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If you ask Frank Meeink how he went from being one of the most influential skinhead recruiters to becoming an author, mentor and youth hockey coach, he'll tell you, "It's like I died and went to heaven."
In a series of interviews, Meeink told us how he once used his words to spread a message of hate and recruit high school kids to his skinhead gang, and how just one person treating him with kindness changed his life.
Since then, he's spent the last 20 years traveling around the world speaking at conferences against hate and his story became the inspiration for the 1998 film "American History X."
Meeink said every turn of the road he's traveled in life was marked by a major "what if?" but he says, the biggest "what if" of all is, "what if I had better parents?"
Growing up in Philadelphia
Meeink spent much of his childhood living with his mother in South Philadelphia, in a neighborhood he describes as tough, but safe.
"It was like this Irish-Catholic neighborhood where we all stuck together," Meeink said, adding that everyone was family in some way.
But his home suddenly felt much more unsafe when his mother remarried when Meeink was nine years old.
"My life has changed dramatically by just one person coming in my life and f---ing tormenting me every day. Every day."
For the next four years, Meeink said his step-father beat and humiliated him constantly, making him feel vulnerable, insecure and weak.
"Every day when I was coming home from school, I'd plan on getting hit by a car," Meeink said, explaining that cars regularly ran down pedestrians on the narrow streets of his neighborhood.
Meeink said he would stand in the road and wait for the car to come but said he would jump out of the way at the last second every time.
"I'd feel like a loser because I can't even get hit by a f---ing car. I felt like that big a loser, and then I'd go home," Meeink said.
Meeink's stepfather kicked him out of the house when he was 13 years old, and with nowhere else to go, Meeink went to live with his biological father in southwest Philadelphia.
"Fresh Prince moved his ass out," Meeink joked about his old neighborhood.
"I was a white kid, and it was the middle of the school year, and I go to an all black school," Meeink said.
He started to lash out violently against his classmates at Pepper Middle School, and it was there that Meeink says he started to feel animosity toward black people.
Meeink dropped out of middle school 40 days before the end of the school year and never ended up finishing his education.
Getting out of Philly and into the skinhead movement
That summer, when Meeink was 14 years old, his father gave him a chance to escape.
"My dad said I could do whatever I want for the summer to get out of that neighborhood," Meeink said.
He headed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Amish country, to visit his older cousin. Meeink described his cousin, who was also from South Philadelphia originally, as a real punk rocker. He was good at skateboarding, he was in a punk rock band, and he was someone Meeink said he looked up to.
"When I went up that summer I couldn't wait to get punk rocked out with him," Meeink said, but when he got to his cousin's house and walked in to his room he found posters of punk rock bands had been replaced with swastikas and Confederate flags, and even a picture of Adolf Hitler.
Skinheads weren't always associated with white supremacy. In fact, they started out as a punk rock subculture in England. What started out as a movement among London's working class youths spread to the U.S., and by the 1980s the movement had fractured into dozens of different subgroups. Although most skinheads described themselves as being apolitical, other groups saw an uptick in white supremacists in their ranks.
To Meeink, his cousin and his skinhead friends were the epitome of cool.
"They brought girls and they brought beer, and they drove, like they're cool to me."
However, Meeink said it quickly became obvious that his new skinhead friends had a very skewed view of black people -- one that Meeink attributes to their rural perspective.
"It's the same reason why almost everyone joins militias and these type of groups," Meeink explained. "It's because they get the local media from Philadelphia and they see it and think 'That's all these people do, is shoot each other.' They don't see any human factor in there."
For the first time, Meeink said, in that group of skinheads in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he felt like he mattered. To Meeink, when the skinheads invited him to parties, brought him out to clubs, and asked him about his life in Philadelphia, that was the closest thing he ever had to a family asking "How was your day?"
So, he became a skinhead.
Recruiting and fame
Meeink quickly became one of the top recruiters for the skinheads. He had several warrants out for his arrest and so, on the run from the cops, he traveled the country picking up new recruits along the way.
From Georgia and Alabama to New Jersey and Delaware, Meeink would crash with other skinheads and recruit new members along the way. All the while his commitment to the movement through grew through violence and hateful rhetoric.
"Our job was to cause terror," Meeink said of his skinhead crew. "We even called ourselves the terror squad. We were a group of guys who went out and did violent things to people who we thought were our enemies."
Meeink said he came to believe that he would one day be a part of a race war between whites and the federal government and he took an oath to do whatever it took to defend his brothers. Part of that was recruiting for the army -- an area where Meeink excelled.
"I would say, 'Why do they get BET and we don't get white entertainment television? Affirmative action -- they steal jobs from white people to give them to black people.'"
Meeink would tell new recruits that they could join the skinheads and celebrate their heritage, but the irony of it all was that at skinhead meetings, no one ever talked about white heritage.
"It was always about 'Look at what they're doing. Look at what the Jews are doing, look at what the blacks are doing,'" Meeink said, adding "It's the biggest bait-and-switch in the world."
One day, Meeink was invited to appear on an ABC News program to talk about his beliefs. His TV show appearance catapulted him to fame and a leadership position in the movement.
Meeink used that power and fame to launch his own cable access TV show called "The Reich," which he described as a "Wayne's World" for racists.
"The Reich" ended after three episodes when Meeink was arrested at the studio after torturing a fellow skinhead whom he held hostage on Christmas Eve in 1992.
Meeink, then 17 years old, was tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to three years in federal prison.
While he was incarcerated, Meeink formed relationships with other inmates who were people of color. Those relationships helped Meeink begin to think about changing his neo-Nazi views, but he said it didn't happen overnight.
"I didn't come out of prison going kumbaya."
In fact, Meeink's fame in the neo-Nazi movement catapulted him to leadership in the Aryan prison gang.
"Some people would say, 'Aren't the black dudes going to get you for being racist?' Everybody's racist in there," Meeink explained.
Over time, Meeink found that his relationships with black inmates, with whom he played sports in the prison yard, were in some ways better than his friendships with other white supremacists.
"When I found out my daughter was born, I didn't tell my Aryans, because all the older inmates and the Aryans were always like, 'Oh shit, now your girl's going to lose that baby weight, now she's going to look good again, you better get out there quick, she's going to hit everything,'" Meeink recalled.
"I hated hearing that s---," he said, "They thought they could joke with me like that, but it sat inside me when they would say s--- like that. I would think, maybe she is going to be hitting everything."
While his Aryans brothers teased him, Meeink said his black football teammates congratulated him and encouraged him after his daughter was born.
Getting out of prison and the neo-Nazi movement
When Meeink was released from prison, he returned to his skinhead crew in Philadelphia but found he didn't feel the same camaraderie when he came back.
"When they started saying racist bulls--- sometimes, and they would say stuff, stupid stuff, all black people are like this, and I would think, that's not true," Meeink said.
"I wouldn't say that at the meeting out loud, I would say it in my head, 'That's f---ing stupid. Why would you even say that? I can't believe I'm friends with you.'"
By this time, Meeink said he had decided that he "was cool" with people of color, but in order to keep his seniority in the neo-Nazi movement, he continued to hate Jewish people.
He needed a job, but no one would hire a neo-Nazi felon. Then, one of Meeink's skinhead friends told him he could get him a job moving furniture at an antique show for three days at $100 a day.
Meeink's friend, who also worked at the furniture store, said he had told his boss, a Jewish man, about Meeink already.
"I said, 'Well, what's he say? He's a Jew, what's he say?'" Meeink recalled.
"He goes, 'He doesn't give a s--- what you believe, just don't break his f---ing furniture.'"
Meeink helped Keith Brookstein, the furniture store owner, that weekend at the show and went on to work in his store.
Meeink said he had held on to stereotypical ideas about Jewish people, but he found Brookstein continued to prove him wrong.
"He wasn't like anything, he was just a good f---ing human being in my life."
It was Brookstein's encouragement and mentoring that finally led Meeink to give up his neo-Nazi beliefs.
"I was beating my head against a wall there at the end to believe it," Meeink said. "Every racist, especially in America, we all make exceptions. We all fall for that bait-and-switch, but we also all make exceptions. You all know racist people in your life, and they all say 'Yeah, I hate black people except for John, John's cool.' So, because you know him, you like him. The other ones you don't know, those ones are horrible... I just got tired of saying that."
Defection to activism
Not long after Meeink left the neo-Nazi movement, Meeink watched on the news as 168 people died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Overcome with guilt after witnessing the domestic terror attack, Meeink contacted the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish non-government organization dedicated to civil rights activism, to offer help in any way.
Since then, Meeink has been traveling the world giving lectures on racial diversity and acceptance. He's written an autobiography and he and other former neo-Nazi's formed a non-profit called Life After Hate, which aims to help individuals who want to get out of extremist movements.
Over the last two decades, Meeink said he's learned to use his power of speech, which he once used to recruit new neo-Nazis, to teach people about empathy and humility.
"What I think I learned is that there's this great weapon that has been handed to me and to others and you really have to use it in the right way," Meeink said.
Now, Meeink said he still uses those same lessons he learned to help coach and mentor kids on his youth ice hockey team.
"Be kind and gentle," Meeink said "Make sure if you have kids who look up to you show them love and show them respect an don't wave them off. You do like I do with them. You have to coach in life. That's it."