By Marsha Sutton
Hearing the words, “Hate feels so good,” is shocking in itself. But hearing those words uttered by a former neo-nazi skinhead turned equality and human rights advocate is a stunner.
To understand how a white supremacist is created, and how a racist bigot can find his humanity, check out Frank Meeink and his book “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.”
Meeink didn’t just reject his past but overcame it to become a spokesperson for compassion and acceptance, whose only intolerance now is for those who embrace violence, hate, and artificial race, religion and class distinctions.
The featured speaker at an Anti-Defamation League presentation on March 13, Meeink was in San Diego as part of the ADL’s centennial celebration of its founding in 1913.
Meeink told his compelling story with honesty and sincerity, a little sadness and regret, spiced with raw humor and earthy eloquence. It’s a journey through a landscape of hateful extremist behavior and ideology, to a place of peace and forgiveness.
Born in south Philadelphia and raised Irish-Catholic, Meeink was abused as a child, but not just physically. He suffered most from neglect and disinterest.
With a family life shattered by divorce, drugs, alcohol, hunger, poverty, and violent relationships, there was complete indifference to his well-being.
Fear was a major part of his life. He said he feared everything – his home, school, neighborhood, parents, loneliness.
“I was a broken individual,” he said.
Introduced to the skinhead white supremacist movement when he was 13, Meeink found the acceptance he longed for. At last people were interested in him. With gang life, he said, “I had a purpose.”
Instead of living his life in fear, he was able to instill fear in others. It felt good to make others feel afraid, he said.
He dove into the movement with enthusiasm and loyalty to the first group of people to embrace him fully.
Meeink shaved his head and tattooed himself with extremist symbols and slogans – including a swastika on his neck and the letters “skin head” on his eight knuckles.
“I was a jerk – an egomaniac with no self-esteem,” he said.
For five years, Meeink was an active member of his gang, a recognized leader who engaged in horrendous acts of violence – over 300, he told Katie Couric in a televised interview several years ago.
The usual minority groups were targeted, he said, but white people were attacked as well.
“Anyone who wasn’t a part of our movement was a potential victim,” he told Couric.
At the San Diego ADL event, speaking to a full auditorium of hundreds, Meeink said hate was the fuel that ignited so much violence. But when gangs got too large, members began inter-hating and would beat up other members.
“When you’re in the gutter, you look down on others worse [off],” he said.
In Illinois, Meeink had his own cable access television show called “The Reich” which he used to recruit new gang members.
Eventually, at age 17, he was arrested for kidnapping and assault, and was convicted and sent to prison where he befriended African-American and Hispanic inmates, mostly bonding through sports. These were people he formerly hated.
In 1995, when Meeink was 20, two national events took center stage: the Oklahoma City bombing and the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
As the father of a baby girl born before he was sent to prison, Meeink was profoundly affected by the images of so many dead children and babies carried out of the decimated Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
And the Simpson trial, with its focus on DNA, caused him to question the Master Race claims that people of Aryan descent are inherently superior.
“DNA says that’s all bullshit,” he said.
Meeink said he was “the smartest racist in prison” who “looked up to criminals, thugs and racists all my life.” But scientists, he said, were destroying his world, by demonstrating that all races are essentially the same.
When he was released from prison, he “still walked and talked like a thug,” he said, and considered himself “still an Aryan” – although he began to consider the possibility, given his prison friendships, that skin color and race are irrelevant.
Nevertheless, he came out of prison saying, “I’m still gonna hate the Jews.” It’s human nature, he said. “We hate what we don’t understand.”
He returned to Philly a hero and was idolized by other skinheads, but doubts began to form. Plus, he needed to find work.
“When you have a swastika on your neck, these are not good people skills,” he said to uncomfortable laughter. Parents would pull their children away from him, and prospective employers rejected him.
Finally, a Jewish small business owner hired him, even with the neck swastika in full view.
When his first payday came, Meeink was certain his Jewish boss would cheat him. Ingrained prejudice dies hard. But his boss gave Meeink the $300 owed – and another $100 bonus, saying Meeink was a good worker and deserved extra.
Meeink was favored by his boss who taught him a little about business, mentored him, paid him well, believed in him – and most importantly, told him he wasn’t dumb.
Jews, it would seem, are people too, he discovered, as he grew to respect this man who gave him a job, a future and a new way of seeing the world.
As they say, if hate can be learned, it can be unlearned.
A century of fighting hate
Eventually, Meeink connected with the ADL, an organization he hated when he was a skinhead. But the ADL shows empathy even to racists and bigots, he said. “Now I trust and believe in the good that they do.”
The ADL’s 100 years of fighting hate began in 1913 with the horrific lynching in Georgia of Jewish business owner Leo Frank, falsely accused of murder in a trial that drew national attention to the scourge of anti-Semitism in the United States at the time.
Originally founded to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, the ADL has become a pre-eminent force for social justice and fair treatment for all people, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
The ADL also helps law enforcement by providing counterterrorism training and sharing vital statistics that track trends on emerging and existing hate groups.
The theme for the ADL’s centennial year is: “Imagine a World without Hate.” And this is the message Frank Meeink now spreads.
Today, Meeink is 37, married with children and grateful for his second chance at life.
He is a speaker and author who frequently travels throughout the country to talk to high school teens, the media and other groups about his transformative journey into the seductive safety of hate groups and his escape from the confines of distorted extremist ideologies. [See his Website – www.frankmeeink.com.]
Once a well-respected leader of skinheads who now gets death threats, Meeink is founder of “Harmony Through Hockey” for teens and a board member of “Life After Hate,” a group of former white supremacists and neo-nazis who “work with others to help the next guys be free of hate.”
“We are there when those guys see it’s not panning out,” he said.
When asked how he can convince skinheads to take a different path, Meeink said you don’t go into a bar at happy hour and try to recruit for Alcoholics Anonymous.
So they don’t crash skinhead meetings and try to convert members. “But we are there for them when they are ready,” he said.
The group helps the disaffected understand that nothing good is ever forecast when “the Master Race” is supposed to take over. Bad stuff always follows, he said, when you hear a sentence that starts with this: “When the Master Race takes over …”
Meeink confirmed that neo-nazi and white supremacist gangs continue to thrive, with the Internet making it easy to reach out to lost souls.
California is the largest center of hate in the country, and southern California is home to the greatest number of white supremacist and racist gangs in the state, he said.
He answered one question from the audience without missing a beat: What’s the one thing above all else that would have kept you from becoming a skinhead?
“Good parenting,” he replied. “Hands down.”
When he was growing up, if someone had just said to him, “How was your day, Frank?” when he came home from school, his life may have turned out very differently, he said.
Although his arms are covered with ink, he advises young people to never get tattoos, “especially the name of your girlfriend.” That’s just stupid, he said.
After he left the movement, he discussed his regret for his infamous neck swastika in a newspaper interview that was read by a dermatologist who offered her services to remove the offensive tattoo.
He accepted the offer, but said he had no money to pay her. The dermatologist said her family died in the Holocaust so it was an honor to remove it. He is now swastika free.
He also said it’s important to not stand by and let others be bullied, insulted, hurt or victimized because of their differences. “When people talk crazy, you need to say something,” he said.
“We are on this planet together,” Meeink said, to a standing ovation.
Meeink’s story is entertaining, horrifying, electrifying and ultimately inspiring. His is a remarkable transformation that gives hope to those determined to find acceptance and tolerance in a world in desperate need of compassion and understanding.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.