Ex-skinhead brings battle against racism to Bay Area

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The former neo-Nazi will visit the Bay Area this week, speaking to gang members, teens and even Jewish youth groups about the white supremacist movement and what draws young people to it.

Since his release more than three years ago from prison, where he was sent for committing a violent hate crime, Meeink has had laser surgery on his tattoos and turned his swords to plowshares.

Make that hockey sticks. Three years ago, he founded Harmony Through Hockey, supported by the Anti-Defamation League, the Philadelphia Department of Recreation and the Philadelphia Flyers.

He recruits members from some of Philly's toughest neighborhoods, and combines plenty of talk with skill-building and teamwork. He deliberately targets kids between the ages of 10 and 12.

He knows firsthand how vulnerable an age that is. His parents had abandoned him before he was 13. Needy, angry and alone, he fell into the embrace of a skinhead gang.

At 13, he had already tasted the heady sublimation of his own anguish. He and his cohorts burst into a fund-raising concert for animal rights groups, and in record time trashed, tore and terrorized the peace-loving denizens.

The same skinhead group — without Meeink — had cut a searing swath of brutality across the country, lapping up the bounty of media coverage that followed the multiple stabbings of a cab driver, the beating of some Asian fishermen and an assault on a woman that resulted in a miscarriage.

Meeink admits frankly that he did participate in one attack: the kidnapping and torture of a man.

The group videotaped that incident, and that provided prosecutors with enough evidence to convict him for felony offenses in 1992.

In prison, a black inmate watched the just-turned-18 con trying to shave.

"He said, 'You're going to cut your face all up shaving like that. Didn't anybody ever show you how to shave?'"

Nobody had. The man became a mentor. A light bulb went off for Meeink.

"Life — I used to take it for granted," he said. "I started to realize the people I might hurt could be the coolest people in the world. They have family and friends like I do."

Upon his release, his old friends gave him a puppy: a pit bull. A new friend gave him a job. He was a Jewish antiques dealer named Keith who liked the way Meeink worked on a one-day job and kept him on permanently.

But that wasn't all.

"Oklahoma City had a huge, huge effect on me," he said. "I knew people that talked about bombing places and people who did time for making bombs. I saw the picture of the firefighter carrying that little girl out. I hadn't seen my daughter in a while, and I realized that could have been her."

She had the same name, Bailey. Meeink's Bailey is now 5, very much alive, and Meeink has since rededicated himself to eradicating hatred.

"When I put out negative energy — and when I was negative, I was really, really negative — I found negativity all around me," he said. "People dying violent deaths, a lot of negative things. And when I started putting out positive energy, people really noticed. A lot of good things started to happen."

He had laser surgery to remove tattoos on his neck and grew hair to cover those that once festooned his shaven head.

"I still have about 10 tattoos left, but this weekend I covered up four big ones with a new one," he said.

The ADL is sponsoring his lecture-tour, in which he hopes to heal some of the damage he's done, to shed light on what spurs many to join the white supremacist movement and to share the deceptively simple message that what goes around comes around. "I know that because I lived it," he said.

The organization's primary goal in bringing Meeink face-to-face with the community is to "raise the level of awareness of the existence of hate groups," said Heidi Josephson, who is a program coordinator for the ADL's World of Difference outreach program. "Secondly, we want to increase outreach — to day schools, to correctional facilities, to community-based organizations."

Meeink frequently motivates many young people that hear him to "play a proactive role," Josephson added. "They start programs that promote understanding in their schools."

In the Bay Area, Meeink plans to meet with some of the toughest skinhead gangs in the region — groups like the Peckerwoods and the Nazi Low Riders. And kids who are vulnerable to what skinheads offer. "A group like that gives you everything," he said. "Food, shelter, liquor, family."

He's still plenty tough, however. "I'm the kind of person if it's before 3 in the afternoon and I see kids on the street, I stop and say, 'Hey, why aren't you in school?'"

And, despite a dismal start, "I'm really cool with my parents now," he said. "Sure it takes forgiveness. Forgiveness and forgetness."

This is the third year for Harmony Through Hockey. So far, 120 kids have passed through the program. He says he hopes one day to be better known for the program's successes than for having once been a skinhead.

"For these kids, being with a lot of different kinds of kids will lead to the kinds of judgments they make about people one day," he said.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.