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Lessons From a Skinhead

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Frank Meeink beat the odds; he survived. An Irish-Italian kid, he grew up in the slums of South Philly. Both of his parents were alcoholics, drug addicts and dealers. Frank was 2 and his mother was 19 when his parents split up. A few years later, during their once-a-month visits, Frank's father taught him how to fight with beer bottles, pool cues and lead pipes, then later with knives and guns. His mother remarried a brutal man who physically abused Frank frequently calling him his "prisoner of war" and "retard." Frank's mother did little to protect him from the savagery that he was subjected to on an a daily basis. She made it clear to him that she would always choose her husband over Frank, every time. The one only bright spot in his life were his loving grandparents, Nanny and Pop. He lived with them intermittently throughout his teens. During this time Frank's big love was sports. He played hockey, football, and baseball, and he played well.

"Wardens and gang chiefs parented me more than my parents ever did," Frank told us. "As a kid, I never felt accepted by the Irish or the Italians because I was half of each and they didn't like each other. I also never felt accepted in my own home." Filled with rage as a result of the humiliation and abuse from his mother and stepfather, Frank was ripe for joining a gang to find somewhere to belong. Frank found his way into a white supremacist group of kids, shaved his head, covered his body with tattoos, and cruised the neighborhood with his gang of misfits, bashing in skulls for kicks.

In his late teens, Frank went on to join the American Nazi movement, which provided his life some structure and a philosophy to live by. Because he had a charismatic personality, Frank quickly rose to a position of leadership in the organization, even though he was one of its youngest members. Through his leadership, Frank drew other bored, angry youths into the group. They shared a common hatred for all minority groups, particularly blacks, Asians, Hispanics gays and Jews. During the five years that he was involved in the movement, Frank absorbed the propaganda he was fed, believing that he was fighting a holy war to rid the world of all undesirables. He was convinced that he was dealing out God's justice.

Frank found that getting drunk and beating up '"scum" were powerful ways of shutting down his emotions and not feeling the pain of alienation, loneliness, and despair. He would often lose himself in a frenzy of violence that left him exhausted and his victims bloodied beyond recognition. He justified his actions by claiming that he was fighting the forces of Satan. Aryans, he believed, were the only true children of God. He became the crew commander in a subgroup of the Ku Klux Klan, named "Strike Force," and he had the words tattooed on the back of his neck. "I was covered in so many tattoos," he told us, "that I was a walking Nazi exhibit."

At 17, Frank was arrested for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to three to five years in prison. Since there were Aryan Brotherhood and Aryan Nationalists in the prison, Frank received protection while he was incarcerated. During that time he became steeped in the philosophy of the Aryan Brotherhood and earned their respect. He also, for the first time in his life, engaged in sports and card games with blacks and Hispanics. He was the only white person on the football team, but he was faster and more talented than practically any other player. Although both Frank and the other players experienced racial tensions when he first joined the team, those tensions soon turned into feelings of mutual respect. For the first time in his life, Frank began to see the humanity of those he had previously viewed as sub-human.

As his awareness began to deepen, Frank started to face the reality of the destruction he had caused and pain that he had created in so many lives. Two of his closest friends in prison were black teenagers named Jell-O and Little G. Frank's life was beginning to change in ways that he could never have imagined. His father did not visit or call the three years he was in prison. Frank's first child was born when he was in prison. He loved his new baby daughter but was on terrible terms with the baby's mother.

After prison, Frank returned to his skinhead friends. His life soon became out of control with excessive drinking, drugging, and irresponsible sex. By the time he was 20, he had fathered a daughter and two sons with three different women. Then one night Frank had a transformative moment at a white supremacy movement meeting. While listening to their usual racial slurs, he realized that he no longer fit in the group. His deep friendships in prison had changed him. "I saw the lies behind the 'truth' that I had believed with all my heart since I was 14 years old." Becoming a Nazi is a life-long commitment, punishable by enduring a serious assault if one leaves. When Frank left the movement, he was savagely beaten by the gang, after which time he recovered and had no further dealings with them.

When Frank tried to get work, some places wouldn't even let him fill out an application because he was covered with tattoos. He ran out of money and finally got a job moving furniture for an antique dealer. The owner of the business happened to be Jewish. Frank wasn't the first troubled kid this man had tried to save by giving him a job. His employer knew Frank was a ninth grade drop out, a convict on parole, and a neo-Nazi, yet he was kind, generous, and respectful to Frank. He blew Frank's last prejudicial stereotype to bits.

As Frank's transformation continued, his narrow life broadened, and he began to meet people of different races, religions and ethnicities, people he had never actually encountered before, that he had only known through his bigoted beliefs. These experiences helped Frank to understand that hatred, his own and that of others is caused by fear and ignorance.

Today Frank is living a life that was inconceivable to him when he was in his teens. He has dedicated himself to service and his primary focus is on youths in need of responsible support, guidance, and a sense of belonging. Traveling throughout the country Frank has become a much sought-after speaker whose words of inspiration and recovery have been received by thousands of people of all ages. He has been a speaker for the Anti Defamation League, and has spoken at many universities and conferences. Frank also started an organization in which black and white kids from different parts of Philadelphia, who would otherwise grow up to hate each other, learn to play hockey, get to know each other, and work together. He calls it "Harmony Through Hockey." He is their head coach.

Frank tried to find respect by being like those whom others feared. What he learned was that respect comes from treating others respectfully. He told us that in sharing his story, his pain, and his shame with others, a common bond is created that enhances the lives of everyone involved. "It's the simple things: keeping your promises, treating people the way you want to be treated, and doing good things for others. What goes around comes around. You always get paid back for whatever you do."

Frank has written a book called Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story, published by Hawthorne Books in 2009. His website is: FrankMeeink.com.

 
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