Arno Michaelis was 16 and furious at the world when he joined America’s white power movement in 1987. At the time, he was deeply involved in the punk scene in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which included a strain of skinhead culture that celebrated racism and swastikas.

Michaelis became the lead singer of a hate-metal band called Centurion, a seminal group among neo-Nazi music fans that has sold tens of thousands of albums. His lyrics advocated for racial holy war, as did the local gang he started, the Northern Hammerskins. The gang later became part of Hammerskin Nation, an international hate organization with branches in France, the Netherlands, and Australia. According to the Anti-Defamation League, Hammerskin Nation is now considered “the most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the United States.

For years, Michaelis’s belief in racial holy war was total. The movement’s doctrines were spelled out in a canned narrative: Through attempts to integrate minorities into society, Jews were responsible for an ongoing effort to exterminate the white race. Minorities were seen as savages, and whites who did not take up arms were seen as “race traitors.” Waging a holy race war meant attacking anyone who was helping to perpetrate genocide against the white race, beating unwitting strangers or even killing them. In 1991, Hammerksins in Arlington, Texas murdered a 32-year-old black man in a drive-by shooting while he sat on the back of a pickup truck outside his home.

Michaelis, now 44, left the movement in the mid-1990s, after two of his close friends were shot and killed in gang fights. He went on to become a peace activist and is a director at Serve2Unite, an organization that teaches children about the importance of diversity.

Michaelis spoke with The Trace about the central role guns play in the movement, its urge to start a race war, and his assessment of the thinking and motivations behind the Charleston church shooting.

When you were in the white power movement, were guns a major part of your culture?

Yeah, but it wasn’t really front and center for us until about six months into our gang. In June of 1988 we moved to a place in a bad neighborhood that was controlled by the Latin Kings. We were drinking on the porch one day and somebody took a pot shot at us with a shotgun. Then we decided we needed guns. We knew a white kid in the neighborhood, and we gave him all the money we had to get as many guns as possible. He got us .22 rifle, a .20-gauge shotgun, and a British Enfield — a huge, World War I–era rifle.

Did you use them?

We used them a week later, when a car full of black kids came to do a drive-by on the house. We had guards with guns surrounding the house 24-hours a day. So before they could fire at us, my buddy shot [at] them with the Enfield. All the glass was blown out of the car. The cops caught them a few miles across town at an emergency room. The experience really validated the white supremacist narrative.

How long have guns been part of the white supremacy movement?

Always. Guns are a staple, a central element.

I guess that makes sense if you think you’re at war.

Right. There’s this idea that there’s a huge noble cause you have to fight for, and if you don’t win, all is lost. For white supremacists, it’s genocide against white people. If you’re targeted in genocide, you better arm yourself and form some kind of resistance.

But guns are not only a defense against black people. They’re also a defense against the government, which is seen as the biggest perpetrator of the genocide against the white race. That goes back to the Klan days. After the Civil War, there was the belief that the federal government was coming to integrate the blacks and tell everyone how to live our lives.

The idea is to start a race war. The thinking is: The world is so messed up, there’s no fixing it. The only thing you can do is tear it down. And people are just itching for this to happen. You can see it on white supremacy sites.

Like the ones that the alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof reportedly frequented. What do you think was going through his mind?

My take on Dylan Roof is that he was not anywhere near as well-versed, ideologically speaking, as we were in the white supremacist narrative. I think he was an isolated, suffering individual, and because of his geographical location — the South — he happened to vibe on the Confederate flag.

In the case of white supremacy, the basic idea of [minorities] having the same rights you have is seen as persecution. That was probably Roof’s take on it: This idea that our country is being taken from us. The way that translates to kids like Dylann Roof is, basically, they need to go out and do something about it.

How many more Dylan Roofs are out there?

It’s sad to say, but there are a lot of them. Historically, any time civil rights are advanced, there’s pushback. I think there are a lot of people on the verge of doing something horrible because of same-sex marriage, for instance. They see that as the death knell of our civil nation, and the only solution, for them, is to respond violently.

[Photo: Arno Michaelis]