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A 'Recovering Skinhead' On Leaving Hatred Behind

As a teenager, Frank Meeink was one of the most well-known skinhead gang members in the country. He had his own public access talk show, called The Reich, he appeared on Nightline and other media outlets as a spokesman for neo-Nazi topics, and he regularly recruited members of his South Philadelphia neighborhood to join his skinhead gang.

At 18, Meeink spent several years in prison for kidnapping one man and beating another man senseless for several hours. While in prison, Meeink says, he was exposed to people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds and started reevaluating his own racist beliefs. His transformation solidified, he tells Dave Davies, after the Oklahoma City bombing, when he saw the iconic photo of a firefighter cradling a lifeless girl in his arms.

"I felt so evil. Throughout my life, even when I was tattooed up and wanting to be a skinhead, I felt like maybe I was bad on the outside. But I felt good on the inside," he says. "And that day it switched. I felt OK on the outside, but I felt so evil inside. I had no one to talk to. ... So I went to the FBI and ... I told them my story. I 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 happened."

The FBI recommended that Meeink contact the Anti-Defamation League — which he did. He now regularly lectures to students about racial diversity and acceptance on behalf of the ADL, and he has written a memoir about his past, called Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.

Meeink says the biggest change in the skinhead movement since he left is how easily members can spread their message and communicate with one another.

"When I was around, we contacted each other through P.O. Box numbers — and not through Web sites," he says. "So the Web has really got numbers looking bigger than they are. But you gotta remember, too: Sometimes those are just misguided kids who are looking for anything to do. 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 ask the right questions."

Interview Highlights

On the neighborhood where Meeink grew up, in South Philadelphia

"You're raised knowing don't go into the other neighborhoods. It's passed down through generations of Irish people in the neighborhood. So I come from a place that has a feel-good background to it. We're very proud of being Irish. Proud of being working class. And it was a tough neighborhood. A lot of drugs and alcohol were really bad in our neighborhood. Decisions were made in our neighborhood at the Catholic church or in the bar."

On how attending a predominantly African-American middle school influenced his later racial hatred

"That school was what did it for me. Growing up in South Philly, where we just had this Irish pride thing, I never really thought of the other races or the other races who lived around us as inferior or as much trouble because most of the kids — and most of the 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 an us-them. Once I got out there and noticed that the 'us' was very, very small and the 'them' was very, very big — and there was no one helping me — and I think that's where it started."

On how he became involved with neo-Nazi activities

I went up to the Lancaster, Pa., area, and I'm up there and some of my family — my mother's sister, my aunt and uncle moved up there with their kids. And I was very close with all of my cousins. ... My cousin that lived in the Lancaster area was very into punk rock, very into skateboarding. And I couldn't wait to get up there that summer and live there all summer. That was the summer I was getting out of that [middle] school. So I get up there, and he's not a skateboarder anymore. He's not a punk rocker anymore. He's a skinhead. And in his room, there's a swastika flag and stories about Adolf Hitler and stories about skinheads. ... And I knew of skinheads, but I didn't know of their beliefs or anything yet. And he kind of introduces me to it. He says, 'You know, this is what it is.' And now every night, all these other skinheads would come over his house and come drinking and listening to music. And they'd 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 are cool to me. And they gave me a beer, and they start talking 'multiracial society will never work.' Now, I have no idea what that means at all."

On the ideology of the neo-Nazi movement

"When they would say these bigger words, like multiracial and multiracial society, I had no idea in depth what that meant. When I asked, they would say about blacks and whites not getting along, and I understood what they were talking about. And we're sitting around, and they'd say, 'Oh, you went to school in Philadelphia. What's it like?' These kids have never really been down to the city, 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 finally someone saying to me, 'How is your life? How are you doing? How is your school?' Because my parents never said, 'How was school today? What'd you learn?' They never did that. For once, someone's asking me how my life is."

On his media appearances as a skinhead

"I did a lot of national TV shows, like with Ted Koppel and other news organizations, and so I've been kind of a face. And it just kind of happened, where someone said, 'You are the face of our movement.' I did a TV show. They liked me because basically I looked like a nut, so they wanted me on their other shows, and, you know, swastikas on a young kid's neck sells TV shows, so now I did a couple shows like that, and I kind of made a name for myself. And then when I [moved] to Illinois, I wasn't doing much media press, but I was really trying to get this thing started, so I got my own cable access 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 went on from there. What I'd do to recruit kids from that show — I mean, it was easy — I'd go on, say this is what I'm into, then the media would pick up on it."

On the crime that landed him in prison

"There was this lefty-type skinhead that hung around us in Springfield [Illinois] and he was the only one. And him, me and my roommate kinda had a falling out. My roommate didn't like him. I didn't like him. And I didn't like mainly his political beliefs. So I [told him], '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."

On his withdrawal from the skinhead community

"It had already come to me [while in prison]: Maybe I need to start looking at things. But I still always thought my purpose in life [was] God wouldn't have put me in this purpose of being an Aryan Christian soldier if he didn't want me here. So I'm still trying to say, 'There's something going on but I need to stick with this because that's where I am. This is my team.' But I'm on a train one day, and I'm talking to this black dude, and he just sits down next to me and he asks if I did prison time. He's seen all my tattoos. Me and him start talking about prison life, about how we get away with things, how we sneak things away from guards and sneak food out, and just prison talk. So he gets off and he says, 'Hey man. Real nice to meet you. You're really down to Earth.' And this is on the El train. So he gives me a pound and I get off and I walk off 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 I'm sitting at this party and I'm drinking ... and I'm thinking about some of the guys I just did time with and parts of my life with my family, and one of the guys stands up and he starts saying, 'Italians ain't white,' and I'm half Irish, half Italian, and I let him sit for a second. And he doesn't know half of us are Italian in the Philly crew, and I say, 'Hey, buddy. I'm half Italian, what do you think of that?' And he says, 'OK,' and kinda the whole party stops. ... So then we're sitting there and everyone starts talking again about it, and I say, 'How 'bout my daughter? My daughter's probably more than 75 percent Italian. Are you saying she's not white?' And he says, 'Nope, she ain't white.' And I just beat the crap out of this guy at this party. And I get everyone off of me and I say, 'I'm outta here.' And I walk back down, and I'm going to go catch the train by myself and go back home, and I had been drinking a little bit. And I remember looking up at God and saying, 'God, maybe there's something wrong. Maybe you're right. Maybe on the black, Asian and Latino issue, maybe we are all equal."

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