Two speakers emphasized compassion and the need to face a controversial image of Baraboo High School students Monday night at the Al. Ringling Theatre during the third in a series of community events organized to address the photo.
“People are watching what happens in Baraboo,” said speaker Pardeep Singh Kaleka. “You might want to let it pass and say, ‘OK, let’s just forget about it. Growing pains.’ But tomorrow, we will ask your children to be teachers.”
The photo of dozens of boys in the class of 2019 was taken last spring before prom but went viral online in early November, sparking an investigation and international outrage.
The photo shows many students with their arms raised in an apparent Nazi salute. Some, including the photographer, have suggested the image was taken during a group wave, but at least two students have said they believe some of their peers intended to make a “Sieg Heil” salute.
Arno Michaelis, the second speaker at Baraboo Acts: Serve2Unite, said it’s important to consider the impact such an image has on other people.
“It’s important we remind ourselves that what happens to one of us affects all of us,” Michaelis said. “When an incident happens that salts 70-year-old wounds of genocide and we might be like ‘Eh, that’s not that big of a deal’ ... we’ve gotta step back and say, ‘It may have been a very big deal to someone else.’”
As a former white supremacist, Michaelis helped found a neo-Nazi gang in the late 1980s that eventually produced a mass shooter who killed six people in 2012 at a Wisconsin Sikh temple — including Kaleka’s father. Now, Michaelis and Kaleka are close friends and often speak together through Kaleka’s organization, Serve2Unite.
Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm opened the event Monday.
“I issued a call to action to this community to do something today and everyday to show kindness and commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” Palm said. “And tonight I’d like to thank you for heeding that call and demonstrating why we’re proud to stand united in Baraboo.”
A representative for the Baraboo School District estimated around 150 people attended Monday.
Baraboo High School students Phillip Zolper, 18, and Destina Warner, 17, introduced Michaelis and Kaleka at the speakers’ request. Zolper said he’s been working with school administrators on “how to move forward after this picture,” including by organizing small discussion groups and attending each of the community meetings.
“This wouldn’t have quite happened unless Arno and Pardeep made the fantastic choice to request that some students show up and be a part of this,” Zolper said. “(Students) have a different lens. It’s valuable getting all angles of the picture.”
Warner urged attendees to “listen tonight with your heart and your minds. We also ask that you take tonight’s message home to share with your families, friends and neighbors.”
Most members of the Baraboo School Board were at the event, including Nancy Thome, Kevin Vodak, Doug Mering, Mike Kohlman and Tim Heilman.
‘Seed of suffering’
Michaelis said he originally became entangled in neo-Nazi culture because of suffering: “Hurt people hurt people,” he said. He noted he grew up in Mequon with loving parents and an “idyllic” childhood, except that his father was an alcoholic.
That “seed of suffering” from the alcoholism in his family caused Michaelis to distance himself from others, which added to his suffering and led him to lash out. His behavior went from bullying to vandalism, burglary and drinking. By 16, he said violence offered a rush similar to that of drugs.
“Hate was just another part of the rush,” Michaelis said.
He became a neo-Nazi skinhead because “it repulsed people,” Michaelis said. During his seven years entrenched in hate groups, he saw many of his friends incarcerated or killed.
After realizing that if he didn’t change, “death or prison was going to take me from my daughter,” Michaelis left hate groups in 1994. He said he was changed most by the kindness he was shown by the people his worldview had taught him to hate.
“Today, I am grateful every single day that I’m not that person anymore, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to help other people learn from my mistakes,” Michaelis said.
Michaelis said people who make mistakes should be offered the chance to make amends. After a white supremacist rally last year, he said he was alarmed by how many people were calling for the marchers to be fired from their jobs or kicked out of school.
“There is nothing more dangerous than someone with nothing left to lose,” he said. “Let’s be tough, but you always gotta give someone the chance to change for the better.”
While the prom photo is not the same as a white supremacist rally, he said it still tore open wounds for people who saw it, regardless of the intent or circumstances around the photo.
“That’s why it’s important that we all take this seriously, but we have to do it from a place of compassion, not only for the people who were horrified by this photo but also compassion for the young men,” he said.
Forgiveness after loss
Kaleka, a former Milwaukee police officer and educator, described the day he lost his father, recalling certain images in detail. He said he felt both survivor’s guilt and relief.
“We put on a brave face for the world,” he said. “‘We’re doing good,’ although we’re hurting inside.”
He said survivors of traumatic events often feel helpless — that the world is happening to them — but they also go through “post-traumatic growth.” Eventually, they can reach what he called the ultimate truth: the understanding that “the world happens through us all.”
“You yourself are able to make that change, because you are that filter,” he said.
Kaleka, now a psychotherapist, emphasized the need to forgive and listen to the perspective of students.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t get better. You can’t just say ‘We’re gonna get over this and people are going to forget about it,’” he said. “You actively have to engage in forgiveness.”
Community action plan
Before the speakers took the stage, Baraboo author Keri Olson presented the 12-point community action plan, developed after community members identified steps for improvement at the Baraboo Talks event at Baraboo City Hall Nov. 29.
The plan includes:
- adding a Baraboo Acts component to the school district’s website to host news releases and other information;
- conducting an equity audit of the school district and community and developing a social equity action plan;
- providing mental health supports for students and district staff;
- enhancing Holocaust education;
- starting a book club through the public library; and
- hosting speakers and discussions around diversity.
At the end of the 90-minute program, organizers handed out blue yard signs sporting the phrases “reject hate” and “unite in love” to attendees.
Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce President Nanci Caflisch said the signs were made possible by an anonymous donation and should be displayed in house windows until the ground thaws. To show solidarity, participants will plant the signs in their yards on Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 2.
Thunderbird Day of Peace
Both Zolper and Warner said Monday they were looking forward to the Thunderbird Day of Peace Tuesday, for which the school hosted speakers and presentations on a variety of social issues, including the history of anti-Semitism, social media literacy and restorative justice.
Kaleka and Michaelis were keynote speakers at the school event. Kaleka said he expected to tell more personal stories at the assembly than they did at Baraboo Acts. While the school assembly would be similar to others the two have done, he said the difference is the photo and how students feel about that representing their school and community.
“I imagine there’s going to be a mixture of emotions from, you know, apathy to denial,” Kaleka said. “Don’t expect a miracle, but hopefully inspiration leads to commitment.”
He recommended community leaders try to keep people engaged in the conversation surrounding the photo, even when the issue fades with time.
“Just understand that it’s very easy to be inspired, and it’s very difficult to be committed,” he said.