Words of Hate Transformed Into Art
March 13, 2013 1:30 p.m.
Tammy Gillies, director of the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League
Frank Meeink, former Neo-Nazi recruiter, author of "Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead"
Related Story: Words of Hate Transformed Into Art
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. Many of us would like to think that the age of hate groups in America has passed. But according to a recent report by the southern poverty law center, that is not the case. In the last ten years, the number of what the center terms hardcore hate groups has almost doubled. So the effort to transform hate into understanding is needed now as much as ever. The San Diego chapter of the antidefamation league is marking the ADL's 100th anniversary with an unusual art exhibit and a speaker with a remarkable life story. Speaking volumes, transforming hate. My guest, Tammy Gillis, director of the San Diego chapter of the antidefamation league.
MINK: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Frank Mink is here, a former Neo-Nazi recruiter, and Frank will be giving the keynote speech tonight at the exhibition opening. Welcome to the program.
MINK: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: This art exhibit came into being in a very unusual way. It started when the Montana human rights network came in possession of some papers? Can you tell us about that?
GILLIS: Sure. The Montana human rights network along with the halter museum of art came across 4,000 volumes of basically hate books from an organization called the world church of the creator. This was a white supremacist group, equal opportunity haters, and they had published these books. And they were going to get rid of them. And the Montana human rights network basically said let's do something positive with them. Let's change this hate.
CAVANAUGH: And they turned them into art that. I turned them over to a group of artists who made pieces from them. Give us a sense if you would of the kind of art that these papers were transformed into.
GILLIS: Sure. The exhibit is just amazing. We have 36 pieces of art here. And let me just talk to you maybe about one of them. We had an artist who knitted caps and put them onto these books and set up the books as if they were children in a playground. So here are these books with knitted caps. And you kind of wonder where does this -- how does it connect? And what the artist was saying think of these books as children. Did anyone ever knit a hat for that child? Did anyone ever care about that child? And what happens to kids that are kind of on the fringes that nobody cares about? Do they become haters? Are they marginalized? And so that's one great piece in the exhibit. It really makes you think.
CAVANAUGH: That's 1 piece that incorporates the books themselves.
GILLIS: It does.
CAVANAUGH: There are other pieces that incorporate the paper, and others that incorporate the words.
GILLIS: Yes, absolutely. There's a great piece that is a collection of small niches, and these are made from the pages of these books, and they're turned into these beautiful pieces. And inside each niche is a Jewish symbol, and then there's a framed photograph. And what that is is the artist's relatives that perished in the Holocaust. So the hate is surrendering these beautiful photographs. And what it tells us is that that is the extreme, this is what happens when hate gets out of hand: Genocide.
CAVANAUGH: Frank, you're the keynote speaker at tonight's event, the author of the autobiography of a recovering skinhead. You became a white supremacist at the age of 13. You rejected that ideology and go around speaking and advocating for diversity and tolerance. When I said upfront that the number of hardcore hate groups had almost doubled in the last ten years, does it surprise you that so many people are still drawn to that ideology?
MINK: No, I wouldn't even say it was ten year, it was around 2008 when the hate groups really started to come back out. And what happened big in this country in 2008 was we elected our first black guy into the White House, and so a lot of these groups started to come again. But not only those groups, but there's the groups that we really have to keep an eye on like a group in the midwest called the family leader. And these are just antigay hate groups. So a lot of these groups started to come about too. More states were starting to pass simple unions and gay marriage, and gay marriage equality bills. These happen in spurts. It definitely was Obama being elected that really -- that's when the numbers, and you can look at the graphs and see when these all -- these groups started to come about.
CAVANAUGH: You know, you've obviously done a lot of introspection and a lot of thought about what draws people to this kind of ideology. Are there certain people who are perhaps more vulnerable to racist movements?
MINK: Yeah. I mean, people very all these groups have one thread, and that's fear. They fear the other people. They fear the other communities. They fear what's going to happen in their community. So they're a fear-based group. And they turn it into a pride where if you ever have a Neo-Nazi or any one of these people in the studio and you talk to them, the first thing is we don't hate, we just have pride in the white race. Give it two minutes into the conversation, they be start talking about the black community, the Jews doing this, and it's real quick, like what happened to that pride? Why can't you tell me what you're proud about? Tell me some good historical things that you can back up, and it's always look at them. It's always about them. So it's false, a false pride, and it's wrapped in fear. I was a fear-based kid. I had a rough upbringing. A lot of the kids who get into these movements have sort of a rough upbringing. I didn't get the accolades. Once I started getting into the hate groups, and I noticed that I preached very well, people said, ataboy, frank! And that's what I wanted.
CAVANAUGH: You were a guest at Kearny Mesa high school earlier today. What did you tell student there is?
MINK: The same thing I'll tell the group tonight. We need to practice empathy. No matter what. Race, color, creed. You need to have empathy for the next human being. And once that happens, once you notice you have the same things in common, the same pains. I'm talking to a guy and he says my father was an alcoholic, and my father was too, and we start to talk, no matter what color, race or creed he is SI have a friend for life because we know that same pain with each other. That's fear. I fear the way I was raised. And if I start turning that into a better me, I could help that person. And he's going to teach me ways he's overcome his father being an alcoholic. And that's what this world is about.
CAVANAUGH: Is that what happened to you? You started to meet people who were outside that hate world and you bonded with them in a way?
MINK: Yeah. I had the same scenarios going on with team people that I started to talk to. And the greaterest empathy of all I ever received was from a Jewish man who owned an antique business, who took me under his wing and said I don't care what you believe. Just don't break my furniture. And that's the way Keith was. And anyway, he was just a great mentor in my life. And at the end, I just realized he was everything I wanted to be. He started this business from the ground up, and I got to be around him, and he didn't like when I degraded myself because I did that a lot. And you'll find that with kids like me. I was an ego maniac with no self esteem. So quickly I could say, man, I'm so stupid or I'm not worth this. And Keith was always back at me, no, you are. You're one of the most intelligent people I've ever met! And so it was those people in my life. When people say what changed you, they think it's like this abracadabra moment. It's not. Consistently people kept getting put in my life, whatever higher power you want to believe in, science was proving me wrong all the time. I was getting out of it at the same time as the OJ Simpson trial. So I'm learning about DNA which is totally destroying my theories in the hate community saying that we're scientifically different. And DNA saying, no, we're exactly the same.
CAVANAUGH: I think we can hear from Frank the answer to this question, but let me ask you, Tammy, why did you want to make Frank part of your anniversary event?
GILLIS: A lot of what we do at ADL, we've been doing it for 100 year, this is our centennial. We do it in a lot of different ways. And one of the most important ways is through education. And that's what Frank really stands for. We go out to schools. We talk to the kids. We teach them about self-identity, feeling good about themselves, and learning how to talk to others. We do a lot of antibullying work, cyber bullying work. It's about trying to improve improve the community, the students, the school, and Frank is the perfect person to really relate to students that have these groups.
CAVANAUGH: Not only is Frank's story transition formation is powerful, but doesn't it always put a human face on people who get seduced into the hate group lifestyle? They're not these others but they're human beings too who are just thinking in a very wrong way.
GILLIS: Yes, and I'll take you back to the exhibit, the first people I was talking about. They're these hate books, but when you put a hat on them, which sounds silly, they can become a person, a child, somebody we should care about, and how can we help? And that's always what we're about.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Frank, anybody can -- who hears you can tell you speak honestly about your life and about what you've been through, you talk in your book about beating people up, going to jail, the whole white supremacist lifestyle, and finally discovering that having this long-term transformation that you were talking about, is it painful for you to admit this stuff, what you used to believe and how you used to live?
MINK: No, it's not painful at all. It's something I went through. Some people will still judge me. It's been 17 years now I've been out of the movement and doing consistently pretty good things. So when people judge me, that's fine. If they judge me on me being honest about things, that's fine too. And you just brought up a great point. Do I put a human face on a Neo-Nazi? People want to fight racism, so they hear there might be a clan rally, so they show up and throw bottles at the clan. You did nothing but further the divide, further racism. You coming into contact with someone who is a racist, not saying you have to go out and find a way who's a member of the clan and talk to him, but you run across somebody who keeps saying racist things and have a dialogue with them saying that's unacceptable. That's unacceptable to talk that way. And if you talk that way in front of my children, I'm going to call you out right then and there. But we're human beings. Even the neoNazis. The truest form of kindness and having empathy for your enemies.
CAVANAUGH: And this is not just something that happens at rallies. This is stuff that happens in conversations in social gatherings with mixed groups of people. And if it's not called out then it leaves a very, very strange message for the younger folks who are listening to what's going on. And I think you, Tammy, the ADL has learned something about when prejudices get formed.
GILLIS: Yes, in fact, we have the Miller early child program because we have learned that by the time children are 6 years old, their prejudices ands byes are already formed. And we go out and talk to teachers and parents and teach them about that. Are their classrooms inclusive? Are they sending the right message to the students? A kid has to come into a classroom and feel that's a secure, safe place. They have to look around the walls and say can I see myself? Is this a place that I fit in? And we need to make sure that there is a place for all children. And what is the message that we're sending?
CAVANAUGH: Now, this is as I say an anniversary event for the ADL. I wonder what the antidefamation league's main priorities are as it moves into its second century.
GILLIS: I think we've come a long way and we unfortunately have a long way to go. We talk about that we're probably the only organization that wants to put ourselves out of business. But we have been fighting hate, and we continue with that fight. We do it through education. We do it through lobbying and through the government. And we do it working with law enforcement. Hate crimes and teaching about hate. So we keep fighting that fight, and maybe we will put ourselves out of business one day.
CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to know that this celebration, this event is going to be taking place at the Lawrence family Jewish community center. The keynote speech by Frank mink will take place at 7:00, and open with the transforming hate art exhibit. Thank you both very much.
MINK: Thank you.
GILLIS: Thank you.