When Arno Michaels learned that the shooter at Oak Creek’s Sikh temple was a white supremacist, he lay “awake that night wondering if it was some- one I recruited,” he said.
It was a plausible fear. Michaels is a former white-power skinhead who helped found the Northern Hammerskins, part of the nation’s predominant white supremacist group. Around the time that shooter Wade Michael Page joined the movement, Michaels was actively recruiting in the Milwaukee area.
Eventually Michaels learned that Page had lived in North Carolina at that time, which was the early 1990s. Initially, he was relieved, “but then it came out that he was in (white power) bands,” Michaels said.
When they aren’t ranting in Web forums, many of the world’s white supremacists employ a louder outlet for their views: thunderous, thrashing heavy metal or hardcore punk music known as “hatecore,” with violent lyrics that call for a race war.
Hatecore bands echo the sounds of death metal and hardcore punk, with amplified, atonal guitar riffs, blast-beat drumming and screeching vocals. The names of hatecore bands tell their story: Aggravated Assault, Angry Aryans, Definnite Hate, Final Solution, Force Fed Hate, Fueled by Hate, Hate Crime, Jew Slaughter and White Terror.
Hate music has also emerged in the country and folk music genres. But it’s the crashing, death-metal style that seems best suited to the message and continues to dominate this tiny but socially significant music scene.
As frontman for one of these bands, Centurion, Michaels was a major player in that music scene. The group’s underground concerts were one of its greatest recruitment and fundraising tools, he said, as well as a powerful mechanism for group bonding and ideological reinforcement.
Centurion’s CD “14 Words” sold more than 20,000 copies, screeching the movement’s call for the destruction of racial/ethnic minorities and LGBT people across the globe. Although that number is small in the context of mainstream rock, Centurion was Northern Hammerskin’s primary fundraising tool and, for a while, it dominated the shadowy fringes of the racist skinhead music world.
“The odds are very good that (Page) was a fan of Centurion,” Michaels said. “I feel a very serious responsibility for helping to create the environment that created him.”
Michaels now works with former gang members and white supremacists to produce Life After Hate, a monthly online magazine that promotes tolerance and compassion. He’s also developed Kindness Not Weakness, a character development movement that discourages bullying and violence.
But no matter how much his mind and heart have changed, Michaels continues to be haunted by the damage he did as a teen and young man – not just to others but also to his own soul. The headlines about Page re-opened an old wound.
“I used to be Wade Page,” Michaels said.
Before he shot himself, ending his murderous rampage, Page was deeply involved with white-power music, having performed with several bands. Monitors of hate groups had been tracking Wade since his 2000 debut on the hatecore scene.
Definite Hate, one of the bands in which Page performed, was signed with Resistance Records, the Cadillac label of the hatecore industry. DF’s anthem is the song “Heart to My Nation,” which begins, “Our heritage is fading/Our people have turned back,” then builds over the course of six and a half minutes to the climax: “Our heritage is growing/Our people fighting back/Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil!”
During its heyday in 2001, when GQ profiled Definite Hate, Resistance Records grossed $1 million annually, making it the cash cow for the then-dominant neo-Nazi group National Alliance. That group was founded by William Pierce, who became a hero of the movement for his 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” a sort of bible for racists that inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, among others.
Coded messages permeate hatecore. For instance, Resistance often sold hate-rock albums for $14.88 – “14” representing the 14 words in a popular skinhead mantra, and “8” referring to the eighth letter of the alphabet–“H.”
“Doubling it up stood for ‘Heil Hitler,’” said Todd Blodgett, a former Reagan White House aide who once had an ownership stake in Resistance Records but later informed on white supremacist groups for the FBI.
Resistance Records’ sales slid precipitously after Pierce made a speech dissing members of other racist groups as “freaks and weaklings,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Pierce died in 2002 of cancer and kidney failure.
No comparable record label has emerged to dominate the scene the way that RR did. Today’s hatecore groups are the equivalent of garage bands, distributed by specialized small labels that often consist of a single person and a post office box. The bands come and go, and performers hop from one to another. At any given moment, there are between 100 and 150 bands in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Hammerskins, the closest thing today to the National Alliance, dominates much of the white power music scene. Many hatecore bands are affiliated with the group, which organizes hate music concerts, including Hammerfest, the genre’s largest annual event. Page performed at Hammerfest in Georgia in 2010.
The Internet has ushered in a new era of opportunity for hatecore music. People stumble across the music in the course of cruising the Web and can download it from many bands’ sites for free. Those who are willing to pay for it need look no farther than iTunes or Amazon.com.
Hatecore can strike a chord with the kind of disaffected, angry youth that Page and Michaels once were. For Michaels, the pioneering British hatecore band Skrewdriver was like a gateway drug.
“The music has proven to be the single most effective recruiting tool for bringing young people into the movement,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “You hear from many people who come out of the white supremacist movement that the music is very important. Essentially what people say is that at (a young) age you listen to a given track hundreds and hundreds of times and the music seeps into your brain.”
Prior to the Internet, getting the music out to the public was an overwhelming challenge.
“Just going around trying to find kids and give them hate music CDs in the hopes that they’ll like it and get involved in the movement that way – that’s a very time- and cost-inefficient tactic, said Michael Pitcavage, direc- tor of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League. “But if you have a medium like the Internet, you can simply put the music out there where people encounter it in their everyday lives. It’s the difference between a direct marketing campaign and a billboard campaign.”
“Kids introduce themselves to this world on their own,” Potok said. “Mom and dad are in the kitchen making dinner, and they’re off in their room on their computer. It’s kind of like looking at porn. Some small percentage gets more and more interested.”
Exposure to the music is not a strong enough experience to seal a life-changing deal like joining a racist skinhead group. The leap from listening to the music on the Internet to being assimilated into the movement is a big one, and hatecore concerts help some over the divide.
“On the face of it, you think someone listening to a song and then wanting to go out and kill Jews – that’s just ridiculous,” Potok said. “The moment of truth is when that kid walks out of his parent’s home and into his first skinhead concert. There he meets that world.”
Staging a hatecore concert presents a unique set of challenges. Very few, if any, legitimate venues permit such events on their premises, so organizers must resort to subterfuge or find out-of-the-way places, such as dank basements, warehouses or rural fields in which to perform.
“It was pretty much any- where we could get into,” Michaels said. “We got into a VFW hall by pretending it was somebody’s birthday party. We built a stage on a 10-acre farm just north of Wisconsin Dells and had a concert there where there were a couple of hundred people.”
Initiates have to clear a number of hurdles just to find a concert. They might receive directions to a parking lot where group members are waiting in a car to check them out before taking them to the concert site.
There are reasons for the secrecy. Although hate speech is protected in the United States, unlike some European countries, government agents try to keep tabs on extremist group activity. Anti-racist skinheads, who equal their white-power counterparts in ferocity, can infiltrate an event and turn what was intended to be a bonding experience into a brawl.
Michaels said bloodshed is common at the concerts, which he described as “testosterone-fueled” events where knife fights over women and brawls to resolve power conflicts are part of the allure. The concerts are also known for their violent mosh pits. Mosh pits, which are also features of heavy metal and hardcore punk concerts, are areas close to the stage where solo dancers push and slam into one another in a frenzy of undirected aggression.
“The pit during our shows would often get so violent that the audience would start tearing each other apart,” Michaels said. “We were proud of the fact that a lot of our audience would leave in ambulances. That’s how crazed we would get the audience worked up. We would be like, ‘Yeah, that’s what Centurion does.’ ”
For the kind of members sought by supremacists – men who are prepared to fight a race war - violence is part of the movement’s allure. Even the frequent battles with anti-racist skinheads have a romantic “West Side Story” appeal, Michaels said.
But while the white power movement is built on violence, it paradoxically offers its adherents the warm acceptance and sense of purpose lacking in their lives. In that sense it’s very much like urban street gangs.
Michaels said it was the camaraderie and romantic appeal of being part of a mythic quest – to save the white race – that won him over to the white power movement. He saw his racist skinhead comrades as an all-embracing new family of rebellious misfits like himself, bound together by a common cause and a shared contempt for authority and the status quo.
While the Internet has empowered neo-Nazis and white supremacists to spread their message more effectively, Michaels believes the Web has “also empowered those of us who are countering hate and violence.”
“Life After Hate has contributors from all continents short of Australia and Antarctica,” he said. “We got more soldiers for LAH during the week after the Sikh shooting than during the prior two and a half years of our organization combined.
Michaels urged all people to fight hate “by committing themselves to treating the life around you with as much kindness and compassion as possible. That practice is the most beautiful thing about being a human being, and it is something that can change the course of life. It changed the course of my life, and it can change the course of the next Wade Page.”
A brief chronology of white-power music:
1960s: Johnny Rebel aka Clifford Joseph Trahane sings with a Cajun sound about the KKK and becomes known in music history as the “forefather of white power music.”
1976: Ian Stuart Donaldson forms Skrewdriver, considered the first racist skinhead band, in Great Britain
1978: The white supremacist National Front forms the Punk Front in Britain, launching the Nazi punk period.
Late 1980s: The first Hammerskin group, the Confederate Hammerskins, forms in Dallas.
1993: Resistance Records is founded.
1995: William Pierce’s handbook “The Turner Diaries” informs Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
1999: William Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, purchases Resistance Records, lead purveyor
of “white power” music.
October 2000: Hammerfest 2000 is held in Georgia and described as a “Woodstock of hate rock.”
2004: Panzerfaust Records, a white power music label, launches a campaign to distribute free white-
power music CDs to middle and high school students.
Aug. 5, 2012: Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old ex-soldier with ties to the white-power music scene, kills six before taking his own life at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.