Self-Defense and Bystander Intervention since the 2016 Election

11.23.16 by Amy Jones

The results of the recent presidential election have elicited strong emotions from many of us. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking reports of hate-based intimidation and harassment and as of this writing has counted 701 since the election. The good news is that the incidents do seem to be decreasing.
While there are a few incidents directed at Trump supporters (SPLC counts 27), the vast majority are targeting members of the immigrant and minority communities. I should note that the “Trump supporters” count from the SPLC is likely an under-representation given that many of the reports are self-reports, and Trump supporters are less likely to report incidents to the Southern Poverty Law Center. As a non-profit dedicated to violence prevention, Thousand Waves stands strongly alongside those who are targeted for violence for any reason.

Responding If You’re Targeted
Every situation is different, but it’s telling to me that most of the incidents reported to the SPLC occurred at a K-12 school. The report only lists locations, but presumably schoolchildren are both targets and assailants for many of these incidents. Some of the anecdotal incidents in the report are that of graffiti, which could come from adults or children, of course. Graffiti is an especially maddening form of low-level violence, because of its anonymity. There’s not much you can do except clean it up.

For those incidents that do happen in person, one of the truisms of self-defense is, “if you’re being targeted because you’re seen as weak, get bigger; if you’re being targeted because you’re seen as strong, get smaller.” In the verbal sections of our self-defense trainings, we talk about boundary-setting and de-escalation as basic self-defense skills that exist on a spectrum. Boundary-setting is on one side (“getting bigger,”) and de-escalation on the other (“getting smaller”). If children are being targeted, it’s a pretty sure bet that assailants are targeting those they identify as weak, which means that setting strong boundaries is called for.

On the other hand, if the person who is targeting you seems highly escalated to the point that they are no longer rational, de-escalation may be a more useful skill – though usually you’ll need to use some boundary setting as well, once they’re calm enough to hear you.
If you’re interested in resources for kids and how you can help kids, KidPower is a great resource. In addition to plenty of great advice on helping kids feel safe, they recently published a blog post on affirming respect, safety, and confidence for all that I heartily recommend.

Being an Ally
Many of the requests that are coming into Thousand Waves in the days since the election are coming from people who are concerned for their friends and loved ones who may be targeted. They want to know what they can do to help others. The safety pin has emerged as a symbol of unity; the idea (it began in the UK after the Brexit vote) being that wearing a safety pin is way of designating oneself as “safe.” I see this as a nice gesture for an ally to take, and one that implies a willingness to intervene. Intervention (using one’s self-defense skills on behalf of others) is one of the skills we teach in our self-defense trainings. It isn’t truly different from the boundary-setting or de-escalation skills we teach, it’s merely applying those skills on behalf of others, including those who aren’t present (as in when someone makes a racist statement, believing that it’s ok because nobody of color is around).
It takes courage to speak up against hateful speech, or speech that robs individuals of dignity, but it’s important work. When intervening, we always stress that one should think of their own safety first – you don’t help others by getting hurt yourself, no matter how good your intentions. But if it does feel safe, we strongly encourage people to say something when they witness racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or statements that attack someone’s identity.

What can you say? Here are some examples of lines we practice with students:

  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “I don’t see why that’s supposed to be funny. Can you explain it?”

Obviously these lines apply to different situations. The first (“Is there anything I can do to help?”) is a great way of addressing a situation where you’re not sure what’s going on, and it also puts the control in the hands of the person who is being targeted, letting them decide if they want assistance. The second (“I don’t see why that’s supposed to be funny”) is a fairly gentle way of calling out a racist (or homophobic, etc) joke and letting people discover on their own why it’s offensive.

Allies and Building Bridges
The final point I want to make is about building bridges. The one thing that the election showed us is that we are a nation deeply divided. Finding common ground, and moving from a place that assumes positive intent even when the impact is incredibly hurtful, has got to be our first step.
Coming together is not a step that everyone is ready to take. Some of us are still too hurt to be able to think about reaching out. If that describes you, it isn’t your job to find common cause with someone who is hurting you. I hope you’ll channel your energy into protecting yourself and your loved ones.
If you are privileged enough to have the emotional energy to reach out, I hope you will – that you’ll work both to find common cause with those who disagree and also to fight for justice and dignity for those who are threatened. Both are the acts of allies.

At Thousand Waves, we do what we can to foster peacemaking through empowerment. In the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Great article in the Washingtonian about ESD

11.08.16 by Amy Jones

The Washingtonian, a magazine for residents of the Washington, DC area, has an excellent article about Empowerment Self-Defense.  Go read it!

We’ve Been Teaching Women to Defend Themselves All Wrong

TW Self-Defense Team Adds 2nd Full-Time Employee

10.05.16 by Erin Epperson

Erin Epperson has been part of the Violence Prevention/Self-Defense program either as a teacher or as an assistant since 2011. Earlier this year, she attained her national certification as a self-defense instructor.  Erin is pictured above teaching at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School.

I find myself nowadays to be a wearer of many hats at Thousand Waves. Last fall, I came on staff as a karate teacher in the kids’ program. As of this past summer I came on as a part-time grants writer. It’s been an exciting challenge putting my Ph.D. writing talents to use for a new purpose, to reach out to potential funders to forge these new relationships and share with others the successes of our programming. I also find myself contributing in other areas of the organization I hadn’t expected—front desk and other administrative duties, events planning and management. And most importantly, there is the self-defense teaching—the reason I do what I do! This year we have more programs than we’ve had in years, including the grant-funded self-defense series for LGBTQ homeless and insecurely-housed youth. There’s never a dull day!
I was first drawn to Empowerment-Self Defense through my experiences as a female grad student traveling in India for study and research. I realized only after returning from my first trip how unsafe experiences of harassment had made me feel. I enrolled in Thousand Waves’ 12-hr Self-Defense Intensive Spring 2010 in preparation for a return study abroad trip.

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Tell: A Poem

10.05.16 by Margarita Saona

Something incredible happened in my country [Margarita’s home country is Peru — ed] that presents evidence of the power of telling (the fifth finger of self-defense) and the idea that one wave sets thousands in motion. A small group of women started organizing a protest because of a couple of cases where the judicial system had not prosecuted men who had blatantly abused women. They created a closed Facebook group. The members quickly rose from a couple hundred to, now, over 60,000. In this group, meant to coordinate the protest about these cases, one woman started telling her own story as a survivor of abuse. And another one followed. Soon there were thousands of women telling their stories, and every minute the members of the site witnessed the shocking reality: the stories of women’s verbal, emotional, and physical abuse at the hands of men could not be contained neither in their numbers nor in the horror they related. Even though the group is still closed, many of these women, along with their allies with ties to the media, started to reveal what was happening on this Facebook site to the general public through opinion columns and newspaper articles: one after the other they denounced the pervasiveness of the terrible secret all these women had kept. A public Facebook site coordinated the details of the event and on August 13th the march #NiUnaMenos took tens of thousands of Peruvians to the streets in several cities to manifest their repudiation of the violence against women, the awful truth that had remained hidden for so long. I believe that the brave women who started sharing their stories have opened the eyes of even those used to minimizing these abuses. It is, of course, everybody’s prerogative to share a traumatic story or not. But this phenomenon has confirmed my belief in the importance of telling, both as a way to heal for the victims and as a way to create a stronger community capable to standing up to violence.

And I wrote this:

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A summary of the evidence supporting Empowerment Self-Defense as violence prevention on college campuses (and one study about bystander intervention)

10.05.16 by Amy Jones

Empowerment self-defense is the umbrella term for the approach to self-defense that we teach at Thousand Waves. Other “empowerment self-defense” (or ESD) programs include IMPACT Chicago (and other IMPACT chapters), the programs that the Center for Anti-Violence Education runs in Brooklyn, the programs run by sister school Sun Dragon Martial Arts & Self-Defense in Austin, Texas, Hand to Hand Kajukenbo Self-Defense in Oakland, and many others across the country. Basically, it’s the idea that self-defense should help participants live with more confidence and less fear by helping them identify and strengthen their self-defense skills, giving them accurate information about violence, and supporting them in making choices that make sense for their life.

We teachers of ESD have felt strongly for years that it’s a great way to empower our participants to reduce violence in their own lives and communities. While there have been articles on the efficacy of self-defense generally in the academic literature for quite a while, it has only been in the past few years that we’ve started to see academic studies that look carefully at empowerment self-defense courses specifically.

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Is Self-Defense Helpful for People in Abusive Relationships?

10.05.16 by Amy Jones

Recently, I had a conversation with Andrea Stein, Violence Recovery Project Coordinator at Howard Brown Health Center.   Andrea works with LGBT folks who are affected by intimate partner violence, and she was concerned that our self-defense programming would be inappropriate for someone in an physically abusive relationship.  Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness month,  I thought I’d take the opportunity to share what I told her – which are the ways self-defense training can help people in abusive relationships.

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Verbal Self-Defense in The Princess Bride

09.07.16 by Amy Jones

As a teen and even young adult, The Princess Bride was one of my favorite movies, so much so that even today I know most of the lines. It’s a classic fairy tale — nothing resembling feminism in it, but if you’re willing to overlook the more or less complete lack of women’s empowerment (and 20-year-old me barely even noticed, which probably deserves its own post), it’s a lot of fun.

I haven’t seen it in years, but for some reason was thinking about it the other day as I rode into work.
Specifically, it occurred to me that the 45 seconds linked here constitute a lovely example of verbal self-defense. Our hero (Wesley) is the next thing to bed-ridden.  He’s been mostly dead all day. He is definitely not capable of defending himself physically, and the villain (Prince Humperdink) knows it. All seems lost. Then, using the Yell finger of safety, Wesley makes Prince Humperdink question what he thinks he knows, and convinces him to surrender. Our hero doesn’t even lie, even though –as we tell our students — it’s totally fair game to do so in the name of safety. He just tells a truth, and using his tone and choice of words, manages to imply a different truth.
The music swells as our Wesley laboriously/dramatically stands. The command is given, the sword is dropped, and the villain is vanquished.


Check it out:


Self-Defense and Pokemon Go!

08.11.16 by Amy Jones

Pokemon GO! is all the rage these days.  I admit, I’m a fan.  I’m currently level 16, Team Instinct — because as a self-defense instructor I feel a certain loyalty to instincts, plus I like underdogs.  I’m starting to notice the safety warnings proliferating, too — some level-headed, some a little strident.  The always-excellent KidPower has a nice article about playing as a family.

I can see why people have safety concerns — well-intentioned people have been railing about the safety issues of walking around ‘buried in your phone’ for years now, and hunting Pokemon requires a certain attention to be paid to one’s device, at the same time as it encourages you to walk around.

The self-defense principles we teach are, of course, relevant:   recognize when you are taking risks, and do what you can to mitigate those risks.  Being around people and light, in areas that you’re familiar with, is safest.  Having an ally (close friend, family member, romantic partner) with you is also a good safety strategy.

The safety concerns break down into a few categories:

Watch Where You’re Going!

Well, yes.  This is always a good idea, and that doesn’t change because Pokemon GO came along.  When I’m walking down the street looking for Pokemon, I try to keep a 5-and-5 pace — I’ll watch the screen for 5 paces, and then look up at my surroundings for 5 paces.  Of course, when I come to intersections, I pay attention for as long as it takes to get across the street.   It is an absorbing game, and I can see how someone could come to grief by not paying attention.

The last few updates show that the game creators are thinking about this, too — when the game loads, in addition to the warning that has always been part of the game’s load screen, (“Remember to be alert at all times.  Stay aware of your surroundings,”)  you’ll now get one of several warnings:  “Do not trespass while playing Pokemon GO,” “Do not enter dangerous areas while playing Pokemon GO,” and “Do not play Pokemon GO while driving,” that you have to acknowledge in the game itself.  I was skeptical that people actually tried to play while driving, but as of the latest update, if the game detects that your speed has increased, it tells you again not to play while driving, and prompts you to acknowledge that you’re a passenger.  People — don’t Pokemon and Drive.  Distracted driving is pretty much always a bad idea.

Don’t Go To That Dangerous Place!

In addition to general “don’t go into dark alleys to find a PokeStop” types of warnings (pro-tip:  PokeStops don’t tend to be in dark alleys), there’s the story of the unsuspecting players who were attracted to a PokeStop with a lure on it and then robbed.  This was in fact reported as news in O’Fallon, Missouri, but Snopes says it was mis-reported.  This is really a variation of the “watch where you’re going” advice, with the extra spice of imagining ne’er-do-wells lying in wait (a variation endlessly popular in urban legends, it seems).

One of the better ideas I’ve seen is to play Pokemon GO with friends — that way, you can appoint someone to pay closer attention to surroundings and practice broad awareness, while others pay more attention to the game.  When Pokemon appear, they appear for all players, so this “team up” tactic works well.

Pokemon Go Will Steal Your Personal Information!

This is something that I’ve heard talked about amongst security-conscious users.  There was a kerfluffle with the game asking to access all of your Google Profile information in the account creation process, though the company claims that was an error.  Not being at Niantic (the game’s parent company) or having knowledge of the data they collect, I can’t really speak authoritatively (or even especially knowledgeably) about this.  I will say that the company doesn’t strike me as any more or less sinister than Google, Facebook, Instagram (which is also Facebook), or any of the various large software companies that are becoming ever-more savvy about datamining techniques.  My rule of thumb is to be judicious about what I allow to be captured digitally about me, and to be resigned to the reality that the price I pay for using modern technology is knowing that my data may (inevitably will, at some point) become available to the highest bidder.   If you’re worried, one tactic I’ve heard is to create a dummy Google account with minimal personal information, and use that as your login for the game.

Staying Safe on Mexico City’s Public Transit

06.25.16 by Amy Jones

One of our training members at Thousand Waves recently related this a tale of successful self-defense  to us.  At the time of the incident, she was a second-degree black belt, but the skills she used to avert a potentially violent (and certainly unpleasant) altercation were all non-physical self-defense techniques.  Here’s the story:

I am pretty sure I averted a robbery last night in the Mexico City metro. My family and I were about as ridiculously conspicuous as could be, the only people dressed in formal wear on the train platform (we are here for my partner, D, to officiate at a wedding and were on our way there). A group of three people standing about 10 feet away from us went from speaking quietly with one another to one person tilting their head towards D, and then moved to within 2 feet of us on an otherwise not-crowded platform. I told him and my son to move down as the train arrived, so we could just get on another car (hoping this was all in my head and would just be over once we moved), so as the train arrived, we moved down about 20 feet to get on one car down. The three people ran to get on the same car as us (neither car was crowded when the train arrived) and split up, entering the car behind us through both doors and sitting spread out from one another across the car. I made very solid, uncomfortably long and serious eye contact with the individual sitting nearest to me (while I stood with my back against the doors). Scanning the train, I also saw that a train security officer was in our car. I made eye contact with him as well. When we left the train, I was prepared to make noise, and the security officer held up the train, making eye contact again with D and me (I nodded and said in Spanish that we were okay) before the train pulled off with the three people still on it.

I’ll never know whether they intended to rob or otherwise harm us, and I am fine with that. It was an uncomfortable situation where my first benefit-of-the-doubt assessment revealed that something was not right about the situation, and I acted upon that assessment. We’ve ridden the metro several times since then with increased awareness and have encountered nothing but grace from our fellow riders. Thank you to everyone who has taught and practiced self-defense with me for helping me manage this situation, whatever it was, and helping me develop tools to make myself and others around me safe in the places where I want to be.

Why Have a Self-Defense Blog?

06.24.16 by Amy Jones

Welcome to the Thousand Waves Self-Defense & Violence Prevention blog! Lots of martial arts schools have self-defense programs; fewer of them have a program that is robust enough to support a blog. For many of them, self-defense is “martial arts lite,” with instructors who mostly consider ‘self-defense’ to be an introduction to their martial art.

Thousand Waves understands self-defense to be a completely different, if closely related, endeavor. If you take an introductory trial karate class at Thousand Waves, you’ll hopefully have fun, you’ll get a good workout, and you’ll be introduced to the fundamentals of the art – but one class will not help you much in reducing violence in your life. For one thing, you won’t have mastered any of the techniques. For another, fighting techniques are really only useful in a relatively small subset of violent encounters, especially violence against women, which is often committed by perpetrators that the victim isn’t willing to harm (since most violence against women isn’t perpetrated by strangers).

This reality was understood by our founders and their colleagues some thirty years ago, and is still understood by us today. So empowerment-based self-defense was born, and continues to evolve. There’s a lot there, and we’ll use this blog to explore many aspects of it: the history, the application, and the theory behind it all. What do you want to read about? Tell us in the comments!

This blog will also serve as the archive for our newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter and you’ll get all-new content quarterly, plus reminders about upcoming programs, etc. Or RSS or subscribe to the blog, and you’ll get the newsletter articles as well as blog posts as they’re published. I hope you’ll find this to be a useful resource.