"I reached out to Arno because he was a former white supremacist now doing peace work. I had so many questions."
Photos by Megan Monday
Pardeep and Arno | Milwaukee, WI
Portions of this story were adapted with permission from Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis’ book, The Gift of Our Wounds.
Pardeep: When I first met Arno, a little over two months had passed since August 5, 2012, the day my father and five other Sikhs were executed in our peaceful Wisconsin temple by a self-avowed white supremacist. Two of the victims were brothers, both had families and young children. A woman who was killed left behind two teenage boys. Others had suffered grave injuries. Lt. Brian Murphy, a heroic police officer, was corned by the killer and shot fifteen times at close range. He survived by the grace of God.
From the start I’d been haunted by the question of, "Why?" I wondered about it day and night. I couldn’t ask the killer because he was dead. So I started to search for answers on my own. Who could tell me why he had chosen our place of worship? Why he’d gone after such peaceful people—men, women, and children whose religion, Sikhism, is based on the practice of harmony and equality for all people?
Was I angry? Hell yes. My anger was eating me alive. My father had been violently taken from my family and we were all struggling to find our places in this new and terrible reality. But I knew I couldn’t continue to wallow in cynicism and gloom. That would be a stain on my father’s legacy. It went against everything he stood for, all that he was.
My father was an American patriot, a proud immigrant who moved his young wife and two small boys from their farming town in India and assimilated into Midwestern culture through hard work and community service.
He was murdered because his skin was brown and he wore a turban. How could I not seek answers for that?
Arno: When I met Pardeep, all I knew about him was that his life had been tragically altered by someone with the belief system I once held. I had immersed myself in racist dogma beginning at the age of 16, and by the time I was 18 I had bragging rights as a founding member of the largest white power skinhead organization in the world.
I was still plagued by nightmares about steel-toed boots and smashed skulls, and trapped in shame and guilt for the damage I did. Damage, I was sorry to say, that wouldn’t die with me but would endure as long as there were people willing to embrace the hateful rhetoric I once preached at rallies or bellowed in the white power songs I wrote and performed. People like Wade Michael Page, the man who murdered Pardeep’s father.
I had been atoning for my history of hatred for almost two decades, and it never got easier to acknowledge the dreadful things I did.
Pardeep: I reached out to Arno online because he was a former white supremacist now doing peace work. I had so many questions that needed answers. But as I walked into the restaurant where we agreed to meet, one question was first in my mind. Could anyone with such a racist, violent past truly change?
That question sort of worked itself out in our first glance at one another. I had a fluke accident a week before, an eye injury that nearly took out my left pupil. My eye was completely sagging. The moment Arno saw me he said, "Ooh, what happened?" And as I started to explain, he started tensing up. I could see his empathy for me in his body language.
When you see the body language of empathy and caring, it makes you walk back your fear. He started telling me his own tales of clumsiness, and within minutes, we’re sitting there exchanging stories and laughing together. Arno had this way about him that made me feel like I’d known him forever. It seemed inconceivable to me that this warm, personable guy—someone who genuinely seemed hurt that I was hurt, who teared up when talking about his child—was once a violent white supremacist.
Arno: Pardeep was one of the coolest guys I’d ever met. He was funny, smart, and engaging. After two or three hours of nonstop talking about everything except what we were there for, he finally asked if I’d known Wade Michael Page.
I said I didn’t think I’d ever met Page, but because of his beliefs, I knew him intimately. Earlier, when I discovered he was a “patched” member of the racist skinhead group I co-founded, I lay awake asking myself, did I unleash this monster on the world? He joined the movement long after I had left, but I felt, if nothing else, I helped to create the environment that created Wade Michael Page, a regret that will follow me to my grave.
Pardeep: At a time where no one would take accountability for what happened, meeting Arno was refreshing because he did take accountability. He raised his hand and said, "I am accountable and I will do something about it."
Arno: Answering for my past sins had become my mission. My intention was to promote the basic goodness of humanity and try to prevent young people from making the same terrible mistakes I had.
Pardeep: I shared with Arno that our family had already brainstormed ways that we could refocus this tragedy for good. Just days after the shooting, we started an organization named Serve 2 Unite, whose purpose it was, in the spirit of Sikhism, to promote understanding and peaceful coexistence for all people.
Arno: So Pardeep and I started talking about promoting peace together.
Wouldn’t that be something? A brown Sikh and a former racist skinhead, together, talking about unity and oneness. Pardeep seemed to dig the idea.
Pardeep: I was born in a rural farming village in the Punjab region of India. My dad was deeply religious and discovered that he could cultivate his spirituality by working the land. While his other siblings moved to the city and became doctors and professors, my dad took over the family farm.
We would probably have stayed in India had it not been for the mounting tension between non-Sikhs and Sikhs that threatened our safety. My parents moved to Milwaukee, where my uncle’s family was living, when I was six years old and my brother was four.
Our early years in America were all about hope: hope that we could make enough money to survive, hope that we could move to a new neighborhood that would be more safe, hope that we could make a better life for ourselves.
My parents both worked long hours for peanuts. My mom sewed clothes, and my dad worked at a gas station in the inner city. Through sheer will, they managed to save their money. Part of the reason that they could save is because my parents didn’t have a lot of bad habits. They didn’t go out much, they didn’t smoke, they didn’t drink, and we shopped at the Goodwill if we needed anything. Eventually, my parents saved enough to buy a gas station on the south side of Milwaukee.
It became your typical mom-and-pop shop. My mom left her sewing job and took the morning shifts at the gas station so she could be home at night with us, and dad would come home late in the evening. That’s how it was for a long time.
My dad was a completely selfless person. Even as the business grew, he didn't buy new clothes or new cars. He was still super cheap till the day that he passed. He had the ability to buy new stuff, but he just didn't see value in it. He only saw value in helping people.
His name was Satwant, but the people who came into the gas station would call him Sam. They'd be like "Sam, I need diapers for my kids.” He would give them $20 and drive them to the grocery store. He formed deep bonds with his regulars. When one of them couldn’t afford car repairs, which he also did at the gas station, my dad not only didn’t charge for labor, he protected their pride by joking, “My labor is always free—so I can’t give you a money-back guarantee.”
Soon after we arrived in Milwaukee, my dad became a leader in our local Sikh community. By the time the congregation grew to over 200 families, my dad was president, and he was deeply involved in building the new temple in Oak Creek. He served as president of the congregation for fifteen years.
Dad’s generosity was part of his faith. Sikhism is a gentle, benevolent faith. Our scriptures don’t dwell on what happens after death, but focus on our earthly duties. We believe that everyone is equal and that a good life is lived truthfully and in service to others. We are taught to work hard and honestly and share what we have with those who are less fortunate.
My dad had a deep appreciation for the life that we got to lead here. He always flew an American flag in our front yard, because he was proud of what we were able to build here.
Arno: On paper, I wasn't the kind of kid you'd think would get mixed up in violent extremism. I grew up in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood in Mequon. My parents were together, and they both loved me very much, but I did grow up in an alcoholic household. There was a degree of emotional violence in my house. My mother was always kind of stressed-out, at her wit's end, trying to keep things together, keep the lights on, and the bills paid. My dad was partying and being irresponsible, making that very difficult.
Her misery was really apparent to me as a kid, and rather than be a good kid and be like, "Hey, Mom, I love you, how can I help?" I distanced myself from her and from my dad and others who really cared about me, which made my suffering worse. It led me to lash out. Also, part of it was my personality. I was a smart kid, and I was constantly bored at school. I wanted to be challenged, I wanted stimulation.
I developed a taste for the thrill of causing trouble. It became a habit, and just like any kind of substance abuse, it was stimulating the first time around.
But ten times later, it got boring, so I’d have to keep escalating my antisocial behavior to get the same kind of thrill. That meant I went from being a bully on the school bus to fights in the schoolyard, to fighting with teachers, to fights in the streets, to breaking and entering, and vandalism.
When I was fourteen, I started drinking, and then things got really crazy. By the time I was 16, I was a full-blown alcoholic. I had already been going to punk shows on most weekends. To me, punk was all about pissing people off and breaking shit. Hate was just part of the thrill. Around this time was when I first heard white power skinhead music.
For a lost, angry kid, white power music and what it stood for was very exciting. It was an even better way to get people angry with me. I was just like, "Oh, this is awesome. Yes, I will be a warrior for my people. Sign me up, yeah, white power! I'm fighting for my race!" I just dove into it headfirst. It was forbidden by civil society. I felt like all the more of a rebel, all the more of an outcast. I found white power friends, and we formed a gang. It was us against the world.
The first thing me and my buddies did after starting a gang was to start a white power band. We would go to punk shows, and other kids would organize against us, which actually helped because then we had these anti-racist skinheads to go beat up. We would literally drive to Minneapolis or Chicago just to fight against anti-racists. We wanted the violent opposition so badly; it was what kept us galvanized, and it validated our persecution narrative.
I became a leader in the movement, but all along, things kept happening that made me question what I was doing. My Jewish boss had always been fair to me even though I wore swastikas on my clothes. My Latino coworkers always tried to engage me in friendly conversations. A black colleague once offered me his sandwich when I was so broke I couldn’t afford to buy lunch—even though I was a racist skinhead.
Everything I did back then was meant to provoke hatred. It was meant to provoke hostility, so when people responded with kindness, it defied me. They were demonstrating to me how full of shit I was. They set the example for me of how human beings should treat each other and care about each other. And, little by little, they were changing me.
I see a lot of parallels with addiction and people in the white supremacy movement. At first, it is like this big thrill, it’s this kick, and you’re super into it. It's like a big party with hate and violence and swastikas. But as time sets in, and the hollowness of this false love, false respect, false purpose, and false value starts to set in, you reach this point where you're like, "This sucks. I hate this. I just don't know any other way to live.” It’s exhausting, and you start looking for a way out.
I’d never stopped hating long enough to step back and analyze what I was doing or why, because—had I done that—I would have realized the answers didn’t make sense. Once I started to step back a bit, I began to question everything. Who said white was the superior race? Our supposed leaders? What made them authorities? Why were white power believers right and the rest of the world wrong?
In the early ‘90s, I became a parent and then a single parent. A couple months after I got full custody of my daughter, our band played a concert. After that show, a close friend of mine was shot and killed in a street fight. My friend had two young kids at the time.
That was the last straw for me. I had lost another friend to violence earlier and had seen many others go to prison. I couldn’t risk leaving my daughter parentless. I was like, "Okay, I'm done. I'm not doing this anymore. I'm leaving." That was the excuse I was looking for to put it all behind me. I was finally out, but it was only the first step.
Arno: A couple years after I left the movement, the wrongness of everything I had done sank in. It was '96, and I was going to community college in Mequon and my daughter was in daycare there. One day, I got there early to pick her up, and I'm looking from outside. I'm watching my daughter play with these other kids, and some of them are white, some are black, some are Latino, some are Asian, and they're all just having a blast playing with each other. Like, they don't give a shit about what color their skin is. All they care about is that they have someone to play with and that someone is nice to them.
And as I'm watching this and really just kind of letting it sink in, there was a black guy about my age who came in to pick up his daughter. His daughter was about my daughter's age. When he came walking in, she saw him and goes, "Daddy!" And she runs and jumps into his arms, the same way my daughter jumps into my arms. He held her and he hugged her, and you could just see this love between them.
It hit me in that moment that his love was no greater or no less than mine. Love was just this pure force of nature. As I was thinking about that, I started to think about all the people I'd beat up. I thought about how I would feel if someone beat up my daughter like that, or how I would feel if my daughter beat someone else up like that. And it just destroyed me. It made me feel like I was the worst person on Earth for everything I had done. My eyes filled with tears and I mourned all of the time I’d spent hating and harming others when what I’d really felt was hatred for myself. I looked over at my daughter saying goodbye to her friends and was overcome with love. My daughter had given me the gift of a second chance.
After I abandoned the white power movement, I made new and wonderful friends of all different backgrounds, and traveled to places I had never been. About ten years after I left the movement, finally, mercifully, I quit drinking and began to be the father I always wanted to be.
Once the fog of alcoholism had cleared, I started writing the next chapter of my life. The only way I could live with myself would be to devote whatever time I had left on this Earth to being a good father and an honorable citizen—one committed to repairing some of the harm I had caused—and to forge acts of loving kindness. I wanted to be someone my daughter could be proud of.
I thought back a lot on how I had used my voice. When I was a member of a white power band, I made some of the most violent, hateful records ever recorded. There was no way I could undo that damage. I could, however, speak in a new voice, a voice that rallied against violence and hatred. So I started an online magazine called Life After Hate. We published stories from other former racist skinheads and street gang members, and even former jihadists, as well as survivors of violence. We received a lot of attention for and interest in our work. The magazine soon became a non-profit organization. I began to speak frequently and do peace work both in the U.S. and also internationally.
On a personal level, even though I was sober and making amends, I still beat the hell out of myself emotionally as a sort of masochistic penance for all the wrong I had done. When bad things happened to me, I reasoned it was because I didn’t deserve good things. I started a Buddhist meditation practice to work on calming my mind. It took awhile, but through that practice, I finally determined that I was worth forgiving.
Pardeep: I was always caught up between different cultures. I wore a mask at home, where I would be more traditional with my parents. But out in the world, growing up in Milwaukee, I behaved differently—I had to be hard and tough, and I would do things to blend in. Despite my parents’ faith, I wasn’t very religious when I grew up, or very spiritual, even.
I played baseball for my high school and went on to play in college. I did typical teenage and young adult stuff, dating and girls and partying. But in the back of my mind, there was always this pull toward engaging in a life of service.
Our Sikh scriptures say, “One who performs selfless service, without thought of reward, shall attain his Lord and Master. You shall find peace doing Seva.”
My father was always doing something for someone, and he never expected anything in return. His example is what led me to pursue policing as a career. I really believed I could make a difference in people’s lives.
I studied criminal justice at Marquette University, went to the police academy and became a police officer in the inner city of Milwaukee. I thought about it in very simple terms initially, as in, I can help people by locking up the bad folks and keeping good people safe. But after five years of working as a police officer, I learned it wasn’t that simple.
I’d see kids whose lives were so chaotic that they were actually relieved to be arrested and locked up. They’d fall asleep in the back of the squad car because they felt safe there. It was as if they were thinking, “Thank God I got caught and this is over. I don’t have to do this anymore.” My heart hurt for those kids. One night, I brought a 12-year-old boy to the hospital after he had been shot for selling fake drugs. He later died. Every one of those incidents brought me closer to the realization that I had gone into police work with naive expectations.
I continually found myself in situations where I couldn’t make things better for anyone. I realized If I were going to make a difference, it wasn’t going to be wearing a badge and carrying a gun. I needed to try to reach people before they needed the cops. I decided I could help my community more if I became a teacher.
I married my wife, Jaspreet, during my first year of policing. We met in college and dated for three years. In my last year on the force, Jaspreet was pregnant with our first of four children. I returned to work for my dad and headed back to school to get my teaching certificate.
Two weeks after the start of the semester, I got a call from the principal of an alternative school in the area where I once patrolled. He said given my experience with at-risk kids and my familiarity with the neighborhood, I would be a perfect fit to teach at the school. One of their teachers had just walked off the job, so they had an opening. I started immediately.
We had a hundred really troubled kids in our school that the system had given up on, and every one of them was capable of growing into a good, productive adult. My strategy for helping my students was to first make an investment in them by getting to know their stories. During my time there, I experienced deep heartache and witnessed countless success stories. I had found my niche.
I thought I would teach there for the rest of my life. I was perfectly content with that. And then, August 5th happened and everything changed.
Pardeep: Sunday, August 5, 2012, began as a beautiful sunny day. My plan was to drop the kids off at the Gurudwara [Sikh Temple] so my daughter could attend Punjabi class and my son could play with his cousins. We finally made it out the door, and about five minutes into our drive, my daughter announced that she forgot her notebook for class. I was frustrated, but we returned home for the notebook. We were ten minutes behind schedule. Those extra ten minutes likely saved our lives.
On our way to the Gurudwara we saw police cars roaring past us, and by the time we arrived, the entrance was barricaded. That is when I learned that there had been a mass shooting at the temple.
Both my mother and father were there early that day, preparing for the Sunday service. My mother survived by hiding in the kitchen pantry with several other women and children. My father was killed along with five others by Wade Michael Page.
As the Sikh community grieved that day, we witnessed the truth upon which our religion was founded. We call it Ek Onkar. It means, we are one, from a single creator, and we share this divinity with all of creation. On the day when our community felt the most victimized, the most vulnerable and hurt, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, gathered together outside our Gurudwara in the spirit of oneness.
Thousands of people came to the temple and bore witness with us that day. It was in this spirit of defiant love that we saw light in what had seemed like infinite darkness.
Since the shooting, I have been on a spiritual journey that brought me closer to my Sikh faith. When August 5th happened, I realized I needed to take my own voice back. I needed to help by being a voice for the Sikh community.
I invited Arno to work with me and other Sikhs to spread peace through our organization, Serve 2 Unite. Serve 2 Unite is a forum to address hate with an ongoing practice of compassion rooted in the Sikh principles of oneness, and Chardi Kala—the pursuit of relentless optimism, even in times of adversity.
Arno: Through Serve 2 Unite, we speak a lot, and share our stories with groups as a way to advocate for connection and unity. We also offer student-led programs in schools that focus on problems students want to solve in their own communities. Our students have addressed things like community-police relations, Islamophobia, homelessness, human trafficking, and Holocaust education. Pardeep and I also recently published a book together, called The Gift of Our Wounds.
Pardeep: Things have changed so much in the past six years. The first time I met Arno, his voice was raw and tense—like his throat was constricted—and it sounded like it hurt to talk. Today Arno’s voice is easier, more liberated, and I can't help but think that some of that was psychological. A lot of healing has happened for both of us since we met.
Arno: Pardeep and I call each other brothers now. Pardeep is such a powerful example of the capacity that we have as human beings to listen, to understand, to be compassionate, to forgive. If everyone was like Pardeep, we'd be cool. Humanity would be in really good shape.
Pardeep: To me, Arno represents what is great about our country, because he changed his ways and devoted his life to fighting the hatred he once embraced. That makes him a hero in my eyes. Arno has shown me that people are basically good, but that sometimes one’s pain and anguish translates to violence. People who are hurt sometimes hurt others.
Over the last six years, through the peace work Arno and I have been doing, I have been inundated with stories of people’s suffering and pain. I’ve met with survivors of Columbine, Sandy Hook, with children who are grieving for lost parents. There is so much heartache in the world, but I have found that if we open our hearts to other people’s stories, then we can work through our own pain. To really heal our communities, and our country, we need to listen to the stories and accept and honor the pain of the past.
-Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis | Milwaukee, WI