Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Warriors and Princesses

Came across this great post on FaceBook today - which reminded me of sitting in the audience of my niece's dance recital a month or so ago. She'd done karate for about a year - about the same amount of time she'd been dancing - but dance was starting to become her main focus, which is cool because she really seemed to have a passion for it. "She liked karate, but didn't like karate," her mom told me after she stopped coming to the dojo. Since dancing doesn't require punching, blocking and kicking while learning new footwork and movements, I totally understood. Truth was, she didn't really want to be on the mat all that much anyway.

But during the recital, there was one young girl who didn't seem to want to be on stage at all. About a full foot taller than the rest of the dancers in her group, she was a little thicker than the other girls as well. It's not that she didn't have any grace at all, but her body moved and her face looked as if she wanted to be anywhere but in a glittery pink costume and ballet shoes.

My cousin leaned over and told me that the girl's parents made her participate as a way to stay active and lose weight. I felt so very badly for her! But sadly, I've seen similar movements and that very same look in the dojo as well.

We had a student once who was also taller than everyone else in her age/ability group, including the boys. Her guardian grandparents thought it a good idea to put her in karate to "burn some calories." She had one of the absolute heaviest reverse punches I've ever been hit with (seriously!) as well as a natural affinity for stances, but she never seemed to be into karate all that much. Once she turned 12, nail polish, secret crushes and sleep overs with her besties moved to the top of her priority list which forced karate to take a back seat. She was training only because her grandparents wanted her to.

I can't really fault anyone for starting karate for the great workout (it is the reason I initially stepped onto the mat, truthfully), but it can be an issue, I think, if that's the ONLY reason you're there. Let's face it - not every class will have push-ups/sit-ups/jumping-jacks that make you sweat buckets. If your goal is to get the ol' heart-rate up and keep it there for two hours, kihon and kata may prove to be the things that force you right out of a gi and right into the spinning class down the street.

But maybe the real issue when it comes to the younger set being in gi (or soccer cleats or gymnastic tights or running shoes) has to do with the reason they suit up to begin with. Perhaps some of them are there because something is wrong with their bodies. Or because they or someone close to them thinks there is something wrong with their bodies Those feelings aren't innate - they are learned.

Maybe, instead of telling the girls they are "pretty," "cute" or "hot" we should be telling them they are "kind," "courageous" and "brilliant." Maybe compliments to the women in our lives should be no more about what they look like than they would be to the men in our lives. Maybe everything - even physical stuff done in the dojo - doesn't need a gender role or identifier attached to it.

Last weekend during class, one of my training partners told a 12-year-old greenbelt that the self-defense technique she was working on wasn't really working. What he meant was "I don't see any fire or umph in it." What he said was "It looks too 'girly'." And, yes, I interrupted, telling her the technique, as she'd just completed it, had no GRRRRR. Then I told everyone within earshot (read: the rest of the class) that "girly" was condescending to women because it just isn't possible to degrade something by calling it overly feminine without attacking all that is feminine in the room, which simply ain't fair.

The words we use are important, whether we are critiquing a kata, a child's toy or the color of a vehicle, so it's important to use them in ways that are conducive to all who hear them, IMHO. Even when the bite isn't intentional, it doesn't hurt any less.

Stepping off my soapbox now...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Self-Defense: The Death of Trayvon Martin

The verdict is in: George Zimmerman was found not guilty last night for the death of Trayvon Martin, a  Black teen who Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman,  admitted he shot one rainy February 2012 night in a gated Florida community as Trayvon walked from a local 7-11 back to the townhome he was staying in with his father. Trayvon had turned 17 only three weeks before. Even though Zimmerman got out of his vehicle to find Trayvon after he took off running through the complex, his defense centered around self-defense, claiming that Trayvon confronted then sucker-punched him, broke his nose and slammed his head onto the concrete, causing him to fear for his life and shoot Trayvon through the heart.

For the record, I think it's a shame that a young man is dead and his shooter will not be held responsible for that. But, as thinking about how poorly the case was tried from an evidence perspective makes me horribly upset (really, the prosecution did a pathetically piss-poor job), I'm doing my best to understand this tragedy from a self-defense perspective.

When I teach self-defense workshops, I take my students through the basic tenants for staying out of the fray - awareness, avoidance, de-escalation and a noisy escape - each based on the assumption that the tenant before it was ineffective or simply not enough. When detailing and describing them to my female students, I always remember an adage I leaned from one of my senseis when I was just a white belt:
Avoid before block.
Block before injure.
Injure before maim.
Maim before kill.
Kill before die.
For all life is precious. 


In other words, there are steps you must take to not only keep from ending up needing to defend yourself, but also to stay out of the nonsense for as long as possible - and that is exactly how I explain those four tenants to my workshop participants.

Based on the reports Zimmerman gave Sanford police during his initial interviews, he was certainly aware that Trayvon was in his neighborhood, looking "suspicious" by walking slowly, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and actually turning to look toward Zimmerman when he seemingly became aware that he was being followed by a strange man in an SUV. But because Zimmerman said he got out of the car to find the "suspect" when Trayvon ran and disappeared, there isn't much in the way to suggest that Zimmerman's goal was avoidance. 

Zimmerman also told police that he thought Trayvon doubled back to confront him (according to Trayvon's friend, Rachel Jeantel, with whom he was on the phone with while walking, she heard Trayvon say "Get off!" moments before the phone went dead). Zimmerman did not tell Trayvon he was a community watchman, nor did he ask Trayvon if he was lost or needed assistance. If he made any other attempts to verbally de-escalate the situation, he did not mention them to the police. Zimmerman claims he was unable to escape because Trayvon knocked him to the ground, straddled him and slammed his head on the sidewalk concrete repeatedly (although Trayvon's body was found in the grass at least 20-ft. away from the sidewalk and at least one eye-witness reported seeing  Zimmerman on top of Trayvon shortly after the shooting - but I digress). Folks living nearby who called 911 to report the disturbance said they heard someone screaming for help and in one recorded call, screams that stop immediately after the single gunshot rang out can be heard in the background. Forensic experts and family members of Trayvon and Zimmerman all disagreed on which of the two could be heard screaming. 

As far as Trayvon goes, he apparently was aware that he was being followed because his friend, Rachel, testified that he told her that he was. She said she told him to run and he did. Whether Trayvon came to Zimmerman or Zimmerman approached him is not clear (Zimmerman's account via videotaped interview from the scene two days after the shooting was inconsistent to say the least), but Zimmerman said that Trayvon asked him why he was following him. A physical confrontation followed and although forensic evidence showed no blood or other DNA of Zimmerman's on Trayvon's hands or clothing at all, Trayvon was shot at virtually point-blank range.

So what went wrong? Many say Trayvon should have just run home after he initially got away from Zimmerman. I don't happen to be totally sure that he didn't try as the evidence doesn't (or can't, since the only person who could have told about that part is unable to share it) show that he could have gotten turned around in the dark or decided to just lay low until the threat disappeared. 

But for me, the real question is this: If Trayvon had an obligation to get away, why didn't Zimmerman as well? How come he wasn't expected to "just go home"? Making Trayvon the one at fault because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time strikes me as so wrong on so many levels. That any Black teen should be thought suspicious for simply walking home is the real tragedy. Or at least, it should be.

Of course a guilty verdict yesterday would not have brought Trayvon back. It would not have ended his parents' pain, stopped Black moms like me from sudden urges to give our sons safety instructions for walking down neighborhood streets, and it certainly wouldn't have washed away comparisons of this tragedy to those of Emmett Till, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Eleanor Bumpurs and so many others, but it might have demonstrated to the world that you can't just shoot an unarmed Black kid through the heart and walk away scott-free. 

I hope there won't ever be a next time, but because I remember that it was 46 days after Trayvon's death before Zimmerman was even arrested, I'm of the mindset that there unfortunately may be. 

And when there is, I'll pray that it won't take so long to try to hold the person who pulled the trigger accountable. I'll pray that insane laws suggesting that being able to legally meet perceived threats with deadly force is forever banned in every US state and territory.

Until then, I'll pray that people start to "get it" and understand that deciding whether or not someone is a threat should not simply default to prejudices and erroneous assumptions about skin color. 

What are your feelings about the shooting, the trial and the verdict? Do they leave you with the same feelings of sadness and disgust as they do me? Please feel free to disagree with what I've outlined - just be aware of how you express that disagreement as I reserve the right to refuse to delete any comments that are blatantly disrespectful or argumentative. 

This is a very sensitive subject for me. Thanks for your understanding...