Gap Closes after Wisconsin temple deaths
By Mark Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Arno Michaelis, the former white supremacist, went first. He stood across the stage in a high school auditorium from his recent partner and friend Pardeep Kaleka, the two men united by the bloodshed four months ago.
"On Aug. 5," Michaelis began, "a man who I used to be walked into the Sikh temple and murdered six people because they had brown skin, because they had turbans on their heads."
One of the six who died that day was Kaleka's father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the temple, a man who would not have condoned his son's urge to stay angry after the shootings.
"It would have made my father's legacy, everything he worked for his entire life, a sham," Kaleka said.
For 90 minutes on a recent night, the crowd of 750 students sat riveted. They watched the two men offer a vision of what comes after an act of hatred.
The story had its beginnings after 40-year-old Wade Michael Page went on his rampage, then took his life.
That night and afterward, Michaelis felt a weight of responsibility. No, he had not pulled the trigger, but as he told the students: "In many ways I helped create the environment for this."
That August night and afterward, Kaleka felt grief and the frustration of not understanding what kind of person did this to his father and the others. There was no one to ask. Page was dead.
Kaleka heard about Michaelis, a Milwaukee man who founded one of the largest white power groups in the country, then left the movement to work for the group Life After Hate. This was a man who might know what was inside Page's brain.
Kaleka, 36, emailed Michaelis, who is 41. He asked to meet him.
In October, the two met at a Laotian restaurant in Milwaukee. Michaelis picked the place. He arrived first, feeling nervous. There was still the voice that told him he bore some responsibility. The swastikas tattooed on his arm had been covered by other ink but couldn't be erased. Michaelis worried he would break down weeping.
Kaleka had butterflies in his stomach. He wore a bandage over his left eye and Michaelis' gaze went straight to it. He thought Kaleka looked like a fighter.
He asked what happened.
Kaleka explained that he had been giving his daughter a bath when the hook on the loofah caught in his eyelid and tore it. Michaelis, accident-prone himself, decided right away: This guy's awesome.
Their 90-minute dinner expanded into two hours that turned into three hours that turned into four.
How did you get into it, Kaleka asked of the white power movement.
Michaelis had not been poor or hated at home, though his parents had struggled with alcohol.
Honestly, Michaelis said, it was something he was good at, and he hadn't been good at anything before. He was good at fighting. He was good at hating.
He had joined the movement and stomped across stages as lead singer of the white power rock band Centurion. He had beaten up on other races but finally found it impossible to reconcile the hatred he felt for them with the acts of kindness he often received from them.
Once, a black woman at a McDonald's saw the latest swastika tattoo on his finger, and told him: You're a better person than that.
Kaleka shared his story of being a first-generation immigrant from India. He talked about how his father, a man who worked hard, was a regular Mr. Fixit who brought the lawn mower onto the living room rug to repair.
They had something in common. Michaelis' dad was a Mr. Fixit too.
Kaleka yearned to know what was going on inside the head of the man who killed his father. Michaelis took him there as best he could. From his experience, Michaelis said Page was consumed with hate and fear. It was a terrible way to live, Michaelis explained.
The two men left the restaurant late that night. Kaleka felt rejuvenated. He didn't hate Page; he felt sad for him.
Michaelis felt grateful. He looked at Kaleka and saw "how chill and together he was" even sitting across from a former white supremacist.
He thought how beautiful it was that Kaleka was continuing to practice the values of his father.
The high school auditorium was quiet for a long time as the men told their stories. Then the students got to ask questions.
Someone asked Kaleka how he felt before he met Michaelis, and he talked about the butterflies and the fact that some of his relatives felt, "once a skinhead, always a skinhead."
But he said: "Arno represents for me what is great about this country." He changed his ways and dedicated himself to opposing the hatred he once embraced.
Then Kaleka called the man across the stage "a hero."
Michaelis' eyes glistened.
"I'm very humbled by that," he said.