesthetic, I practiced violence until it seemed natural, becoming very proficient in aggression. With my bare hands, I beat other human beings to the point of hospitalization over the color of their skin, their sexuality, or simply just for the adrenaline rush. Kids trying to emulate me did much worse.
Becoming a father changed his reality. He could see the danger of losing his daughter if he didn’t change. He might end up in prison or dead.
He had been a white power punk rocker. When he got into the rave scene, he found a new path. He writes:
While there was still a lot of drug use and irresponsible behaviour, there was also a lot of forgiveness. I was embraced and accepted by people who formerly I would have attacked on sight, and that was a very powerful thing for me. But it took me a long time to work through my feelings of guilt and remorse for the harm I’d caused.
He did work through them. He stopped drinking. He became a spokesman against racism and hatred. He wrote a memoir, My Life After Hate and co-founded an online magazine, Life After Hate and a character education movement, Kindness Not Weakness.
In the video below, from July 2010, Michaels answers a black student’s question, “Do you miss being a skinhead?” He says what he enjoyed as a skinhead was the cameraderie and the sense of being part of a group with common beliefs. What he enjoys now is the greater diversity of his circle of his friends.
There are a lot of videos on the Life After Hate YouTube channel. I chose this one because Michaels didn't lie to the students about the pleasures of his skinhead life, the sense of purpose he felt, the highs he and his white supremacist pals shared. A shift from casual violence to warrior for peace is major, but it does not erase the past. Honesty strengthens his new message.
Michaels has committed himself to peace as passionately as he once committed himself to hate. I wish him well with his work. It gives me hope.