It's a gray, rainy morning in late October. In an assembly room at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, about 140 seventh- and eighth-graders seated in row after row of chairs chatter restlessly.
They comprise three distinct groups. White students who attend this private school in Milwaukee's affluent near-north suburb of Whitefish Bay. Students from Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, a primarily Latinx charter school on Milwaukee's south side. And African American students from Milwaukee College Prep, another charter school with several campuses in the predominantly black neighborhoods northwest of the city's downtown.
A white man strolls into the open area at the front of the room. He has a thick head of dirty-blond hair that looks like an overgrown crew cut. He wears rimless glasses and a black shirt emblazoned with a large white handprint and the words, "Serve2Unite," the name of the group putting on the presentation. Colorful tattoos covering his arms peek from the end of his shirtsleeves.
The man, Arno Michaelis, looks around. "We're already segregated in this room," he says. "So I'd like everybody to get up and sit next to somebody you don't know." His voice is confident yet casual, authoritative but not bossy The students follow his instructions.
They don't know it yet, but what Michaelis has just encouraged them to do starkly contradicts the life he once led, the beliefs he once held, the message he once screamed into microphones while fronting a notorious racist heavy metal band.
It's a life Michaelis gave up more than two decades ago. A message he has spent more than a decade working to eradicate. A legacy of violence and hatred he strives to shred, even as he knows it can never be erased--indeed, should not be, if only because however hard the truth hurts, it must not be forgotten.
Michaelis was once not just a white, racist skinhead, but a white, racist skinhead leader--a gang leader, he will tell you. He has left the beliefs that drove him--the bigotry, the hatred, the violence--far behind.
Yet he has not turned his back on that world or the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who inhabit it. Instead, Michaelis is devoting his life to repairing the damage he feels responsible for and embracing the human diversity he once hated and feared. He hopes to encourage those flirting with that life to turn away before it draws them in, and help those locked into that worldview to find their way out.
Michaelis, who will turn forty-seven in December, is part of a loose network of ex-racist extremists who have renounced their former ideologies, ranging from neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan to the so-called alt right.
As others have documented, the election of Donald Trump last November has emboldened extremists. Their August march and melee in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminated in the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer. This new visibility has sparked a debate about how to respond, ranging from pleas to respect "free speech" no matter how abhorrent, to the unapologetically militant response of antifa groups.
Michaelis and others are suggesting another way.
One of the movement's standard-bearers is the group Life After Hate, based in Chicago and made up of a number of former white nationalists and other extremists. The group offers support to members of extremist groups who want...