The civil rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported "a third straight year of extraordinary growth" in the ranks of extremist groups in the U.S. Hate groups burst back into the headlines after the deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where it's thought the suspected shooter-- a follower of so-called "hatecore" music-- targeted Sikhs believing they were Muslims.
It's a mindset Frank Meeink knew all too well. He once was a neo-nazi skinhead, who recruited fellow teenagers with what's known as "hatecore" music. But he left the movement, with help from people like Keith Brookstein, a Jewish furniture dealer in Philadelphia, who hired Meeink when Meeink was a teenaged ex-convict with a swastika tattoo on his neck. An excerpt from Here & Now's Robin Young's conversation with Meeink follows. And a warning, there are some references to violence and racism.
What were your thoughts when the shooting happened at the Sikh temple?
When I first [heard about] the shooting it got right into the pit of my stomach that this might be the movement, same feeling I had with Oklahoma City bombing, I felt it right away. And then as the day started to play on I was [thinking] maybe it wasn't the movement, but more and more it kept showing... and this time it was truly the movement that did it.
What were your thoughts then?
The people that got killed. I know a little about the Sikh temple and the community here in Iowa and in Philadelphia and I've always known them to be such peaceful and compassionate people, and so that was what was breaking my heart at first. I ran to the temple here in town and gave my condolences right away and I needed to relieve myself, I was shaken up a little bit.
Let's go back to your life in South Philly and how you became a skinhead. You grew up in a tough neighborhood, you were kicked out of the house at 13 and you had a cousin who was a skinhead in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Were you just taken in?
Yes. It's just like when you hear about kids that join a gang. I did not get accolades from my parents when I came home when I was a kid. I never got "Hey how was school today." And when I started hanging out with the skinheads, especially in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, I was the only Philly kid, they always wanted to talk to me about "What's it like growing up in the city?" And to me it felt like they were asking me, "Hey how's your life?" And they really weren't saying that. They were just like, "Hey what's it like growing up around black people," that's what they're asking. But I'm saying, "My whole life sucks and I want to tell you about it."
They asked you about race. What was the hatred, and of whom?
It started out with a hatred of black people. I had changed schools when I was 13, and I hated having to go in to school every day. It was an all black school, and they're finally shutting that school down in Philadelphia because it was such a violent, horrible school. Pepper Middle School. I did have black friends, but I don't remember them. I only remember what caused me pain at the time. And what caused me pain was sometimes if you got caught by yourself and you were a white kid, you got bullied and I fist fought a lot.
From there, it was a hatred of everybody who was different: Asians, Jews. You used to brag about how much you would terrorize them?
Absolutely, yes. After I joined the movement I was trained to hate Jews more than anyone else. I became a right wing Christian in the Neo Nazi movement, they're called "Christian Identity" and it's like the far right Christian extreme and they just basically preached to us that the Jews were the main problem.
Can you explain why that resonated with you, how did that infect you?
There's another former [skinhead] up in Canada, I got to talk to him years later after we were both out of the movement and he made the best quote. People would say how did you have humanity now, but you didn't have it then. And he said "I didn't lose my humanity, I gave it away for acceptance."
There were times when I was doing violent things to people where for a split second I'd say "this could be my uncle." But I'd remember real quickly, "These are my boys though, these are my friends, and this is what we do."
What would you be doing? Beating people?
Yeah, beating people. Our violence was our camaraderie. A Clockwork Orange.
Well and then you became a recruiter, you'd befriend the goth and punk kids in other schools. Was music a tool?
Music was our greatest tool and it still is the movement's greatest tool. I'll give you an example of how that would work. I would sit in the car with a skater kid and he would be listening to the Beastie Boys (I'm a little bit older so we still had tape decks in the car) so I'd pop his tape out and I'd say, "Man these guys are a bunch of Jews from New York." And I'd throw his tape out the window, and he would kind of look at me like, "Hey that's my tape." And I'd pull out some skinhead music and say, "Here's a tape. This is your tape, you can have this tape." And he would play that continuously on a loop in his car, and it's nothing but hate. That music keeps this movement young. It keeps the newer kids coming up more enthused. They can only go to so many Bible studies and meetings, but once they have the music it constantly backs up the feelings, those thoughts and the violence.
Fast forward to age 18, you were in prison and the Oklahoma City bombing happened. There was a wake up moment there?
My change had happened before Oklahoma. Oklahoma is what made me decide to help. When I was in prison I made friends with a lot of black kids and a couple Latino guys because we were all the youngest kids in the prison. We played cards sometimes together, we played some sports with each other. Even though we were all part of our own gangs — I was part of the Aryans, they were part of their black gangs that didn't like white people — but it was prison and there was no gang wars going on at the time so there's kind of like this peace. When I got out of prison I would think about a lot of those guys. Like there was this kid "G," he was like a comedian. He just made me laugh, and when we were in prison, laughter was just something I wanted.
Was he black?
Yeah he was a black kid from Chicago. And I remember there was one time he was walking by and I was talking with my Aryan friends the white guys and I just was saying the N word, and I remember I looked over at him and he gave me this really weird look. And for a couple of days after that he treated me differently. So there was little things like that that kept popping into my head.
And so when I got released from prison those kinds of people stuck in my heart.
- YouTube: 'Is This Heaven?' Documentary Trailer About Frank Meeink
- Southern Poverty Law Center: Resources On Sikh Attack
- Kickstarter: Donations For 'Is This Heaven?' Documentary
- Frank Meeink, author of "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead," he's on the board of the group "Life After Hate"
- Keith Brookstein, a furniture dealer in Philadelphia who hired Meeink
This segment aired on August 21, 2012.