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Lions Roar : May 2018
“I loved punk because it pissed people off,” Michaelis says. “And if you think a mohawk pisses people off, try a swastika. Swastikas really piss people off.” Michaelis and his friends decided to start not only a white power skinhead band, but also a white power skinhead gang. Michaelis’ addictive personality became consumed with the white supremacy movement. He was an avid reader of myth- ology and fantasy, and the movement gave Michaelis’ violence a heroic narrative—he fancied himself someone who was sav- ing the white race from oppression. “It was about fighting for your people and National Socialism. Anybody who didn’t like it was an enemy,” he says. “It was all very romantic and it really repulsed civil society, which also gave me a kick.” Michaelis saw himself as a warrior, which to him meant “being someone who would perpetrate violence at the drop of a hat. That’s what I embodied as a white power skinhead.” MICHAELIS BECAME a powerful figure in the white power skinhead movement over the next seven years. He was a founder of the Northern Hammerskins, a regional branch of the largest racist skinhead organization in the world, Hammer- skin Nation. He was the lead singer of Centurion, a white power metal band that sold over twenty thousand CDs. His whole identity was centered around the color of his skin and his race. “As we radiated hate and violence into the world, the world handed it back to us,” he says, “often in multiples of the inten- sity. But rather than taking responsibility for the fact that we were the ones causing the hostility, we chose to see that as valid- ation for our beliefs.” As they banded together against society, often saving each other’s lives in street fights, gang members felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie they weren’t finding elsewhere. Yet there was also fighting within the group. “It was a wolf-pack mentality,” Michaelis says. “Guys in leadership positions were constantly under threat from younger guys trying to take over. We had to fight to maintain our pos- ition at the top. It was constant violence, super dysfunctional, and codependent.” Women in the gang were usually in submis- sive roles—their place was taking care of the kids to repopulate the world with white people. Within a few months of starting the Northern Hammerskins, Michaelis’ best friend went to prison for a shooting. A couple of years later, another close friend was killed in a street fight. “Rather than take those things as a wake-up call, we just spun them to suit our narrative and cognitive dissonance,” he says. Music and literature that did not support white supremacist ideology was forbidden, isolating gang members from critical analysis of their actions. The gang picked fights with those of a different skin color or sexual orientation. However, their favorite targets were white people they deemed “race traitors”—especially anti-racist skinheads, called “baldies,” whom they would drive hours to Chicago or Minneapolis to fight. “That was how much we needed that violent opposition to validate what we were doing,” Michaelis says. In a racially-divided city like Milwaukee, the gang’s prime demographic for new recruits was white kids from schools that were predominantly Black and Latino, where they got beaten up because they were white. “That was ripe pickings for us to swoop in and place our narrative on this situation to explain it, and then offer protection and power if they joined us,” Michaelis says. “I practiced violence until it was natural, and the violence became who I was,” he reflects. “I needed it like fuel, and I would beat other human beings to the point of hospitalization to get that hit of adrenaline.” Yet amid the chaos and bloodshed, something within Michae- lis was glimpsing something that didn’t fit his violent narrative— the kindness and compassion of people he considered enemies. SOMEHOW, THE ELDERLY BLACK FEMALE CASHIER at McDonald’s could see the potential for good in the tat- too-covered neo-Nazi standing in front of her. Spotting the swastika tattoo on Michaelis’ middle finger, she looked at him and said, “I know you’re a better person than that. That’s not who you are.” Michaelis ran out of there and never went back. “The pur- pose of that tattoo was to flip my middle finger with the swas- tika at people so they’d be frozen like a deer in the headlights,” he says. “But when she met my hate with such compassion, I couldn’t fight back.” This was one of many instances in which Michaelis’ Jew- ish boss, lesbian supervisor, or Black and Latino coworkers treated him with kindness and compassion when he least deserved it, even offering him sandwiches after he spoke with hate. His parents never gave up on him, even though Michaelis says he put them through hell. Maintaining his hate in the face of so many who refused to lower themselves to his level began to exhaust him. “I loved punk because it pissed people off. And if you think a mohawk pisses people off, try a swastika.” LION’S ROAR | MAY 2018 38