Mural commemorating the Battle of Cable Street – from Wikimedia Commons
The election of a fascistic demagogue to the Presidency of the United States is a crisis situation. Many people who felt reasonably safe before the election no longer do, and many people who were never safe now face even greater threats. A wave of harassment, violence and intimidation has swept the country, and many people who have never previously trained in self-defense or martial arts are now expressing an interest in learning how to defend themselves or others if they ever need to.
I’m not interested in telling any of you how to feel about this. If you hate violence and could never imagine fighting no matter what, I have no criticism. If you’re an active anti-fascist eager to confront white supremacists, I have no criticism of that either. What I do have is experience, so I’ve written the following guide for those of you who may be considering training for the first time. In honor of Macha, may it prove useful.
Most people—including many martial artists—aren’t really aware of this, but self-defense and martial arts are two different things. Martial arts are systemized methods of fighting. Self-defense is the art of keeping yourself and other people safe from aggression, which most often involves *not* fighting. A good self-defense program should emphasize personal safety policies, situational awareness, verbal de-escalation skills and that sort of thing. Any fighting techniques should be extremely simple, easy to apply under stress and geared solely toward creating an opportunity to immediately flee. Self-defense skills should empower you to intervene against a harasser using non-violent verbal methods, while retaining the ability to get physical as a last resort and then safely escape. Unfortunately, many self-defense instructors teach unrealistic, overly-complicated fighting techniques that cannot be performed easily under stress, and then encourage an overly confident if not belligerent mentality given that the techniques themselves are ineffective. Some of them also verge on victim blaming by emphasizing “what you should have done.” Self-defense training is definitely a case of “buyer beware.” Look for a program that emphasizes a broad range of skills and treats fighting as a simple set of skills for the purpose of escape.
Martial arts can provide you with the physical skills you need to fight in your own defense or the defense of others. The most popular and widely-available martial arts include Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, Kung Fu, Taekwondo, Capoeira, Eskrima and Krav Maga along with combat sports such as boxing, wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts. These are all very different disciplines, designed for different purposes and using different training methodologies. If you want to take a class in your local area, you should consider your own security needs (the most likely threats you face) and physical capabilities, then select from the classes that are available to you. The following guide is based on my 19 years of experience training in several different arts as well as my experiences in real life. Some of these comments may sound critical toward one art or another, but they are not meant to be disrespectful. An art may be beautiful, rewarding, philosophically sophisticated and well-worth practicing in every way without necessarily being appropriate for real encounters in the modern world.
Muay Thai: a kickboxing sport from Thailand. Muay Thai techniques are designed to knock an opponent unconscious or otherwise render them incapable of continuing through powerful strikes with the fists, feet and elbows. This art is realistic and effective, but may work best for someone with a high level of physical fitness and few restrictions on mobility.
Brazilian Jiu-jitsu: a grappling art from Brazil. This is usually considered the gold standard for grappling arts. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is based on “groundfighting,” or grappling once you are already on the ground rather than in a stand-up fight. Some BJJ schools teach that 90% of fights end up on the ground anyway, which is not quite accurate. It can be a bad idea to bring a fight to the ground if you are under attack from more than one person, because the other attackers can hurt you while you are down on the ground grappling with their friend. However, BJJ techniques were specifically designed to enable a smaller, weaker person to prevail over a larger, stronger person through the intelligent use of leverage. If you are not physically large enough to use punches and kicks effectively, BJJ can give you the tools to defend yourself regardless. Judo and Japanese Jujutsu teach similar skills.
Mixed Martial Arts: MMA is a sport-oriented combination of elements from Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing and wrestling. Many people are put off by the brutality of professional MMA competition, but for realistic self-defense purposes it would be hard to beat this curriculum.
Karate: Karate is an art from Okinawa, which is currently a part of Japan. There are many different styles of karate, and they are not all equally useful for self-defense purposes. All styles of karate are striking and kicking arts, but some emphasize solo forms practice or “kata” while others emphasize no-contact or low-contact sparring, board-breaking or full-contact sparring. Kata practice is intended for in-depth physical study of the classical Okinawan fighting techniques, but because it is solo practice it does not effectively teach the control of distance – which is the most fundamental point in a real fight. (This is not to say that kata training is not worthwhile, only that it doesn’t teach fighting skill unless combined with fighting practice.) No-contact and low-contact sparring do teach the control of distance, but the absence of hard contact prevents the fighter from getting accustomed to the pain, speed and intensity of a real encounter. Breaking boards is for public display, and has no relevance to real fighting. Karate styles based on hard-contact sparring are the most effective in terms of realism, but the macho atmosphere of many karate studios may be off-putting. Beware of “McDojos” teaching watered-down and ineffective versions of this art.
Taekwondo: Most of the comments about karate apply equally to Taekwondo, with the additional concern that the sport of Taekwondo emphasizes high kicking to an unrealistic degree. A high kick can knock an opponent out instantly, but it can also put you off-balance and leave you vulnerable to a throw or takedown. Taekwondo can be effective if you keep these points in mind.
Kung Fu: Kung Fu is a generic term for Chinese Martial Arts, including hundreds of different styles. Kung Fu is an endlessly fascinating topic with great depth and spirituality, but most styles of Kung Fu were designed and used in a very different context from the threats you may face today. Just to give one example, knowing how to use Baguazhang’s giant broadsword might have been very practical for a 19th century caravan guard, but it’s not so useful for a modern person being jumped on the street by a gang of bigots! Styles of Kung Fu that do emphasize realistic modern fighting skills include Sanda/Sanshou (Chinese kickboxing), Wing Chun (a kind of bare-knuckle boxing style) and Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee’s creation). Tai Chi – a popular style of Kung Fu featuring slow movements in training – is not a realistic option for self-defense with the exception of a very small number of schools that teach it as a fighting art. Many Tai Chi practitioners assert that they can “turn an attacker’s force against him” without any practical fighting training, solely due to the art’s superior movement principles. (Instructors of Japanese Aikido sometimes make similar claims.) To put it bluntly, this is not reality. Arts of this type can be effective for self-defense, but only when taught with a fighting orientation.
Krav Maga: This art is not likely to appeal to most political radicals due to its association with the Israeli Defense Forces. However, it is one of the few arts to strongly emphasize self-defense against random attacks using improvised weapons, and it was originally developed by Jewish anti-fascists in 1930s Czechoslovakia.
Capoeira: This is a unique striking and kicking art from Brazil, usually performed to music in a dance-like way. Capoeira’s techniques include cartwheels and handstands, giving it a much different look and feel from arts like Muay Thai or Karate. This art is likely to be highly appealing to radical pagans for two reasons: it was invented by slaves fighting back against oppression, and it has deep historical links with Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomble. However, it takes many years of training to be able to use Capoeira effectively for self-defense purposes. For this reason, if you are interested in Capoeira I would suggest studying a more direct and simplistic art at the same time so that you develop the skills that will keep you safe.
Eskrima: Eskrima, Kali and Arnis are generic terms for the martial arts of the Philippines. Like Kung Fu, there are many different styles. However, most Filipino arts emphasize the use of weapons such as the stick or knife. They can be useful if you carry a walking stick and want to know how to use it for self-defense, or if you are actively involved in militant anti-fascist activities.
HEMA: Historical European Martial Arts, including historical weapon arts such as longsword and broadsword fencing, historical wrestling arts such as Ringen and more recent arts such as La Canne (French stick-fighting), Bartitsu (Edwardian-era self-defense skills) and so on. Many fascist groups have expressed an interest in these arts because they see them as “white martial arts,” despite the fact that Black fighters are clearly shown in some of the medieval German manuals, or that La Canne and Bartitsu instructors openly allied with the radical Suffragettes to defend protest meetings in the early 20th century. Like Eskrima, most HEMA styles involve the use of weapons. FAR (Fighters Against Racism) includes several prominent HEMA instructors.
Combatives: Combatives are simplified fighting styles taught without the cultural elements of traditional martial arts or the competitive aspect of combat sports. They began as forms of military training, so they were designed to provide realistic (and often extremely brutal) fighting skills that could be applied easily under pressure. Most Combatives are based on old training manuals from World War II or before, but some are newer systems. Although most of the surviving Combatives manuals are of military origin, skills of this type were also practiced by partisans and resistance fighters for the simple reason that they are effective and easy to learn. Definitely not for the squeamish.
The Fight Back Collective
Training in a martial arts studio may not be ideal for people who already feel vulnerable and threatened by the resurgence of the Far Right. Martial artists of all political persuasions can be found, but in general martial arts culture skews to the Right and martial artists tend to idealize concepts like strength, courage and “warrior honor” that can have fascistic overtones.. Many martial arts schools are run according to strict hierarchical ranking structures, and some instructors expect to be treated with extreme deference. Some abuse their position in various ways. If you want to study martial arts, look for a school that is openly inclusive and welcoming to all different types of people and that does not encourage macho posturing.
If you’d rather avoid these potential issues entirely, another option is to train with a few friends using freely-available information in a non-hierarchical context. You can focus on whichever aspects of training best fit your needs, and grow in skill together without worrying about ranks, tests, money or competition.
To help people do this, I have created a group called the Fight Back Collective. The FBC is a place where people can come for information that will allow them to train alone (if necessary) or in a small group (ideally) without any formal instructors or hierarchy. Anyone who has useful information can share it freely, and bigotry, posturing or intolerance of any kind will not be tolerated. I’ll be providing useful information and training tips for free to anyone who needs it, and I invite other experienced martial arts instructors to do the same. If you can travel to see me or help me get to you somehow, I am also available for free in-person training. I’m sharing this information to be of assistance to you, but I will not be anyone’s “sensei.” If you have something useful to share with me, I’m just as happy to learn as to teach.
The Fight Back Collective is meant to be as inclusive as possible, so if our material is not working for you in that respect then we will do whatever we can to create material that meets your needs.
The fact that so many people are thinking about the need for self-defense shows that these are dark times indeed. Most of us would far prefer to live in peace and many find even the idea of fighting to be repellent. However, the threat is real and we must respond to it somehow. For those who choose to respond by learning how to fight, the Fight Back Collective is meant to provide an alternative.
No ranks, no hierarchy, no nonsense. Just fighting back in solidarity!
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword. Thompson lives with his family in Portland, Maine.