The persistent myth about ex-neo-Nazi Frank Meeink's memoir, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, is that the tale Meeink tells of his violent, racist past was the basis for the 1998 movie American History X.
Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe has promoted the book, in part, with this supposed connection. The store's Web site claims that Meeink's life story "partly inspired Edward Norton's performance in the Academy Award-nominated film."
Some officials at the Anti-Defamation League, which is co-sponsoring Meeink's book tour along with his publisher, Hawthorne Books, apparently believe this to be the case.
Barry Morrison, the ADL's regional director in Philadelphia and the man who is largely responsible for helping Meeink become the anti-Nazi advocate he is today, asserted the myth to me.
When I countered that Meeink himself never went that far, Morrison said, "That's not important to me."
In Meeink's memoir, he plays with the possibility that Norton's depiction of a Southern California skinhead may have been inspired by his own account of his involvement with skinhead gangs in South Philadelphia and Springfield, Illinois, as well as by his ultimate renunciation of that lifestyle.
See, even though Meeink's book was just released, he has been speaking for the ADL to large groups about his experiences since sometime in 1995, after TV coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing and his own conscience moved him to talk first to the FBI and, then, to the ADL.
For the record, Meeink says he never informed on anyone or had anything to do with Timothy McVeigh or the others involved in that act of domestic terrorism.
But he has done other bad stuff that he describes, sometimes in gruesome detail, in his memoir: beatings and vicious attacks on gays, college students, people of color, and members of SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), the deadly enemies of neo-Nazis.
"I can't say with certainty how many people we attacked," writes Meeink of a Philadelphia crew of neo-Nazi skinheads dubbed the Strike Force. "I rarely went more than a week without beating on somebody, whether SHARPs or minorities."
Meeink admits that the violence made him feel high and that he "craved the power I felt surging through my veins every time I slammed my boot into some dude's face."
While an active recruiter for the skinhead movement with a cable-access show called The Reich in the early 1990s in Springfield, Meeink kidnapped a kid he refers to as a "closet SHARP," pummeled and kicked him all night with the help of an accomplice and threatened him with death at the point of a shotgun.
In the ultimate dumb-criminal move, Meeink videotaped the incident, and the tape fell into the hands of the cops. Meeink was arrested and ended up doing a just around a year of hard time in the Illinois state pen.
There he befriended and played football with two black guys, even though he was still a neo-Nazi with a swastika tattooed on his neck and an image of Nazi German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels inked on his chest.
He credits playing football with black inmates and his post-release experience working for a Jewish antiques dealer for turning him around on the racist ideology he'd embraced since he was a teenager.
Because Meeink had spoken about all this during his lectures for the ADL, the hypothesis is that the makers of American History X somehow may have known about it and used Meeink's story as a partial basis for the film.
But there are significant differences between the film and Meeink's biography. The film is set in the Los Angeles area and deals with the main character's transformation and attempt to save his brother from the skinhead lifestyle.
The drama in Meeink's life does not include such a relationship, and the details of Norton's role, a fictional one, are a world apart. Norton's character, Derek Vinyard, eschews drug abuse, for instance. Meeink, however, embraced alcohol and narcotics with abandon, until several stints at rehab finally take hold.
In his book, co-written with academic Jody M. Roy, Meeink states that he was interviewed by an unidentified producer in L.A. after giving a speech there in the 1990s.
Later, when theaters began screening American History X, he was contacted by TV reporters looking for an angle on the film. Meeink went to see the film on opening night in Philadelphia.
"The movie producer who interviewed me isn't listed anywhere in the credits of that movie," he states in the memoir. "I don't think she stole my story. In fact . . . around the same time, the movie producer called again, kind of pissed-off. She asked me why I'd sold my story to somebody else. I don't think she believed me when I said I hadn't."
Meeink concludes, "American History X isn't my story. It's every skinhead's story."
When I spoke to Meeink by phone before he arrived in Phoenix this week, he seemed to hedge.
"There's a coincidence, and I'll leave it at that," he said of any similarities to his autobiography and the film. "I don't know. Who knows? It is what it is."
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Does it matter that some believe Meeink's story is linked to the film, even if no such link can be established?
As long as bookstores are pimping the book based on this belief, I think it does. Otherwise, why even mention it?
There is another troubling aspect to Meeink's autobiography: the violence portrayed in it. The recounting of squalor and the betrayals of girlfriends and family that swirl about his alcohol and drug addictions are old hat, the stuff of countless memoirs and made-for-TV movies.
But the violence, and the pleasure Meeink obviously took in it at the time, invite an unpleasant voyeurism. Like when he helps an accomplice pry a hammer from a victim's head or when he describes how his Strike Force would go on a tear, hunting for homeless people to stomp.
Meeink says in the book that he never killed anyone, but he mentions fellow skinheads showing up bloody, crowing that they had just stabbed someone. Another time, two skins take a homeless man underneath a boardwalk and come up later, telling Meeink they knifed him.
Though he didn't participate in those assaults, the ex-South Philly führer mentions vandalizing a black church and "jumping" a junkie and "a random queen."
"I felt like I was living A Clockwork Orange," he mentions at one point. "I loved that movie; all the skinheads did."
The book is written with a sick sense of humor and street-smart turns of phrase that keep you reading. It's earned plaudits from notables such as African-American studies professor Cornel West, authors Jerry Stahl and Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Meeink, now 35, is light-years away from his skinhead teens and 20s. With the help of the ADL and the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, he founded an organization called Harmony Through Hockey, which brings kids of different colors together on the ice to teach understanding and forgiveness.
While in Phoenix for the week, he's participated with Don Logan in a presentation to high school kids on the evils of bigotry. Logan, the former director of Scottsdale's Office of Diversity and Dialogue, was seriously injured in 2004 when he opened a package bomb sent, it's believed, by neo-Nazis.
Meeink's publisher tells me that 1 percent of the net sales from Meeink's book are going to the National Association of Students Against Violence Everywhere, a non-profit that promotes civility and respect.
Moreover, Meeink continues to express regret for his past transgressions.
"I was absolutely wrong [for] treating other human beings on Earth that way," he told me. "There's no way possible I can ever take it back, except for making amends."
So why should I feel troubled by Meeink's account? After all, there's more violence in the film Inglorious Basterds, or the Showtime series The Tudors, than you'll feast upon in Meeink's book.
Perhaps it's the knowledge that hate crimes are up 30 percent in Phoenix, and the awareness of the activities of the various violent white-supremacist groups in the Valley.
It would not be difficult for me to imagine someone I know getting jumped by a Phoenix-area version of Meeink's former Strike Force, or a person I care about to have a hammer pried from his or her head after an attack by neo-Nazi goons.
Meeink agreed with me that individuals currently engaged in such activities are unlikely to be converted by his mea culpa. And I concurred with him that the best chance we may have is to intervene when people are young, before they even become involved in a gang of any sort.
But we parted ways on the how he's depicted his former pals.
"It's just like when you watch The Sopranos," he said. "You love the characters. You know their morals are screwed up. You know they're in the mob, but you still love the characters, because they're still human beings."
Except that, when dealing with Mafia tales, the source of the violence is money and power, not a racist ideology, which is far more insidious to me.
I know Meeink has encountered threats from skinheads regarding his book. But I couldn't help but tell him that if, in the memoir, he'd been pulling that hammer out of someone I loved, I didn't think I could ever forgive him.
"Then that's on you," he said. "What you think about me is none of my business. What I think of you is all my business."
Maybe, but not if you want me to buy your book. Fortunately, I got the review copy free.
HATE SQUAD SAVED
As I've written two columns arguing for the retention of the Phoenix Police Department's Career Criminal Squad, the unit that investigates and helps to secure prosecutions against violent white supremacists and other offenders, I'm happy to announce that CCS has been spared the budget ax by Phoenix City Manager David Cavazos.
Although the squad was officially disbanded as of April 5, Cavazos reversed the decision two days later because of the concerns of community activists such as Ann Malone, and organizations such as PLEA, the Phoenix police union, and the Arizona ADL.
In a conference call with Cavazos and Phoenix Assistant Chief Joe Yahner, miscommunication between the city manager and the police department reared its head.
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Assistant City Manager Ed Zuercher later put the decision in writing. And members of the squad were told they could keep their jobs. Two men from the five-member unit already had left for other positions. They have been offered the chance to return.
It's a stunning about-face, and one I congratulate both Cavazos and the Phoenix cops for making. The CCS' work is vital to arresting and convicting those who commit violent hate crimes — the sort of felonies Frank Meeink used to commit with impunity in his youth.
I've been asked why I welcomed the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association's advocacy on behalf of the CCS, when I've knocked both PLEA and its President Mark Spencer in the past for espousing nativism and supporting bigots such as state Senator Russell Pearce.
The reason is that the battle to save the CCS was too important. And now that CCS is safe, I can get back to blasting PLEA whenever I can.