As a 17-year-old, Frank Meeink was a neo-Nazi skinhead, covered with tattoos that included a swastika on his neck, who hosted his own cable-access show promoting his racist views. Then, he was arrested for the kidnapping of a rival skinhead and sentenced to three to five years in prison.

“I was the youngest kid in the adult prison,” he says, during a telephone interview from his home in Iowa. Meeink, the author of “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead,” is coming to the Valley to talk about his journey away from racist violence to life as a father who created and runs a youth hockey program called Harmony through Hockey. He will speak Feb. 23 at an event sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League’s Young Leadership and Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s NowGen groups at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale (see details below).

Rather than hardening his racist views, prison in Illinois began to crack the neo-Nazi armor he forged growing up in south Philadelphia. His lifelong love of sports led him to play football in the prison yard with some black players that he had met when he was held in the county. “It sparked kind of a small friendship with them.”

When he got out of prison, he returned to Philadelphia, where he was treated like a legendary hero returning from battle in the ranks of neo-Nazi skinheads. The gang that he had started years before had quadrupled in size, and this was a great ego boost, he says.

“When you’re a terrorist, a gangster, a thug, a bully, we’re all the same makeup,” he says. “We’re all egomaniacs with no self-esteem.” He says he would lash out violently at any real or imagined slight. “If you tread on my sneaker, I have to punch you in the mouth … because my self-esteem doesn’t know how to tell me, ‘Hey, Frank, you’re OK. Don’t worry about that guy.’ ”

What pulled him into the neo-Nazi gangs was his experience growing up in Philadelphia. Ethnic gangs protected their home turf, he says. Meeink says that he pretty much raised himself, saying of his divorced parents, “They freakin’ left me to fend for myself.”

His mother remarried, and the stepfather was abusive, kicking Meeink out of his mother’s house in a poor Irish neighborhood when he was 14. Meeink went to live with his father in then-predominantly black southwest Philadelphia. The middle school there was hell for him: “It was a school where if you were a white kid, you were in trouble. … I’m consistently picked on and abused because of my race in my school. … I get a lot of college kids who come to my talks and they say, ‘Well, that’s because the white people have this’ or ‘the structure of the country is white.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m a 13- or 14-year-old kid trying to survive. I’m not thinking about any of that right then. I’m thinking about how with the color of my skin, if I go into the bathroom at the wrong time, I can get my ass beat.’”

He got involved in skinhead gangs while staying with a cousin in Pennsylvania’s Amish country for the summer. Their racist views justified his anger and brought him acceptance, a sense of belonging for the first time in his life, he says. But that began to unravel after prison. He knew he didn’t want to go back to prison, he wanted to be able to visit his daughter, who his ex-girlfriend didn’t want him to see, and he knew that if he wanted these things, he would have to change his actions, but these factors didn’t mesh with his racist beliefs.

When he got out of prison, he followed the O.J. Simpson murder trial closely. During the trial, much was made of DNA evidence and the science behind it, and Meeink says that he learned “every human being has the same DNA, no matter what, except for one strand which makes us all different from … other things.” That’s when he was hired, swastika tattoos and all, to move antique furniture for a business owned by a Jewish man in New Jersey who said he didn’t care whether he was a neo-Nazi as long as he didn’t hurt the furniture. Many hours of working with and talking to this man wore away at Meeink. Although he says his views slowly evolved, there was an important moment of clarity. Meeink had broken a piece of furniture and told his boss, expecting to be fired, and his boss told him that he would never fire him because Meeink was smart and an asset to his company.

“I was walking home that day, and I was just like, ‘You know what? I can’t keep claiming I’m a neo-Nazi. I couldn’t kill Keith. I would f--king probably take a bullet for Keith now,’ and so I started to change.”

The key to turning his back on hatred he says was re-learning empathy. “I had empathy for things and I had humanity when I was a kid,” he says, and then he quotes a fellow “former” (as he calls those who left the neo-Nazi ranks): “I didn’t lose my humanity, I gave it up for acceptance.”

details

Who: Frank Meeink

What: Lecture sponsored by ADL Young Leadership and the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s NowGen

When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23

Where: Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, 12701 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

Cost: $25 adults, $10 students with ID

Tickets: Must be purchased in advance at jewishphoenix.org/speaksout

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