Son of Victim in Sikh Temple Attack Unites with Former White Supremacist to Fight Violence and Hate
The following transcript originally appeared on Democracy Now! on August 9, 2013.
AMY GOODMAN: This week marks the one-year anniversary of the attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left six people dead and five wounded. People of all faiths joined the Sikh community for vigils to remember those who died August 5th, 2012, when neo-Nazi gunman Wade Michael Page opened fire on worshipers in the temple.
The Oak Creek tragedy brought national attention to the threat of hate and discrimination that’s become routine for millions of Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Arab Americans in the last decade. According to reports, hate crimes against these communities are now at their highest since 2001, and the number of hate groups has more than doubled since 2000. Last Friday, ahead of the anniversary, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department will begin collecting data on hate crimes committed against Sikhs along with other religious groups. The Sikh community has long sought such inclusion. This is Jasjit Singh of the Sikh American Legal Defense Fund.
JASJIT SINGH: In the year after Oak Creek, we have made some progress with the government. And, you know, in one year, to get the FBI to agree to start tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, that’s progress, in the context of one year later. You know, we know that the government has challenges in moving quickly, especially in this environment. But for them to recognize the need and move on it, that should be absolutely acknowledged, and we applaud that effort. At the same time, it’s not exactly a victory, in the sense that we’re simply requesting that we be recognized when we are facing these horrific challenges, and so it gives you a sense for how much work really there is to be done in a broader scope.
AMY GOODMAN: On the day after the anniversary of the shooting, five golden domes were added to the Oak Creek Sikh temple, something the late temple president, who was killed in last year’s massacre, had wanted.
Well, to talk more about the implications of this tragedy, one year later, we go to Milwaukee where we’re joined by two guests, whose unlikely alliance was born out of this tragedy. Pardeep Kaleka is the son of slain temple president Satwant Kaleka. He’s a founder of Serve 2 Unite. Arno Michaelis is also with us, former white supremacist, author of My Life After Hate. He is an educator with Pardeep in Serve 2 Unite.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Pardeep, I’d like to begin with you, and it is a year later. My condolences on the death of your father and the others in your community. Talk about what happened that day.
PARDEEP KALEKA: Good morning, Amy. Yeah, thank you.
That day, August 5th, I guess sort of marked—marked our community being victimized by a hate crime committed by a white supremacist that—I mean, I think, you know, he didn’t think that we represented what America was about. And basically he came into the temple that day and shot six people dead, one including my father, and, you know, others injured and some still—one’s still critically in a vegetative state. This past weekend—I’m glad that you talked about this past weekend—was a healing process. It’s been a healing process throughout the year, but this past weekend especially, with the marking of the one-year vigil and obviously with the domes going up. One of the wishes that my dad really wanted is for the gurdwara to look like a gurdwara.
AMY GOODMAN: Pardeep, can you talk about the guest you’re sitting next to right now? Can you talk about how the two of you met after this killing last year?
PARDEEP KALEKA: Sure. I mean, last year, right after August, there was a lot of media, and we were working with a lot of other nonprofits around the area. As I was working with some nonprofits, as far as the gun debate that was—that was festering at the time, I was walking out of a meeting, and one of the people asked me, "Did you—have you contacted Arno Michaelis yet?" And I had been meaning to contact Arno, because I knew the work that he was doing in the community. And, you know, fortunately, we both were part of another network called Against Violent Extremism, which is made up of former, I guess, violent extremists and survivors, who link together and share their stories of forgiveness and compassion for a broader message of forgiveness and compassion. And I contacted the organizer of AVE, Ross Frenett, and he told me how to get a hold of—or, he told me how to get in contact with Arno. And we went back and forth via email and text, and eventually we finally talked one evening.
AMY GOODMAN: Arno—
PARDEEP KALEKA: The evening that we talked, I remember—
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Arno into this—
PARDEEP KALEKA: Yeah, the evening—
AMY GOODMAN: —Arno Michaelis, and ask about your background. You were a racist skinhead, a white supremacist. Talk about how you ended—how you started there and ended up working together against violence and hate with Pardeep.
ARNO MICHAELIS: I’d be happy to, Amy. Good morning. Thanks for having us on.
I got involved in white power skinhead groups really just as a angry, bored, unchallenged teenager. I don’t believe anyone really has an excuse to be violent, but I absolutely had no excuse. I came from a privileged background in Midwestern Wisconsin, born into the middle class. I really had everything going for me. But I came from an alcoholic household; there was a lot of emotional violence. My parents were pretty miserable, and that made me want to distance myself from them, and it also kind of got me lashing out at a early age. I was a bully on the school bus as early as kindergarten. In elementary school, I started getting in fights in the schoolyard. This kept escalating to breaking and entering and vandalism in middle school. By the time I was a teenager, I started drinking, myself. I got into punk rock, which I was—I still love, and I—you know, I really appreciate the DIY attitude and question-authority aspect of punk, but back then, to me, it was just about smashing things and hurting people and lashing out.
And that’s kind of who I was when I came across the idea of getting involved with white power skinheads. And I initially donned a swastika really for shock value, because it was the most effective way to piss people off that I had come across by that time. And so, I wasn’t really a racist looking for other racists; I was just a bored, angry kid, like looking for something to make me feel worthwhile and a cause to kind of join up with. And I found very quickly that once I started radiating hate and violence out into the world around me, the world reflected it back. And as I was expressing my hostility and the hostility was being returned to me, it made me more hateful and violent. That ultimately led me through a seven-year involvement in hate groups.
I got out in '94. The two milestone events in me leaving were becoming a single parent and, about a couple months after that, a second friend of mine was murdered in a street fight. And by that time, I had lost count of how many friends had been incarcerated, so it struck me that if I didn't change my ways, death or prison was very likely to take me from my daughter. Beyond those milestones, though, I truly believe that it was acts of kindness that I had been given to me by strangers and people that I was openly hostile to. There were times when black people, Jewish people, gay and lesbian people treated me as a human being, even though I refused to acknowledge their humanity. And while those acts of kindness didn’t change me on the spot, they did plant seeds that kind of stuck with me and built on a growing sense that what I was doing was wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Your—
ARNO MICHAELIS: And I believe that if it wasn’t—
AMY GOODMAN: You have said that your—
ARNO MICHAELIS: Excuse me?
AMY GOODMAN: You have said that you feel you were so heavily involved in the white power movement, also your music, that you may have influenced the shooter to kill?
ARNO MICHAELIS: Yeah, I—when August 5th happened, I was, first and foremost, heartbroken for Pardeep and his family and the families of the other victims. I thought, you know, what it would be like to have someone murder my father or my grandfather or my mother, and I—that human level was really what was most important to me. But the next thought was that I did a lot to contribute to the environment that created Wade Page. In many ways, he was exactly who I used to be. He was a white power skinhead. He was lead singer in white power bands. And I had done that years before he became active, and I was, you know, kind of instrumental in creating the environment that created him.
AMY GOODMAN: Pardeep, you were a police officer before becoming a teacher?
PARDEEP KALEKA: Yeah, I was a police officer for four years in the inner city and went on to become a teacher in that same inner city. Right now I—that’s what I do part-time. Something else that we do part-time is, with Serve 2 Unite, we go out to schools, and outreach programs try to get students to engage in their environment and identify social issues that they have to deal with and try to find constructive ways of dealing with them. It’s been a good run for the last six months, and we’re planning to keep doing it and moving forward, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: Arno, have you reached out to white supremacists?
ARNO MICHAELIS: I am not a white supremacist intervenor. When I started doing outreach in January 2010, I started speaking openly about my past and writing, and it was very important to me to address racism. But in the grand scheme of things, while they are—can be very dangerous and they are very destructive, as Pardeep can unfortunately attest to, in the grand scheme of things, white supremacist groups aren’t—I don’t think they’re the—they should be the main concern. I’m more concerned with the cumulative effects of 500 years of white supremacy and the effect that it has on our inner cities. So I’ve been focusing my efforts on trying to help people who are struggling in socioeconomically depressed areas to realize the power that they have to change their lives and their environments. I think those are the people who are suffering effects of racism on a broader scale, and so that’s where I focus my work. Now, over the course of doing that and of sharing my story and of just being out there publicly, I have had a small but steady stream of people looking to me for guidance to leave the white power movement. I’ve had slightly a few more people doing that than I have gotten hate mail from my old buddies, I’m happy to say.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Pardeep, as the two of you go to schools and as you live in your community, what is the message that you’re sending out now? How do you think we can reduce hate and violence in society, as you honor now this first anniversary of what took place, you honor the memory of your father and the others killed and wounded?
PARDEEP KALEKA: Yeah, I mean, good question. That when we go out to schools and we talk to students, we want to engage them in a few different things. We want to engage them in the ideas of compassion and the ideas of kindness and the ideas of being immovable. And what that basically means is we want students to be self-confident, confident enough that they don’t—they’re not easily persuaded by somebody else or somebody else’s beliefs about them. And we also want them to be social agents of change, basically, to take—take ownership of their surroundings and their environment, and sort of mold not only their school culture, but also their broader culture when they get outside.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us and ask: You’re both wearing a T-shirt—one blue, one brown—and they have a hand on it; what does the hand represent?
ARNO MICHAELIS: The hand is essentially—it means we’re interrupting the cycle of violence. We’re very inspired by Ameena Matthews and her Interrupters organization in Chicago. Beyond this interrupting the cycle of violence, the motivation for doing that is the essence of taking ownership of the violence in our society, that blood is on all of our hands, it’s all of our problem, and we all need to be part of the solution. So the hand signifies our ability to affect that situation and our willingness to take ownership of it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for—
PARDEEP KALEKA: Yeah, this laceration right here—
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate, and Pardeep Kaleka, founder of Serve 2 Unite, working with Arno in that group. Pardeep’s father was among those killed last year at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. They’re speaking to us from Milwaukee.