Fighting hate

Former neo-Nazi: ‘You have to learn empathy for the world, for other people’

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS
Frank Meeink has gone from being a notorious neo-Nazi leader in the 1980s and 1990s to speaking out against hate and promoting empathy. He brought his message, and many gritty anecdotes, to Dejardin Hall at Marshalltown Community College Tuesday.

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS Frank Meeink has gone from being a notorious neo-Nazi leader in the 1980s and 1990s to speaking out against hate and promoting empathy. He brought his message, and many gritty anecdotes, to Dejardin Hall at Marshalltown Community College Tuesday.

From being a committed neo-Nazi skinhead leader in the 1980s and 1990s to speaking out against hatred now, Frank Meeink had a lot of experiences to share with the large crowd gathered in Dejardin Hall at Marshalltown Community College Tuesday.

“I was a huge Philadelphia Flyers fan, a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan,” the Philadelphia-raised Meeink said in his heavy East Coast accent. “I loved those teams … except for starting in 1988 to 1994, there’s a huge block in my life.”

While he wasn’t raised in a neo-Nazi household, he said his stepfather would regularly beat him, and his biological parents never seemed to care about him. Meeink felt isolated throughout his childhood as a result.

After switching schools in eighth grade to get away from his abusive stepfather, Meeink found himself one of 20 white boys in a high school of 900 mostly black students. The hatred didn’t begin there, either, even as he dropped out of school early.

The following summer, Meeink spent time in Lancaster, Pa., with his cousin, formerly a big punk rock fan. But something had changed about him. Instead of anarchy messages and music posters, his cousin’s room was now clean and he kept several articles about neo-Nazism.

While at first Meeink didn’t think much of it, and wanted to ride his skateboard for fun, he started hanging out more and more with his cousin and other skinheads.

“As we started to talk, every night these other skinheads would always come over to my cousin’s house,” he said. “They’d bring beer, they’d bring girls, they drove cars, they had freakin’ tattoos … they’re 16-17 years old, and I’m 13 going on 14.”

It wasn’t long before Meeink found himself in his first fight along with the skinhead group. As the youngest of the group, and with a head still full of hair, he didn’t really partake in a fight that broke out at a concert, but was told to kick at people the skinheads were fighting.

The fear in the eyes of those who were threatened by the group made Meeink feel powerful.

“I seen it, and I absolutely loved it: fear … to me, he feared me,” Meeink said of a person he was told to kick at during the concert fight. “My brain is broken as a human being.”

Like many bullies, he said that feeling of power came from him being an “egomaniac with low self-esteem.” Also hooking him into the neo-Nazi group was the sense of family he’d never had before.

Soon, Meeink was taught to hate minority groups, especially Jewish people. He’d never knowingly met a Jew in his life growing up in West Philadelphia, but he came under the influence of neo-Nazi conspiracies about Jews running the U.S. government.

He was also told that the Biblical figure Cain was the son of Eve and the serpent from Genesis, and was “the first evil Jew.”

When he asked his skinhead group why religious leaders in his mostly Catholic neighborhood never told him that story, they said it was “because God chose you to know it.”

“This is used all across the world, and it’s used in every extremist group in the world,” Meeink said. “It’s the same thing that ISIL does, it’s the same thing al-Qaeda did, same thing the Klan does … it’s the same exact tactic.”

He got deeply immersed in a violent, neo-Nazi lifestyle as he grew from a 14-year-old inductee to a well-known, 17-year-old leader and recruiter. Meeink constantly dodged arrest warrants and had run-ins with the juvenile justice system.

Despite the dark stories he told of his life as a skinhead, from slitting his wrists and breaking out of a mental hospital to kidnappings, torture and solitary confinement, Meeink injected humor into his presentation, and kept the mostly college-aged crowd enthralled.

After going to prison for kidnapping a rival skinhead leader in Illinois, Meeink’s life changed forever. He had been released from complete lockdown and was living in a general population cell block when he met “G,” a black prisoner in the same block.

G taught him how to play card games, and eventually Meeink was able to play football with a team of black inmates. He said a defining moment in prison was when his black teammates defended him after an opposing player struck him in the head after he scored a touchdown.

Upon his release from prison, Meeink realized he didn’t want to return to his former life. A father now, and someone who had lost some of his hatred, he looked for work.

Meeink found himself employed by a Jewish person, and he helped move furniture for the business.

“I still wanted to hate the Jews, that was my last hatred,” he said. “Then there was this guy who gave me a full-time job, treated me like a decent human being.”

One day, while moving a table after a sale, Meeink dropped the table and broke it. He said he had been stupid, and immediately began cleaning up the mess. His boss “railed on” him, but not out of anger.

“I decided to get out that day,” Meeink said of his hatred, adding his boss told him he was smart and hard-working, and paid him in-full even though he’d made a mistake.

He said he’d been fooling himself for years.

“To believe this stuff was to constantly beat my head against a wall to try and prove the world wrong,” Meeink said. “I didn’t lose my humanity when I joined this group … I gave up my humanity to be a part of it.”

The message Meeink wanted to send was one of empathy.

“I can’t argue with you about your concept of a higher power, what makes you a good human being, but I know the greatest thing it’s ever given us … is empathy,” he said. “You have to learn empathy for the world, for other people.”

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is key to fighting hatred, Meeink said.

“It’s the greatest gift and weapon that we’ve been given to fight hatred.”

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Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com