Martial arts and political resistance have a long, complicated relationship. Slaves in Brazil, forbidden from training in any style of combat, masked powerful kicks in the dance-like movements of capoeira. British suffragettes employed jiu-jitsu to take down the men (many in uniform) who violently blocked their march toward progress.
In Durham, Elizabeth Schroder and Neal Ritchie, instructors at United Thai Boxing and MMA, are continuing that lineage. Through their Squad! Self Defense organization, the pair teaches martial arts to youth with the goal of contributing to "a larger struggle to combat state violence and oppression." For four consecutive Sundays starting August 14, they'll offer "Fighting Back," a free self-defense camp for LGBTQ teenagers, with a curriculum based in nonviolent de-escalation and MMA techniques.
For hobbyists like me, competing in martial arts—in my case, Brazilian jiu-jitsu—is an intense test of skill and toughness. You're squared up against someone you don't know, whose sole mission is to physically dominate you. But it's governed by agreed-upon rules and respect, not anger and malice. There's a referee, and you'll probably hug as soon as one of you taps out. The techniques of sport fighting are necessarily different than those of, well, real fighting. It's easy to forget that not everyone has the luxury of considering self-defense a sport.
While national violent crime rates have fallen from their peak in the nineties, marginalized communities still suffer from the persistent threat of violence. In a 2011 analysis of FBI data, the Southern Poverty Law Center determined that "LGBT people are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime." The hostile climate fostered by discriminatory legislation like HB 2 doesn't help.
The INDY caught up with Ritchie and Schroder to discuss their goals with "Fighting Back" and the role of combat techniques in empowering marginalized communities.
INDY: How did Squad! Self Defense get started, and how did you develop the idea of a fight camp for LGBTQ youth?
NEAL RITCHIE: Squad! started as an avenue to teach these skills in a school setting. The upcoming fight camp emerged from conversations with a friend about responses to HB 2. We were talking about the daily harassment that we or friends have faced, and all the seemingly banal things that make it totally impossible for our trans friends to live in this world. Reaction against HB 2 has been a lightning rod in some important ways, but it's also felt weird and, at times, disingenuous, how policy-focused it's been. Liberal discourse around "diversity" and "real North Carolina values" does nothing but obscure the kinds of structural transformation that would be necessary to achieve real liberation.
In light of some of those frustrations, we wanted to offer something that, however small, might be practical, useful, and, above all, provide a direct feeling of empowerment. Then our friend Collier Reeves from Girls Rock NC approached us, encouraging us to offer such a series, which is when the idea really took off.
On a side note, it seems relevant to mention the increase of attacks against immigrants and youth of color as white nationalist organizing has grown immensely in the last several years. Incidents like the recent conflict in Sacramento come to mind, where hundreds of anti-racists managed to courageously shut down a white supremacist gathering, but not without six people getting stabbed. A recent rule in one N.C. school district encouraging straight kids to bring pepper spray to school to use against trans folks in the bathroom comes to mind as well.
There's no shortage of self-defense classes geared toward women, which is wonderful, but I haven't seen nearly as much focus on LGBTQ people. Given the horrifying rates of violence against these communities, that feels like a glaring oversight. What inspired you to create this series specifically for LGBTQ teenagers?
NR: While women's classes are increasingly common, I think there's a really sexist division of labor in how "self-defense" historically tends to be taught to women and "fighting" tends to be taught to men. The practical outcome is that women are taught unrealistic and ineffective techniques, in my opinion, in one-off seminars by unqualified people, while men are taught solid combat. It's getting better with the popularity of women's MMA, but it's still omnipresent.
I think of it like this: If you're in a situation where you have to physically defend yourself, yes, it's "self-defense," but you're in a fight. So let's treat it like that. Whatever the discipline may be—grappling, striking, weapons—that means learning how to fight back against resisting opponents in dynamic rather than static scenarios.
ELIZABETH SCHRODER: While I agree with Neal on the differences between women's self-defense classes and MMA classes, I think part of the appeal is that they tend to take place outside of the hyper-masculine, cisgender dude culture that permeates many gyms. That perceived culture functions as a huge barrier for lots of people who might otherwise give training a try. When trying out fighting arts for the first time, especially if you're not a cis dude, it really helps to have some focused encouragement. We hope that "Fighting Back" can offer that. Without having to worry about apprehensions like, "How can I even tell people my pronoun in this setting?" or "I hope nobody in class gives me weird looks because of how I present," LGBTQ teens can get some safer space to learn real, effective fighting techniques.
You both assist with the kids' program at United Thai Boxing and MMA, and you do self-defense seminars at local schools. How did you get involved in teaching martial arts to young people?
ES: I have been teaching in schools for about six years, and am about to begin my fourth year as an elementary PE teacher. I teach youth because I love working with them. Also, though I've been an athlete my whole life, my martial arts training has felt very physically challenging. There were a few months in particular where I would head straight from my job as a preschool movement teacher to my BJJ class. On those days, I'd spend my mornings telling five-year-olds, "Put your foot here. Nope, that's your arm. Use your foot. Nope, that's your hand." Then I'd go to BJJ and my coach would tell me, "Now prop yourself up on your left hand. Nope, that's your elbow. Use your left hand." When I teach these skills to young folks, I get a little jealous of them, because it's such a privilege for them to store in their bodies this muscle memory now, rather than starting later in life, when there's so much more to unlearn.
NR: I've learned that adults basically seem to need what kids need. If you break down a technique for a kid a certain way and they get it, probably an adult will learn it well that way too. One of the things I love about United is how real the instruction is for kids. While it's age-appropriate in presentation, they aren't taught anything that I wouldn't do myself, whether it's Muay Thai or ground work. Those kids are beasts!
You consider self-defense training part of a larger effort to combat state violence and oppression. Can you elaborate on that?
NR: Across history, one of the ways that states have succeeded in consolidating power and oppressing groups of people, which all states do, is by breaking up peoples' warrior culture, either through cooption or outright suppression. Some examples include the genocide suffered by indigenous fighters, the prohibition of slaves owning weapons, the criminalization of capoeira in the territory that came to be Brazil, and Ronald Reagan's use of gun control legislation to disarm the Black Panthers in California.
ES: Lots of fighters, from Muhammad Ali to Ronda Rousey, have spoken about how powerful it is to believe in one's own capacity, regardless of what may objectively be true, and how that belief alone actually increases their capacity. Personal agency is central in combating state violence and oppression, and training in fighting arts has worlds of lessons to offer on personal agency and empowerment.
Your curriculum emphasizes de-escalation, awareness, and consent. How so?
ES: While the bulk of our curriculum focuses on fighting techniques, we contextualize those techniques as a sort of last resort when other ways of conflict resolution have failed or can't be used. We equip students with options for avoiding physical altercations, and discussions of awareness—both of environment and of self—are at the center of these de-escalation techniques. We explain to our students that while we offer them fighting instruction, it is in an effort to help them keep themselves safer and defend others from assault.
You've both got pretty varied backgrounds in martial arts, with a mix of traditional styles and contemporary MMA. Which styles most inform the techniques you'll highlight for a group of beginning students with a self-defense focus?
NR: The techniques we'll be drawing from will be super fundamental and primarily based around the knees and elbows of Muay Thai, some basic takedown defense from wrestling, and some positional ground defense from Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
After completing the course, what are the primary things you hope students will walk away with?
ES: Thus far in my training, I've learned some things about how to win a fight. But I've learned a lot more about how much space I get to take up in a room. I've learned about getting my voice heard in a world that wants me to sit quietly. I've learned how to walk as tall as I am with an air that makes catcalling bros think twice about spitting their misogyny at me. I've learned how to stand my ground when somebody shoves me and, without even throwing a punch, change their mind about trying to make my body do what they want it to.
In the four weeks of "Fighting Back," we will only begin to scratch the surface of fighting skills. But I expect that students will notice a marked increase in their sense of confidence and power. Training not only reveals to people the sometimes-surprising power they already possess, but also that much more power is possible for them. I also hope that LGBTQ teens will use this as a way to build relationships that last past camp. And it'd be great to see students get so stoked on training that they start training more regularly when the series is over.
How can the community support what you're doing to help LGBTQ youth feel safer—and actually be safer—in the world?
NR: First off, please spread the word about these classes. The signup is at www.squadselfdefense.com. Second, if you or your kid goes to a school that might be interested in hosting us, please let us know. More generally, I prefer to think in terms of liberation rather than safety, partly due to how the state uses the concept of safety to get folks with more money or privilege to buy into its institutions at the expense of others. Regardless, we've got to be in it for the long haul. I don't think we're going to get to the world we want through nonprofits or political parties or corporate sponsorship. It's going to come through youth standing up for themselves and fighting back however they can. Hopefully we can stand with them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Good Fight"