DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Many Americans are concerned about increasing polarization in our political discourse and a rise in hate groups and extremist organizations. Our guest, Frank Meeink, knows something about hate. He was once one of the most notorious young neo-Nazis on the East Coast. He had a five-inch swastika tattooed on his neck and the words skinhead tattooed across his knuckles.
After serving a prison term for a violent assault, Meeink questioned and eventually renounced his beliefs, and he now speaks to students and youth groups about racial and religious tolerance. He also runs a program called Harmony through Hockey, which recruits kids from diverse backgrounds to learn and play together. Meeink tells his story in a new memoir with Jody Roy called "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead."
Meeink grew up in a tough, row-house neighborhood in South Philadelphia, where street fights and drug dealing were common. He was born to teenage parents who soon split up, neither of whom had much time for him. He told me things went from bad to worse when he was living with his mother and her boyfriend John, who was always hard on him, became physically abusive.
Mr. FRANK MEEINK (Author, "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead"): Yeah, it did get physical. And once it got physical, like, it happened, and then it started happening regularly. Like, it took a little while for it to start, and it took just a couple slaps here and there. Then he punches me in the head, he split my mouth open once, and then the last one, where he literally knocked me out and basically drug me and beat the crap out of me up to my room.
And he tried to hit me with my "E.T." lamp. And I remember, that was that one moment in life where, when I curled up after he got done hitting me and he tried to hit me with the lamp, I curled up on my floor and I gave up. And that was the one time where I just said: If you're going to kill me, just do it. I'm just done. I was 13 years old, and I was just done.
That last whooping that he gave me, and I was on the ground, he told me I'm out of the house, that I have to go live with my real father. And I just remember freedom. I just remember thinking: Thank God it's over with.
DAVIES: There was a period, then, when you lived with your father in southwest Philadelphia, and I gather that you went to a mostly black high school - or was is it a middle school?
Mr. MEEINK: Middle school.
DAVIES: A middle school, right, right. So what was that experience like?
Mr. MEEINK: Going to school, there was maybe about 20 white males from my neighborhood, because my dad lived in a small, little white section up there. We'd all take the trolleys together, get off at the - get off at, like, 84th Street, and you can walk it. It was like three or four blocks to our school.
But there was this big housing project right there, right dead smack in the center of this little trip you would have to take, and then there was also, like, Bartram Freshman Center, which was a freshman high school for basically all the black kids from that local neighborhood.
So all the white kids, we'd get off the trolley, and one kid, we'd wait for everyone to get together, and one kid would just say, all right, on your mark, get set, go. And as fast as we all could, we'd just run to school. It was like a game. We did it every morning. We were like the gazelles, hoping the tigers didn't get us.
And I was always one of the fastest because I'd always beat everyone to school. And then once you got to school, it didn't get much better. It got a little better because there was - at least kids didn't want to get in too much trouble, or they knew they couldn't beat on you for 20 minutes. But it was just horrible to go to school there.
And I talk to white kids now who were males that went to school with me and went to school before and after me, and they - all of them have said it's never changed. So it was tough.
DAVIES: Now, to what extent was the racial hatred that you embraced later, do you think, a product of those early experiences in the neighborhood and in your school?
Mr. MEEINK: That school was what did it for me, really. Growing up in South Philly, where we just had, like, this Irish pride thing, I never really thought of the other one, the other races or other people that lived around us as inferior or as much trouble because, you know, most of the kids, the trouble you got into or fistfights you got into were with other Irish kids.
We all knew each other. So it wasn't this big I hate them. It was just more of an us-them. Once I got up there, I noticed that the us was very, very small, and the them was very, very big, and there was no one helping me. There was no one helping me, and I think that's where it started, because it was that summer that this all started to manifest into a movement for me.
DAVIES: So how did you get introduced to the neo-Nazi movement?
Mr. MEEINK: I went up to the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area. And I'm up there, and my family, some of my mom's - her sister, my aunt and uncle moved up there with their kids, so my cousins. And I was very close with all my cousins.
And I went up there. By this time, now, too, I've got to tell you, I'm, like, getting into skateboarding. I'm up and down South Street skateboarding, even as a young kid. So my cousin that lived up in the Lancaster area was very punk rock, very into skateboarding, and I couldn't wait to get up there that summer and live up there the whole summer. That was the summer I was getting out of that school.
So I go up there, and he's not a skateboarder anymore. He's not a punk-rocker anymore. He's this skinhead, and in his room, he had swastika flags and stories about Adolf Hitler and stories about skinheads. And coming around the South Street and the skater and the punk scene, I knew of skinheads, but I really just, you know, didn't know all their beliefs or anything yet, and he kind of introduces me to it.
And he just says, you know, this is what it is. And now, every night, all these other skinheads would come over to his house and come drinking and listening to music, and they would always give me a couple beers. I was the young kid to the group. You know, they're all 15, 16, 17-year-old guys who were cool to me. And they give me a beer, and they start talking multiracial society will never work. Now, I have no idea what that means at all.
DAVIES: For the audience that isn't familiar with the area, the Lancaster area where your cousin lived and where you got introduced to these ideas is, unlike the streets of Philadelphia, a very rural area. A lot of Amish folks live in those communities. And the South Street area that you referred to is kind of a hip street in Philly at the time where there were a lot of shops, and a lot of young people liked to hang out. Yeah, tell us about, you know, the ideology, I mean, the beliefs that you heard in those days, and what were persuasive about them.
Mr. MEEINK: Well, when they would say these bigger words and bigger terms of multiracial society, I had no idea. But when I would ask in depth what that meant, they would say about blacks and whites not getting along. And I would say: I know exactly what you guys are talking about.
And now we're sitting around, and now they start saying, oh, that's right. You went to school in Philadelphia. And what's it like? These kids have never really been down to the city, so I'm their key. So they're asking me what it's like to go to school there, and I'm telling them it's horrible. I hate it. It's hell.
And for me, when I look back on that now, that was someone finally saying to me: How is your life? How are you doing? How is your school? Because my parents - I never got home from school and my parents never said: How was school today? What did you learn? They never did that to me. So, for once, someone's asking me how my life is, and they wanted to hear it because they wanted to hear about the city.
So now we all go to this concert together one night, and they bring me with them, and I'm like this little skateboarder, punk-rock kid with all these skinheads. So when we get in, my cousin says in front of everyone: When we get in, I want you to stand over here because there's going to be a lot of fights tonight, and you might accidentally get beat up because you have hair, and we're going to beat up everyone that doesn't have hair, basically.
And we're in this club, and this big fight's breaking out, but this bigger skinhead says no, I got him, and he puts me on his shoulders, and he goes into this mosh pit or the dance pit, and he starts hitting this guy.
And he spins this guy around, and he's holding him by his hair, and he goes: Kick him, Frank, kick him. And I start kicking him. And the bouncers come and they kick us all out, and we stand around, and we wait for all the other skinheads to get kicked out in the fight.
And as I'm standing there, here come all the guys we just got in the fights with, and all the skinheads are, like, hey, you know, you want to finish this outside? Hey, you got something to say to us now? And I'll never forget how good it felt to be on that end of the whoopings finally. I finally wasn't the one getting beat down, and I loved it. So we go back up to my cousin's house, and that's the night they asked me when would I shave all that crap off my head. And I said let's do it.
DAVIES: You know, as I read this part of the book, it occurred to me that you came into contact with these folks, you were 14 - which is an age at which a lot of young people will embrace a new belief system or ideology.
And I wonder if, looking back on it, do you think maybe you became a skinhead because those were the people that cared about you, and that's the belief system they brought? I mean, if they had been radical leftists or, you know, New Age - bringing a New Age philosophy, you could've gone a different direction?
Mr. MEEINK: Absolutely. I could've been one of the kids at the airport, Hare Krishna. I mean, I could've been anything. I mean, that's - I was open. I mean, there was a lot of anger there, and that's what they knew, too, is I was this kid that was like a shaken-up soda bottle, and - that was just waiting for someone to open it and spray it in the direction they wanted it to go, and it just happened to be this movement.
So, I mean, I was an angry, angry child and becoming an angry teenager, and this group fit me well. And I really - you know, and as you read in the book, I really thrive in that.
DAVIES: We're talking with Frank Meeink. We'll speak more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Frank Meeink. He spent several years as a skinhead neo-Nazi, and his book is called "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead."
So when you committed to the skinhead movement and considered yourself part of the, you know, the neo-Nazi movement, you moved back to Philadelphia. Talk a little bit about your lifestyle. How did you spend your days?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, I tried to go back to school when I came home. I was accepted in the high school, went to high school for a couple weeks, and the high school seemed that I was going to be a big problem. I had already gotten into a couple fights, and it just - all the white kids were kind of gravitating towards me.
And so the school kicked me out, and they sent me back to elementary school, which was the worst thing you could've done, because now I'm older, bigger, and I go back to elementary school, which was a lot of kids that were same age because we all got left back a lot. But - and I went to elementary school and did eighth grade again.
And that was trouble, because now I started recruiting all the younger kids in my neighborhood into this that were going to school with me. So I - what happened was I needed to have people that weren't just coming down from the farms and hanging out with me. I needed people that were there seven days a week, and so I started recruiting all these kids out of my local elementary and the high school. And we started getting known for having a big crew in Philadelphia.
DAVIES: And when, you know, you would spend a lot of time down in South Street - that was this commercial area where a lot of kids hung out. There was an area that you referred to as Skinhead Alley, right, where the skinheads would hang?
Mr. MEEINK: Yes.
DAVIES: And what would you - I mean, how did you spend your days and your evenings? I mean, were there political meetings, or was it - what did you do?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, basically, what we do is we would all meet down around South Street, and then we'd have guys come in from the suburbs, getting off the public transit system, and we'd hang out down there.
There wasn't much political talk. It was more just skinhead talk. And skinhead talk is, it's violent, and what we did was we would drink and get ourselves revved up, and then we'd go out and we'd do missions. And missions could be anything from spray-painting a synagogue to going gay-bashing, homeless-bashing or fighting leftists. We would know some leftist groups that were down there.
So we'd do all these little things, and that was our camaraderie. That's how we got along. Like, we didn't go out and shoot hoops together or shoot a hockey puck. We went out and we did violence, and then we'd, you know, we'd talk about it. And we wanted people to know that the Philly crew was up and coming and young and violent and crazy, basically.
So - but the political movements we'd go to maybe once a month. We'd go out to, like, a Klan rally or a Klan march or Christian Posse Comitatus, which is up in Pottstown. We'd go out to these Aryan groups, and we'd listen to their preaching.
DAVIES: And there came a point at which you made your way to the Midwest. I think - in fact, as I recall, I mean, it looked like the cops were after you in Philly, and so some of your white supremacist friends got you to Indiana, and you ended up kind of resettling in Springfield, Illinois and starting up a crew there - kind of replicating what you did in Philly, in a way. How did you become so well-known? By the time you went to prison, you were a well-known neo-Nazi. How did your fame spread? What did you do to get attention?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, the first thing I had done is did a lot of national television shows, like with Ted Koppel and some other news organizations. I -so I'd been kind of a face, and it just happened. You know, it's not one of those things where someone said: You are our face of our movement.
I did one TV show. They liked me, you know, because, basically, I looked like a nut. So they wanted me on their other shows, again, you know, swastikas on people's necks, on a young kid's neck sells a TV show. So now I did a couple shows like that, and I kind of made a name for myself. And then when I went out to the Illinois area, I wasn't getting much media press, but I was really into getting people to get this thing started, so I went and got my own cable access show.
So I just went to the local cable access channel and signed up for a show, called it "The Reich," like Hitler's Reich and the Third Reich, and started a talk show about being a skinhead. So everyone got to know me from this talk show, and it really went on from there. You know, what I'd do to recruit kids from that show is - it was easy. I mean, I would just go on and say this is what I'm into. Then the media would pick up on it, and they'd write newspaper articles, and then I'd go hang out at the local high school.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say, as I read the stories of this part of your life, there was enormous amounts of violence inflicted randomly, often - it seems as often on white kids who you didn't like as much as minority kids.
And so you were really violent, but it seems that you spent an awful lot of time drinking beer and partying and not very much at, you know, staging demonstrations or running candidates for the local school board, the kind of things that a developing political movement might devote itself to. And I kind of - as I thought about it, I wondered: Do you think you really were an effective political movement, or were you kind of more like gangs that just inflicted violence almost randomly?
Mr. MEEINK: No, I would definitely say we were closer to a gang than a political movement. But then again, we also idolized the brownshirts in Germany, who went - and that's what they did. If you didn't like their candidate, they went and they beat you up.
Now, we didn't have candidates out there like that, but what we did was - that was kind of our idol. We just didn't have the candidates running, you know, for office.
So - but we definitely had a political view, so - but we definitely were closer to gangs. You're right on point with that.
DAVIES: Yeah. And I guess the other inference I'm drawing here is that I wonder if a movement like yours, which was young people who wanted to party and then inflict random violence, as awful as that is, is not as much of a threat to democracy as, you know, an organization that really gets organized and brings converts in large numbers and, you know, builds some kind of political and electoral momentum.
Mr. MEEINK: No. But we are definitely the people that they recruit from. A lot of the people - as the members of our groups get older, they start getting pulled into some of those groups. So we're kind of the beginning stages of that. You know, it depends on who - what beliefs stick with them. So we're a stepping stone up to some of those bigger groups, maybe the militia groups and stuff like that.
DAVIES: Were you happy then?
Mr. MEEINK: No. I would think I was, but, I mean, obviously, I wasn't. I was an egomaniac with low self-esteem who was violent and not a good person to be around. You know, the people that stayed friends with me, I don't know how they did. I was not a good person. So I don't believe I was happy.
DAVIES: Describe the crime that landed you in prison.
Mr. MEEINK: Well, there was this lefty-type skinhead who hung around us in Springfield, and he was the only one. And him and my roommate - him, me and my roommate kind of had a falling out. I didn't - my roommate didn't like him. I didn't like him. And I didn't like, mainly, his political beliefs.
So I called him over: Come over to our house on Christmas Eve for a Christmas party. And when he came over, there was no Christmas party. It was just me and my roommate waiting for him. And we kidnapped him, and we randomly beat this other human being for hours and videotaped the whole thing as a joke. And that's eventually what got me put in prison.
DAVIES: It sounds like it's still hard for you to talk about.
Mr. MEEINK: Well, sometimes I think about him, you know, and I have run into him, and I have got to apologize to him, or make an amends. I didn't apologize; I made an amends to him. But that's another human being on this earth, and, you know, at the time, I thought I had all the right to do that. And now I know the truth, and the truth is that I had no right to do that to another human being, another person that has a soul and could also be closer to a higher power. Like, how dare me believe that? But that - it is what it is.
DAVIES: You describe this terrible crime in which you and a friend beat another man for several hours and videotaped it. The videotape ended up in the hands of police, and you went to prison. How did your time in prison affect your political and racial views?
Mr. MEEINK: In prison, it never affected it, but there was things going on in there that later on came back. You know, and what had happened was as soon as I get in there, you know, all the Aryans, the Aryan Brotherhood, Aryan Nations, even just some of the white groups, all knew me. They all knew of this kid with the television show, and I was like a little celebrity once I got in there.
So I get in there and I want to play sports, and so sometimes, me and the Aryans and some of the bikers, we go out and we play football, and it wasn't fun for me. I was, you know, I remember one game, it was like 12 of them versus me because - and it was just not fun.
So due to the fact that I was so good, that was the reason why it was not so fun. So anyway, one day I went out, and I seen some of the black inmates that I'd seen on my cellblock. They were playing a game of football or about to play a game of football. And I said yo, let me play.
And at first, they're like, come on, skinhead. You don't want to play. And I said, yeah, no, I want to play. So they're like, all right, you can play and you can do kickoff returns - knowing that no one's going to block for me, and there's going to be some missed assignments on that kickoff return.
So I get the ball, and I run up the field, and I'm doing these little spin moves. I'm kind of a shorter guy. I'm only 5'7", but I'm pretty - a little bit stocky in the leg area. So I'm pretty fast, and I do some of these spin moves, and I'm just gone, and I run the first one back.
And after that, a lot of the guys started asking me to play more, and then I played basketball. More or less, I played mostly basketball, and I was really good, and they didn't care that I was this skinhead. So they just would play. And the Aryans never cared that I was playing. It's different than what people would think. They just thought I was just a white boy showing them up. You know, they didn't - they didn't think of it as changing me.
But the key was when we'd walk back to our cells, there was a couple guys that I'd play with every sport, just guys I got to know and say hi to, and, you know, when you play sport against other people, you kind of bond a little bit.
But when we were walking back to our cellblocks, we always talked about the same thing, every time, and that was girls. What's your girl situation going? Do you have a girlfriend on the outside? Do you have any babies on the way? I had a baby on the way, so - and one of those guys had a baby on the way. And we were all doing, you know, three, you know, three-year bits, a year-and-a-half.
So when you got around your older inmates that were my color, maybe some of the Aryans or some of the bikers, and I'd say, oh, I have my girlfriend. She's going to have our baby. Wait until I get out. We're going to have a great life. They'd always say in pretty graphic detail what my wife - or what my girlfriend was doing to guys outside right now. They'd be, like, just get over it. That's what they do.
You know, and that would break me. That would break my heart and just - and they'd say it as a joke, but they would say it because that's what older inmates do. But these guys that I would play sports with, whenever we talked about girls, we'd always kind of say to each other what I wanted to hear. So I'd always say, man, your girl's going to wait for you.
DAVIES: And these were the black guys that you're saying that you had...
Mr. MEEINK: These are the black kids, yeah. I mean, we were kids. We were 17, 18-year-old kids in this adult prison. So we just kind of would talk. And then finally, my girlfriend did break up with me. It was kind of just like the Aryans said was going to happen. So she kind of breaks up with me in this little letter, but says that she still loves me. And there was no one I wanted to read it to, and except there was this guy I played sports with.
So I went down to his cell, and he was a black guy, and I just said, hey, I got to read this letter to you. And he said sure. And I read this letter, and I remember him saying: But she says she still loves you in the letter. So maybe there's still hope. And no one else in the world would've said that to me.
DAVIES: Frank Meeink's new memoir is called "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with Frank Meeink, a former neo-Nazi who's written a memoir called "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead." Meeink grew up poor and neglected and became a violent skinhead as a teenager. He was serving a prison term in Illinois for a savage beating he inflicted, when relationships he developed with black inmates caused him to question his racial views.
You could've served a lot longer sentence, but there was a lot of overcrowding in Illinois at the time and so you got out, you know - what? After less than two years. Is that right?
Mr. MEEINK: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yup.
DAVIES: And you kind of went back to the skinhead community but it really wasn't the same. I mean, your thinking had evolved. What marked your withdrawal from the neo-Nazi community?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, I remember it started - actually, it had already come to me that, you know, maybe I need to start looking at some things. But I still always thought my purpose in life - God wouldn't have put me in the purpose of being an Aryan Christian soldier if he didn't want me here. So I'm still trying to say, all right, there's something going on, but I got to stick with this, because this is where I am. This is my team.
But I'm on a train one day, and I'm talking to this black dude. He just sits down next to me and he asked if I had done prison time. He's seen all my tattoos, and me and him start talking about prison life and how we get away with things and sneak things away from guards and, you know, sneak food out and all this - you know, just prison talk.
So he get's off. He says, hey man, real nice to meet you. You're real down-to-earth. And this is on the - we were on the L train. So he gives me a pound and I say, yeah, it's nice meeting you. And I get off and I walk up to this skinhead meeting that night, and these are all old recruits of mine in Philadelphia. These are all guys I got into this. And we're meeting up with some New York skinheads, and they were coming down to kind of get an alliance going.
And I'm sitting at this party and I'm drinking, and I hear this one Irish skinhead start going - well, first of all, there's like a lot of just racial jokes, because everyone's been drinking now. It's just kind of stupid, ignorant jokes, and I'm not laughing at them and I'm thinking about guys I just did time with, and some of them guys I shared some of the most intimate parts of my life with, about my family and stuff. So I'm just thinking about them.
And one of the guys stands up, and he starts saying about Italians ain't white. And now, I'm half-Irish, half-Italian, so I let him sit for a second, and he's one of the New York guys. He doesn't know half of us are Italian in the Philly crew, and he says, you know, the mongoloids came along and they took over Italy. I mean, Italians ain't white. And I said, hey buddy, I'm half-Italian. What do think of that? And he says, okay. He knows I'm kind of the head guy, so he just - kind of the whole party stops. And he looks over at me and he goes -you see, I'm half-Irish, half-Italian. And he goes, oh, half's okay. You can be half Italian. That's okay.
So I sit back down and noticed the guy kind of took back what he said just out of whatever, respect. So then we're sitting there and I kind of stood him up when I said it, so as we're sitting there and everyone starts talking again and he said something stupid again about it. And I said, well, how about my daughter? My daughter's probably more than 75 percent Italian. So you're saying she's not white? So now the guy's got to save face. So he goes nope, she ain't white. And I just beat the crap out of this guy in this party.
Now these are all skinheads, so they start breaking the fight up. And I get everyone off of me, and I say I'm out of here. And I walk back down and I'm going to go catch the train back home. I'm by myself, and I had been drinking a little bit. And I remember looking up at God and I just - I said God, maybe there's something wrong. Maybe you're right, maybe on the black, Asian and Latino issue. Maybe we are all equal.
So I said but, you know, I'm still always going to hate the Jews. Just - that's it. That's because it's kind of something that I never got to meet yet, you know? So I go back, and my South Philly friends I grew up with, kids that never got into the skinheads, they kind of took me in. They seen I was kind of hanging around the streets a little bit more, and they kind of saved me from that. So with that, I just started to think maybe a little differently, but not completely yet.
DAVIES: You said that your thinking had evolved on a lot of racial groups, but not Jews. What changed that?
Mr. MEEINK: Well, one day I was home in, on the streets of South Philly, and I couldn't find work with the swastika on my neck and the skinhead written on my knuckles just wasn't getting me any work. And a buddy offered me a job working at an antique show, where you carry in and out antique furniture as people buy it, and you put it in their car. And I said sure. He said the guy will pay $100 a day. I said I'll take it. I said I just need the work. And he said well, the guy that runs the company, he's really Jewish, like very Northeast Philadelphia Jewish, which to us meant very Jewish. And I said I don't care. I just need work, and I said I don't got to talk to the guy.
And he said, you know, Keith said the same thing about you. Said, I told him I hade a friend that was looking for some work and I told him you were a skinhead and Keith said I don't care what his beliefs are, as long as he works hard. And he had this antiques show and some stores around the Philadelphia area, and I go and I work for him that whole weekend. And I remember it was three days, so I was supposed to get $300. I made more than that in tips alone, and this was all at the Cherry Hill Mall.
And so when we get done, Keith's coming around. He's paying people here and there and I think - this is in my head - I think this is where he's going to -what we used to say - he was going to Jew me. He's not going to give me the money that he says he's going to give me. It was easy work, and I made a lot of money.
So he comes up and he starts counting the money right in front of me and he says, here's 100, here's 200, here's 300. Here's an extra hundred bucks because you really worked really hard for me. Thank you. And I just said, you son of a gun. You know, you're ruining my last good stereotype here, you know. This is my last thing to hold onto, and he was a big Flyers fan. I was a big Flyers fan. So he asked - offered me - to give me a ride home from the Cherry Hill Mall over to - right over to South Philly, right over the Walt Whitman Bridge. And as we're driving, he says, well, what do you do for a living? And I said I don't do anything. He said why don't you come work for me?
And that man showed me life. He showed me about the antique business. He was the type of guy that if I told him I wanted to do something, he'd always say you could do it, Frank. And one day I called myself stupid, and I used to do it all the time. It was a thing in my head, I'm so dumb, or I'm so stupid. And he said don't ever say that again. You're the most smart - street smartest person I've ever met. I hate when you say you're stupid. And we're driving home that day, and that was the day I decided that I was completely wrong.
DAVIES: You became a speaker on the subject of hate groups and racial tolerance. But that really began with your going to the FBI. Tell us about that.
Mr. MEEINK: Well, I went to the FBI right after the Oklahoma City bombing. By then, I had been out of the movement, and I see the result of what the groups that we go into are those types of groups. And I'd seen that picture of that fireman running down the street with that dead little girl in his arms. She's all burned up, and I hadn't seen my daughter and that kept getting me, and I felt so evil. For once - throughout my life, even when I was tattooed up and wanting to be a skinhead, I felt maybe I was bad on the outside, you know, tough, but I felt good on the inside. And that day, it switched.
I felt okay a little on the outside, but I felt so evil inside. So I had no one to talk to. I never told anyone in my neighborhood or my parents or anyone my real whole story about the TV show and kidnappings and, you know, making records for racist groups. So I went to the FBI because I knew they would understand me and believe me. So I went to them and I told them my story and said I don't have any information on anybody, but I just need to let you know what it's like. And, of course, they wanted to listen because the Oklahoma City bombing had just happened. And that's how it started.
DAVIES: And then, in the end, I mean, you weren't really a criminal informant, but they got you on a different path. How did that happen?
Mr. MEEINK: You know, it's kind of funny is the FBI guy, he kept calling me back in and doing different interviews with me. And then he would start asking me, you know, what's this person up to? And I'd say I don't know. You know, if I knew that person was killing somebody, obviously, I would say hey, you need to go check him out. But I really didn't know what certain people were up to anymore because it had been a while, and I wasn't there for that. I really never went there for that reason. So he said, well, why don't you go somewhere where someone can really use you? And he mentioned the Anti-Defamation League.
He said we do some work, and they're a pretty good group. And I said, oh, them people, they hate me. I know them. You know, I know who they are. And so I called the ADL and said hey, I'd like to come talk to you. And they had a book out about the top recruiters and the top movement going on in the '90s, and I'm in their book, like, twice. So they don't trust me, and they come and they meet me in a hotel one day. They said meet us in the lobby of a hotel, and they brought like this big, tall guy as kind of a bodyguard. And this guy from the ADL in Philadelphia, Barry Morrison, just talked to me.
And we just sat and we talked, and I think he put me through some tests, because he would say, was you there when this incident happened? And I'd say, no, I wasn't there. And he'd say was you there when this happened? And I'd say, yeah, I was there. So he knew that I was not trying to, you know, make myself look bigger or smaller than what I was. I was just being honest. And he asked me to talk to his staff, and I did. And then someone asked me to go speak to a group of kids, and I went.
And if there was ever the worst speech ever given, was that day. I mean, I cried in front of those kids. I mean, I think there was mucus coming out of me as I'm crying because I was crying so bad. And I think I scarred some of them children. So, later on, I got letters from all these little kids and - that just said thank you for coming to our school, and I know I'll never judge people. And I don't know how they got it out of me, but somehow they understood what I was saying through all the blubbering. And that's what started me speaking.
DAVIES: You know, I want to ask you, if you could think back to when you were 14 years old and you were that kid from a broken home whose dad hung out in the bar and didn't really have time for him and his mom hung out with a boyfriend who beat him to the point where he had, you know, more bruises than self-esteem, can you think of anything at that point in your life that an adult would've done that would have changed your course?
Mr. MEEINK: I do, and then I don't. I know that by the time I got to a certain point, I was too far gone. But I definitely think sports. If someone would've really got me into sports and said, you can do this. You can achieve this. I remember playing recreational football when I was a kid and my parents not showing up for the games, you know, or showing up and then leaving early when I'm, like, having a great game. But if now I'm getting in part of a community and there's people that are guiding me to this and then they're backing this up, like, hey, just keep going. You're good, you know?
And then again, if there was other kids that are having the same problems I am and they're on the same team, you know, we know that it's tough to go home, so we just want to sit at football practice or we want to sit at hockey practice. I think sports is a huge way to blow off steam, to be guided - not just in life, just like I do at my hockey program. I tell the kids every day when they're at our hockey program, go home and do something nice for somebody and don't tell them that you did it. Now, when you do like little things like that and you're making them go achieve good things and tell them how good they're going to feel once they do it, you know, it's, for me, the right way to go.
DAVIES: One more thing. You talk to a lot of young people nowadays, I gather. Is the skinhead movement still alive?
Mr. MEEINK: Oh, yeah. It's still around, and it's the same numbers as maybe it even was back then. You know, say, around 5,000 maybe active skinheads. But the difference is now is it's through the Internet. When I was around, we contacted each other through PO Box numbers, not email, you know, so - and not through Web sites. So the Web has really got numbers looking like they're bigger than they are. But you've got to remember, too, sometimes, those are just misguided kids that are looking for anything.
But if your children are looking at these Web sites more regularly and they're not looking at them for research, you need to step in and ask why and then ask the right questions. And then that's another good way to go back to, like, the Anti-Defamation League. They're great at handling that stuff. They have filters on the computers that won't just say here, you can't look at this, but it'll tell you: You're looking at this and here's the facts. You know?
DAVIES: Well, Frank Meeink, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MEEINK: Hey, thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Frank Meeink now speaks to youth groups about racial and religious tolerance, and he's developed a program called Harmony through Hockey to bring kids of different backgrounds together. His book is called "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.