Ingles Interviews Brian Levin, Tonya Covington and John Dear. Plus excerpts
from Elaine Baumgartel’s Interview with Frank Meeink
PI: What is effective? What could work to bring about any kind of change or understanding about this? Brian, since you’ve seen so many of them and maybe are following this conversation as well, what are you hearing?
BL: For my friends who are Christian, Jesus was betrayed by one of his own. When you see people who are going against white nationalists and Nazi’s, the most loathsome people around, I want you to consider a couple of things.
Number one, I know people who are Nazi’s who have repudiated their prejudice and are now making the world a better place.
PI: Later in the program, we’re going to hear from a former white supremacist who made that transition as you just described. We’ll listen to that later. Brian, your second point?
BL: My second point is not a utilitarian one. My second point is that if your movement embraces violence in any way that significantly changes what our highest traditions are with the use of violence which is to ashew it except in the most urgent of circumstances and with some kind of judicial approval or review, you’re killing the moral legitimacy of any cause that you’re associate with.
I want to be clear here, we can talk all about white nationalists; they’re terrible, I’ve studied them for years, but your audience is a sophisticated one.
There is a splintered group of people who are not part of the progressive movement, wearing hats and undertaking loud and very clear protests. These are folks who are against our system of government. They’re either anarchists or people who think that our form of government is so infected that it is illegitimate.
Their most street-worthy presentation of that is their belief that the First Amendment is a tool of tyranny against oppressed people, not that we should have protection for view points that we don’t like, which means by the way that we can leave them on the shelf as well. Violence doesn’t accomplish any of the ends that a reasonable and competent person who is against bigotry would undertake.
PI: Well, I can tell you when I was watching the Charlottesville 2017 event that I was thinking that some of the counter protestors got into skirmishes with the white supremacy marchers were overlooking key components of effective non-violent protests. Freedom marchers and lunch counter protestors of the ‘60s were trained to take the abuse and the violence without resisting. They were taught not to intervene when fellow protestors were being savagely beaten. It’s the same message from Gandhi, right John Dear, essentially?
JD: Right, and I agree with Brian; violence doesn’t work and violence and response to violence always leads to further violence. It’s not going to transform anybody. We need to change all these people. We all need to change. Everybody is redeemable, but a violent response to these kinds of demonstrations of hate will only inflame the situation. The media loves that.
Whereas, active, engaged non-violence, we know statistically now works and that’s what is not also being reported. We’ve never had it before in history. The greatest example is Dr. Erica Chenoweth; why civil resistance works.
PI: She’s been on our program.
JD: She studied every violent situation in the world in the last 106 years and has proven that non-violent response that works to end a war non-violently is much more powerful and effective and leads to a more non-violent, social, democratic society [when] you apply that in our personal lives, in these protests against the Klan and all the other wars in the world.
Dr. King is still right; non-violence is our only hope. It’s a methodology for social change that works to transform everyone non-violently. It uses non-violent means for a non-violent end, but you’ve got to train people and you’ve got to teach people and you’ve got to fund it.
They’re spending a trillion dollars on educating violence. We’re all brainwashed in violence. People who are losing their power; white, ignorant people who have put their identity in that, they don’t know anything but violence, so our responsibility is we all have to be involved in the movement. We have to change this country to fund the education of non-violent conflict resolution for every human being on the planet really and to institutionalize non-violent conflict resolution in every city, in every country, between all the countries if we’re going to survive.
PI: Obviously, that’s our point with the radio program too. I want to talk to the people who are listening now who may or may not be lucky enough to run into that kind of training sometime. This may be the only training they get; what they’re hearing us say today, so I want to talk specifically to them.
You mention the media; let me use that as an example. Sometime after the Charlottesville in August of 2017, I’m watching Trump’s speech in Arizona and I’m watching what was apparently peaceful protests that all of a sudden got busted up by people throwing a water bottle. The Arizona police started firing teargas. That’s what’s on TV.
Tonya, I’ll direct this to you. What do we say to people anywhere on the sympathy spectrum or the political spectrum watching that about how to process what John started to suggest about what the media shows and what they need to show against what is real? What questions should they be asking? What further information should they be getting to counteract those powerful pictures?
TC: I certainly agree with John that we have to work on changing society.
I think that one of the ways, and I know this is difficult for an awful lot of people, is to stop playing to the media. There is an old media saying; “If it bleeds, it leads.” Whatever is the most violent or the most disruptive is what they’re going to show on TV.
Yet one of the things we know and that we need to be talking more about is what I’m grateful to see in social media which is the hundreds of other marches that are going on that are peaceful. Thousands of people show up to talk about something or to have a peaceful march. Those don’t make the media, but they’re making social media and I feel like we need to be demanding of the media that that gets as much press or more as the violence.
That’s how you begin to change society, when you show that yes, there are a few people out there being violent, but look at the thousands that are being non-violent. Thousands are saying we won’t stand for hate. They should be getting as much press or more as the KKK does.
PI: This is interesting. As I was watching that Arizona event in August of 2017, I was watching the protestors. I’m a little cynical about cell phones to begin with and computer and information technology, but I was watching them and it seemed like they were all texting. It didn’t look like the 1960s protests where everybody was raising a hand or holding a placard or something or just being in the moment and very engaged.
As you were describing this, it struck me that, to some degree, (and of course they might be sending cat videos and they might be texting with their daughters or something), they also might be reporting essentially on the event too.
TC: I feel like that that really is important because there are things going on that we don’t know about. I was lucky to have a number of people who were at the Boston 2017 event. I was still in Albuquerque. I couldn’t be in Boston, but it was wonderful to be able to get pictures from people who were on the ground saying look at what is going on. Look at how many people are here on the other side, on the positive side. I feel like whether that gets reported or not on television, I know what happened because there were people there who sent out those pictures.
PI: Brian Levin who is on line with us from California, I just want to give you some closing thoughts based on some of the conversation that you’ve heard.
BL: Your heroes are in your community now. They’re sitting at your table. If communities can get involved with the institutions of the places that they live and routinize meaningful contact –
When I was at the Justice Department in June, we talked about having the U.S. Attorney or the head of the FBI or mayor’s offices convene human relations councils, human relations commissions because they know what’s going on in the community.
You don’t want a top down response, so my storied expertise is very simple and that is yes, have people who know how to do a model police policy come in, who know how to handle big conflictual demonstrations, but communities know their own heartbeat and they will tell you what kind of approach works best, but you have to have a framework where the community is actually, even in limited ways, engaged. That doesn’t mean you should accept out and out bigotry, but I think, particularly for progressives, and I’ve seen this at a lot of these rallies. Yes, the neo-Nazis wants their own neo-Nazis, but the other ones have people who will talk to you and engagement does a lot more than busting a skill.
PI: John Dear, you wanted to say something.
JD: The group that I work with is called Campaign Non-Violence. We organize demonstrations across the country against everything, Tonya; racism, poverty, war, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction and for Dr. King’s vision of a new culture of non-violence.
Two years ago, we launched another project which is in line with what Brian was saying called the Non-Violent Cities Project. I think one of the key problems is the lack of vision.
I was speaking in Carbondale, Illinois a couple of years ago and, after many decades, the activists said, “We’re not getting anywhere.” So, they launched what they called “Non-Violent Carbondale,” and instead of having just activists meet, they started to meet at the city council meetings. Well, it has taken off and their idea is the vision of “Where do we want Carbondale in 50 years?” No more racism, no more killings, no more poverty, no more destruction of the environment, no more military base, no more guns. They’ve gone to every sector the community; the school system, the police, the city council, all the religious leaders, the healthcare and they’re working on it.
We’ve taken that to the whole country and we have 50 different cities that are quietly organizing on this, some in big ways and some in small ways. Everyone can work and take up this idea of a vision of your local community becoming a community of non-violence.
I think that’s one of the most positive things I’ve heard about because then you’re addressing racism, but it has to also address handguns and it has to address the police brutality and the prisons. But then the greed and then the schools got no funds to educate the kids and then the healthcare and what about the military barracks where all the money is going or the environmental racism and the destruction of the environment right there and you start to really have a wholistic view. I’m excited about that and that gives me hope.
TC: I think that’s wonderful because I feel like that will make more of a difference if you start locally and if everybody is doing that and they’re working on the things that are affecting their particular community. I feel like that’s how you make systemic change.
JD: One of the problems that we learned from Carbondale is that we, as activists, have to get outside our own box.
JD: You’ve got to start meeting with the police and meeting with the city council.
PI: So, not so much saying, “This is my issue, but these are not my issues. I’m willing to spend time on this particular piece of it like education.”
PI: But you have to multitask.
TC: Yes, and I feel like everybody has something that they specialize in, but I feel like if I’m really good at this and you’re really good at that, we need to join forces and I’ll support you in what you’re doing and you support me in what we’re doing and then together, we’re able to get a whole lot more done and we’re able to do that in a very big picture, systemic type way.
PI: That’s mediator and diversity trainer Tonya Covington. We also have social activist and author Father John Dear on the panel with us. We had been talking with Brian Levin a moment ago.
I’m Paul Ingles, this is Peace Talks Radio, the series on peacemaking and non-violent conflict resolution strategies.
Here on Peace Talks Radio, we’re always interested in, at least I am, an upstream approach to problem solving, so I pose this question; when I looked at the faces of the mostly young white men marching with the neo-Nazi groups gathered in Charlottesville in 2017 or at these other rallies, personally, I want to know each of their stories to know what led them to join these movements and I wonder what was missing from their upbringing or maybe what was present in their upbringing that steered them to that march.
Before we move on, I want to introduce the story of Frank Meeink who we interviewed on our program back in 2010. He was drawn into white hate groups as a teen. He went to prison for some of his hate-based activities. He had a change of heart over time when he had normalizing encounters as Jews and blacks as a young adult and then he wrote a book called The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead. Now he lectures on compassion and tolerance. Here’s the first excerpt from that interview done by KUNMs Elain Baumgartel.
EB: Can you tell me about the first day that you joined a Nazi skinhead group?
FM: Well, I had been hanging around them up in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area and one of them was my cousin. Later on that night, after we were all hanging out, one of the older skinheads asked me when was I going to shave my head. I said I would do it now. I was totally intrigued by them and I liked hanging with them. I was 14.
EB: What was intriguing?
FM: I just come from a really tough background; a step-father that was abusive mentally and physically and then I moved to my father’s which was in an all-black section of Philadelphia and a lot of fights, a lot of trouble. That summer, you couldn’t have put a kid in a perfect spot to do this. I liked the protection. I liked that people feared them. I had been living in fear for the last four or five years of my life.
EB: So, in a sense, you had access to some power and some safety that you hadn’t had before.
FM: Right, and also, they were political. Even though I was 14, I was into war and politics and communism. I was just into that stuff and this was a group that fed me both things.
EB: How did your membership and participation, once you officially became a member of the group make you feel about yourself and your place in society?
FM: It gave me completely purpose. As I started going to Bible studies that were teaching us how to hate through the Bible, now I not only have a purpose, but I have a God-given purpose. I really believed that. That’s when I started to recruit more kids into it. Recruiting wasn’t like I was anointed a recruiter, I just was always good at getting people into what I was doing no matter what it was. Even when I was a kid, if I was getting a new hockey team together or whatever it may be, I was always good at getting people into what I was doing.
EB: Your racial consciousness started to change when you were incarcerated. Did it change subtlety over time or was there a eureka moment?
FM: Not at first. It was a long time because even in prison and when I was leaving prison, I was still a skinhead. I was still an Aryan Nation white resistance member and I thought I was still going to be for life.
The friends that I was making in prison, that was just prison. I was going to get out and things were going to go back to normal.
I later on came to terms with the black thing and the white thing and the Latino and the Asian. I had come to the conclusion that we were all equal, but I still wanted to hold onto this one last hatred and that was for the Jews because I didn’t know any Jews. I had never met any, so the easiest thing to do is to hate what you don’t understand.
The only thing I’ve ever been taught about the Jews was this behind the scenes evil empire of Israel. Who runs the Federal Reserve? I’m 14 years old and people were talking to me about the Federal Reserve and I’m like, “Sure, that sounds good to me.”
What happened was a Jewish guy took me under his wing and taught me the antique business and he knew that I was still a Nazi. I had a big swastika on my neck. He wasn’t a religious Jewish guy, but he was definitely Jewish.
One day he gave me a pep talk because I always used to say how stupid I was. That was the thing that I always said. I don’t know why. Probably the inner self felt that way. One day he just gave me this pep talk about how I was the most street-smart person he had ever met.
I remember when he was talking to me I had my Doc Martins on with red laces in and we’re in a truck driving through New Jersey, so there is not much to look at, it’s New Jersey, so, you talk to each other. As he kept talking to me about how street-smart I was, I remember looking down at my boots and being so embarrassed, just absolutely embarrassed. Here is this guy, just a great, great human being in my life and I still hate him.
That was the day I came to terms with it. When racist people come and say, “What about this and racism and ain’t you proud to be white?” I know that where that pride comes from is – it’s really not a pride, it’s more of a we hate other people because of. When God, a consistently higher power came into my life, it consistently kept proving that belief wrong to me. It kept putting people in my life at the wrong and the right times and saying, “Frank, judge now. You’re the biggest screw up I’ve got going on this earth,” and I was. I was a criminal, I was a thug, I was a liar, all that stuff. God finally slapped me for the last time upside my head.
EB: This gentleman who taught you about antiques saw something in you. Somehow, he managed to see past the veneer, right?
EB: What was it that you think he saw? How did he see into you as a person beyond this shell of identity that you had created?
FM: I think what he saw is he saw himself; a street-smart kid coming up tough. He was raised very tough. He didn’t have his father around sometimes. I remember he had some addiction and alcohol problems that he had took care of and I think he seen me in him and I think that’s what he liked.
PI: Frank Meeink wrote The Biography of a Reformed Skinhead.
Tonya Covington, did you want to comment?
TC: Yes, one of the things that I think about and that John and I agree on is that violence begets more violence. Years ago, I began doing a little bit of a study about Klu Klux Klan members and skinheads, trying to figure out also what makes them. What is it that they have in common?
One thing that I found overwhelmingly, and also true of three-fourths of the people in prison, is that they’ve all experienced abuse at some time in their childhood, either sexual, mental, physical, some sort of abuse and I feel like because of that abuse, that makes them a little more predisposed to violence.
We have all kinds of statistics and research and hundreds of universities and people doing information, but we don’t use it.
I also have a public health background and one of the things we always talk about in public health is evidence-based facts. If we have evidence that shows that we have a whole group of violent people who experienced violence in their childhood, (and this is not every single one of them, but the majority of them) then that also says that that’s another part of society that we really need to be working on.
PI: It sort of suggests John’s broader approach to the culture of violence, some of which feed directly into this symptom further down.
JD: You’re saying they were abused, suffered violence. They were trained to be racists which means they were not loved, they were not loved children and that’s just a recipe for disaster, but that’s normal now as the families and churches are collapsing.
What was the other thing that they were looking for? You can hear it in him. It’s with people in the military; identity and community.
PI: That’s the draw of gangs universally.
JD: Around the world, in Latin America in the poorest places, they have base communities. You’re loved, you’re somebody. You’re nothing, but you have community. They’re involved in movements. We’re losing that.
We have to help everybody, especially young white men, who can be so dangerous, know that there is somebody (for them). To be non-violent is to be strong and a human being.
We need to create communities. I think that can affect everybody and, as things get worse, we need small community affinity groups of non-violence. As people leave the churches which, in the old days might have been your community, we need to form small, grassroots communities to support one another as the economy and the wars and the environment get worse. That should be the new norm. We’re all going to have to have base communities around the world now.
PI: I know these have become clichés over the years, even political sayings, but “I am somebody,” Jesse Jackson or “It takes a village to raise a child.”
As you were describing that I was thinking; who is going to keep the Frank Meeink’s from falling through the cracks if his nuclear family is not going to be able to do it? It’s teachers and coaches and an antique dealer. It sounds like probably ten or 15 years down the road for Frank, sees him and makes a statement about him that helps him reflect on his choices. I guess we all have to be alert to that. That’s a lot of hard work.
TC: It is. It is.
PI: It’s hard enough being human by ourselves.
TC: That’s right, but I think that that’s one of the things we need to bring back; we’re all in a society, so we all have a part to play and it’s time for us to step up and do that. If we don’t, we know what the consequences are. It’s just not going to bring about a world that we want to live in. We’ve all got to have a part in turning this into the world we want to live in.