“I am here tonight because people that I claimed to hate — a Jewish boss, a lesbian supervisor, black and Latino coworkers — treated me with kindness when I least deserved it.”
— Arno Michaelis, former white supremacist, receiving the Common Ground Award in New York on November 30, 2017
Hate is a thread sewn into the fabric of our society, shaping our experience of living in it. It is extremely visible to some, while others hardly see it.
That fabric is being pulled apart more than it ever has in in decades. America is shaken by political unrest, rattled by a surge in Islamophobic attacks that has surpassed the post-9/11 level, still echoing with the cries of “Jews will not replace us!” heard in Charlottesville. Hateful rhetoric against immigrants and refugees has crisscrossed Europe and attracted tens of thousands of people to historic public squares, marching behind signs of “Europe Must Be White”.
At a time like this, appeals to unity and tolerance feel quixotic, futile, even unjust. How can we possibly see the humanity of perpetrators of hateful violence?
Let Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Kaleka show you how.
In the early 90s, Arno would have been any aspiring American neo-nazi’s role model. He was a legendary figure among white supremacists, the frontman of the popular white power band Centurion and a founding member of the Hammerskins, one of the world’s most prominent nazi skinhead groups. He regularly engaged in violence against racial and religious minorities, or against white people who weren’t as racist as he was.
His path to radicalization wasn’t shaped by any particular tragic event or grievance. Rather, a constant search for adrenaline, paired with alcohol abuse, led Arno to join other skinhead street fighters. That was 1987. From then on, he quickly rose to prominence in the neo-nazi movement.
It wasn’t until several years later that single parenthood and the murder of a close friend put his choices into question. He was searching for a reason to leave. In 1994, it finally came in the form of the kindness shown to him by people that, by the standards of Arno’s ideology, were enemies to eliminate: his Jewish employer, LGBT supervisors, black and Latino co-workers. He left, and never looked back.
Almost 20 years later, white supremacist violence entered Pardeep Kaleka’s life — with tragic consequences. A former police officer living in Wisconsin, Pardeep was on his way to the Oak Creek Sikh temple when Wade Michael Page, a Hammerskins member, went on a shooting rampage and killed six people at the temple — including Pardeep’s father. It was August 5th, 2012.
In the weeks and months after suffering that horrible loss, trying to cope with the shock and grief, Pardeep decided to respond to hate with compassion. He embraced the Sikh saying of charhdi kala, “moving in relentless optimism,” and turned fighting hatred into his life’s mission.
A year later, Arno and Pardeep’s paths crossed. Almost immediately, they decided to join forces.
Today, they co-lead Serve 2 Unite, a peacebuilding organization which brings together tens of thousands of students in the United States to overcome societal divisions, work collaboratively, and love one another. Their global mentorship programs connect students with peace activists around the world, triggering change and building relationships across borders and time zones. “What Serve 2 Unite does is racism’s worst nightmare, and we’re just getting warmed up,” Arno said in this CNN article.
Arno and Pardeep also advise the development of Battle for Humanity, our upcoming social pervasive game to mobilize youth against hatred and violence. Having been a perpetrator of violence himself, Arno knows what motivates a young kid on the verge of joining a racist group. He brings that insight to Battle’s development team, allowing us to build missions and initiatives that have a unique power to trigger change in youth.
On November 30th, 2017, we celebrated Arno and Pardeep’s invaluable contribution to the lives of many young people in the US and abroad by honoring them with a 2017 Common Ground Award.
Hate has been a driving force in Arno and Pardeep’s lives. They’ve been at the giving and the receiving end of it. It has shaped their stories and could have festered in their hearts and minds forever. After all, Arno was a white supremacist leader with status and authority. Pardeep had lost his father — who could have a more valid reason to hate? Yet, he didn’t. They don’t.
Today, we — all of us, the neo-nazi spewing racist slurs or the minority kid being called names at school — are angry. We are scared. We feel like we have all the right to build barriers, keep the other out, and seek the safety and validation that only our own can provide.
But it’s when we call upon the better angels of our nature and focus on our perceived enemy’s humanity; when we make a conscious decision to condemn hatemongers, but not hate them in their own right; when we battle the evils of the world with a deep determination that is rooted in empathy — then, anything can change, and hate is doomed to disappear.
Massimiliano Colonna is a Communications Manager at Search for Common Ground.