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Life After Hate: A Conversation with a Former Skinhead

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“You can’t be a Neo-Nazi and be happy in life. It’s 100% impossible to be those two things at the same time.”

Frank Meeink didn’t have a picturesque childhood. Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Mr. Meeink had an abusive, absent step-father, drug-addicted mother, and fought for survival every day at school. He joined a Neo-Nazi gang at the age of 14. For three years, Mr. Meeink traveled the country, advocating for white supremacy and climbing the gang’s ranks. At 17, he was handed a three-year prison sentence for kidnapping a rival gang member. It was during his time in prison that his recovery from a life of hate began. Now, he travels the country speaking out against hate groups and is the co-founder of Life After Hate, an organization dedicated to helping other former extremists leave hateful organizations. (The film American History X is loosely based on his life, and he has published a book Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead). On August 13th, Mr. Meeink spoke with Merion West‘s Nigel Thompson about his life, organization, and helping others leave behind racism and prejudice.

I got the sense from listening to some of your talks that you became a skinhead more so to belong to something rather than anything racially motivated. Can you expand a little upon the journey you had to becoming a skinhead?

Race wasn’t a big issue to me growing up in the fact that we weren’t “enemies” until I went to an all-black school. I was already getting beaten at home, but I couldn’t start an anti-parent group—I would’ve done that first. Instead, I hated the next people that were messing with me in my life—those I encountered and fought at school. I also have to honest with myself. I joined that group for survival. I had to join a pack to survive.

How many people you encountered in those groups had that same survival mentality?

In that group, maybe half the guys were like that. Half were survival guys and the other half just wanted to do the punk-rock, rebel-from-their-parents sort of thing.

These alt-right, skinhead groups have evolved over time. What is the main difference between when you were involved and what they do now?

That’s easy: Fox News. They’ve been totally legitimized. Fox News uses the same talking points we used 30 years ago. Fox News will say: “The Entitlement People,” meaning black people that think they should have a fair shake at things. It’s the same exact language we used, except for the one word. We used to say the n-word; now you say “the entitlement people.”

In a sense, it’s subtler now?

It’s subtle, and it became okay to be okay with American white supremacy. If you ever watch Sean Hannity—that set of people—they’re always the super-American patriots more than anybody else. Now it’s okay to be talking the way they’ve been talking [about race] because they’re just making it about being American.

So in their minds, “American” connotes a white image?

Yes. It’s American Dad. That’s what they envision—the guy from American Dad.

So how did it get to this point, where these far-right voices and ideas are now legitimized?

Hate groups got really big before Donald Trump became president. They got really big in 2008. That’s when all the chat rooms blew up. People that weren’t in the movement got back into the movement because this black dude walked into the White House and now runs the joint. It threw them off.

For eight years, those numbers—they started out really high—dwindled back to what looked like nothing again. What happened—and I’m not trying to be critical—was that Obama wasn’t doing any of the things they were saying he was going to do. He didn’t come for their guns. He didn’t come for reparations for black people. He didn’t come for land. He didn’t do any of the stuff they thought.

When Donald Trump got up and made his candidacy speech, he validated every racist in the country by saying things like: “They’re all coming over. They’re all drug dealers, gang members, rapists, but I assume some of them are good people.”

Every white person I know that’s over 50 still says some ignorant things about how someone looks. “John’s not an n-word, he’s just a black guy.” The American racist has always felt okay with racism because they always made exceptions to it. “I hate all black people, except for John. I work with John, and John’s cool. But the rest of them are bad.”

Trump did that in his speech when he said: “I assume some of them are good people.” He really emphasized that. When he made that speech, I remember watching and thinking: “He’s going to have every racist in the world loving him,” and he does.

I want to talk to you a little about your organization Life After Hate. When did that idea come to you and how did you go about formulating it? 

For the longest time, there were just two formers [former white supremacists] out speaking—it was me and TJ Leyden. TJ is now ill and will never be able to speak again because he had brain surgery. It was just us for 15 to 20 years.

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A couple years ago in 2011, Google goes around and taps 100 former extremists, saying they want to bring us to Dublin and lock us in a hotel room so we can figure out the world’s problems for them.

So we all went, people from all over the world, you name it, we’re all there. We’re all in this room. There were a lot of right-wing guys—like myself from America—and we all kind of knew each other from back in the day. By the end, we’d all become even closer from the trip.

We all got going in Ireland. There was seven of us, and we said, “From here on out, we have to work together towards a goal.” That goal was that we’re not trying to get people arrested. I don’t want to go testify against these people in court. I want to help a guy not go to jail period. If he’s a Neo-Nazi, I want to help him change that way of thinking. I think that’ll help him stay out of prison, out of trouble, and keep him happy in life.

You can’t be a Neo-Nazi and be happy in life. It’s 100% impossible to be those two things at the same time.

What is it like talking to somebody else in need of recovery from a life led by hate and racism?

It’s a great thing because it’s one of the only real ways this works. It’s just like alcoholics. Who helps an alcoholic get over his alcoholism? Another alcoholic. You can go to all the professionals in the world who say: “Hey don’t drink or your liver will fall out of your bottom tonight.” You still go drinking.

When you have a person who comes and talks to you and says: “I used to do that too. I used to say that too.” We are there to talk to guys trying to get out or thinking about getting out who are lost. It’s okay sometimes when you question yourself. Sometimes you do that when you first get out. “Am I doing the right thing? Should I stay part of this?”

I don’t fight ideology when I go talk to somebody trying to get out of the movement. I don’t go there with all my fact sheets and say: “You’re wrong here, and you’re wrong here.” I go there to talk to them about them. “What’s going on in your life?”

I’ve done an intervention before with an older gentleman. His daughter was marrying a black guy. He couldn’t handle it, and every day, he was more and more racist until the wedding. I came in and met with the guy. I found someone on the first shift of his company who worked the same exact machine as the guy, but they never saw each other because they’re on different shifts. They had never heard of each other. He was a black man who had teenage daughters, and so did this white guy—I know this because the one thing he talked about when he wasn’t talking about race was his daughters. I introduced them. That’s it.

That little thing right there—it was something where now he questioned whenever anyone said: “All black people are this way.” He can say: “No they’re not. I know a guy who’s a great father.” That’s what I like to do. I like to show them.

You have to get them to re-acquire empathy for the world. We’re trying to make sure that they have that in them. Everyone still does. Once you get that empathy, you can’t hate someone you’ve shared your soul with.

For example, you sat down with someone and they said their dad was an alcoholic. “Yeah, my dad too.” “Yeah, one time my dad passed out naked when I had a birthday party. It was horrible.” “Yeah well, my dad passed out in the yard naked.” These two people who don’t even know each other will share these deep, dark secrets because they know the pain. That’s so powerful.

What role does the media play in these pre-conceived notions of groups of people?

Some of the places I know that are hotbeds of what we think will be the white militia movement are Arizona and Northern Michigan. If you’re familiar with Michigan, all the major cities are down at the bottom of the state. When you get up by the peninsula, there is a lot of farmland.

The people in those areas get Detroit news; it’s their local news. They also get Chicago news. They don’t see any black people, except for the first three stories on the news. Where shots were fired and murder this, murder that. That’s what starts this. It’s all from fear. They fear the black community because of what they see on the news, and they have no feeling of empathy at all for any of those people down there.

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Another great example is when the Tea Party was around, they were all screaming about the Constitution. Where were they when black kids were being stopped and frisked up and down the East Coast, especially in New York City? It’s the biggest violation of the Fourth Amendment ever and none of them said anything. They’re all for the Constitution, and they’ll stand up for everyone’s rights; but none of them stood up for the black people being stopped and frisked.

Your life offers an incredible story of hope for humanity and its ability to forgive, heal and love. For you, what would you say is the power of humanity?

There’s a great former [former white supremacist] out of Vancouver. His name is Tony McAleer, we call him “Tony Mac.” One time, we were talking about people joining the groups and he asked me: “What did you care about as a kid?” I said I didn’t know. I think when I was a kid I cared about things. Then for seven years, I didn’t care about anything except for one thing. I asked what happened he said: “Frank, you didn’t lose your humanity. You just gave it up for acceptance.”

That’s exactly what the Nazis guards did. Guys who were just standing guard at Auschwitz—that was their job. They were following orders, but you’re humanity starts to go when you accept those orders.

But, what I would hope people take when they look back on my life isn’t really about any of that. What I want people to see is that you always get up. I’ve been knocked down a million times—over and over. My life is something that most people would commit suicide over. My mom died of a drug overdose, and I was a prisoner at 19. But I’m in a great place. I get to do what I want to do in life. I now get paid good money to coach kids’ hockey—it’s one of the biggest drivers of my life.

What I’m getting at is that I never stayed down. Always get up, no matter how hard you’ve been hit. Tough guys aren’t the ones that can throw punches; they’re the ones that can take them.

And learning is part of that process too?

Exactly. If you’re learning to beat everyone up every day, you don’t learn anything. But, if you get your butt whooped every once in a while, you learn. When you’re down is when you learn the most. It taught me an open mind, and it’s something I’ve stayed with. It’s not even about race.

I know all people—some of us have a little bit of it in us—but most of us have to learn to get back up. How did I do it? By having people in my life that show me empathy. They see I’m down: “I’ve been there. Here’s what I did when I was in your situation.” I might go try what they did and may not get the same result, but at least I can know that someone’s helping me through it mentally. Everyone needs mental support.

So then what do you see as the future of race relations, considering our current political environment?

I know in my heart of hearts that humanity is going to win out. It always does. I do believe we [America] are this world test—one of the biggest countries, and we’re coming together. We can come together.

What’s going to happen is we’re going to go through a really rough patch because some people don’t want to give up power. But I do know that four or five generations from now, there will be a lot more forgiveness in the world and a lot more education. We need to help each other make the transition to equality, and it needs to start now. What we’re doing now isn’t working. But, you do see humanity every day when you’re walking around, whether that be in the city, or a small town—it’s all around you.

Unfortunately, most of what is now on the TV screens has to do with race. I know that we can move forward, but it’s going to take a lot of talking and forgiveness. Real talking. Not waiting for a racist incident to happen so everyone can run to news and wait for sound bytes. We can’t fix this with sound bytes, but we can with people going, helping and being around one another.

You have to have empathy. You get empathy by going and meeting people and seeing that you have similarities. That’s what has to happen.

Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Thank you for allowing me to be on your platform.

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