The Anti-Racist Shadow
One night in mid-February, my fiancée Antonieta laid in bed as I read her my recent story, “Rise of the Ninja: Everyone vs Racism” to her as a bedtime story. She is one of the many women in my life who were instrumental to our battle against racism. As a speech language pathologist, just not my speech language pathologist, Antonieta repeatedly interrupted me by putting her hand on my neck so I wouldn’t use my throat or something, or told me to slow down since having ADHD speeds up my speech a little too much for my own good when I have a lot to say, and I sure as hell had a lot to say.
“So babe, did you like part 1 or part 2 better?”
“Part 2 is better, it’s funnier!”
“Well the durian in the asshole was your idea… You had to make it a durian instead of a pineapple because we’re Asian.”
“You do realize you’re going to eventually write a sequel right?”
I wrote part 2 based on the suggestion of my former professor, Graciela Elizalde-Utnick. At the time, I thought it would be awhile until I had something to write. I was wrong. That being said, I was still skeptical of my fiance’s suggestion at the time.
“Another one? Seriously?”
“Yup, just like how I said you’ll be running DCC for the years to come. You’re going to write a part 3”
“We went from a fight club of five dudes, to training teams on the ground including a paramilitary squad on the other side of the country. You’re telling me it’s going to get crazier? Like what the fuck is next? Vigilantes?”
“Alright guys, time to practice the shit that got somebody to call the cops on my ass over an email”
There were no crickets, but Young-Jin sure as hell heard them on top of everyone else’s laughter as he wondered what the fuck he walked into on his first day.
Hi, I’m Hen! Before anybody calls the fucking cops again on some autistic immigrant kid who is trying to help people protect themselves or the vulnerable that get fucked up or killed multiple times a day because of their ethnicity for the last year, I just want to make it clear we are not vigilantes. We just happen to be Asian Americans who care about the safety of innocent people in a society that has pathologized our will to survive.
“You know what’s funny Jon? Antonieta says my own community will see me as an extremist”
“We do lead parallel lives after all, my sister said we’ll be seen as radicals”
“My classmate said that’s what we get for being people with empathy in a pseudo-Nazi society”
During the end of February, I attended the Winter College Roundtable at Teachers College. I generally listened. Occasionally, I shared where I came from before I answered their discussion prompt, since I wasn’t just another graduate student:
“My name is Henry Zhang, pronouns he/him/his. Nine years ago was a dark time in my life where martial arts saved my life. I’m a third-year doctoral student in School Psychology today. I’m Chinese-American, which means that although the country just heard about it, people like my family have been walking targets since last year. I don’t consider what I do activism, but other people do. I’ve come to realize that many, including those in my own community, consider our methods and ideas rather extreme. Since April 2020, I’ve volunteered to train those around me to defend themselves against violent racism. This was a covert initiative until six months later when I became amongst the first to be outspoken against anti-Asian racism until mainstream media broke the silence. This weekend, ten of our members are in the streets, protecting those who cannot defend themselves the way that we can, because that is my club’s mantra: Survive, Help Others Survive, Protect the Weak, Empower Them, Become the Solution, That is the Way.”
I left how our initiative started from a joke named “Darth Brazzers Death Squad” and a suggestion from one of my coaches that went way further than anybody anticipated. I spent every day training other people how to avoid violence, engage in violence via some rigorous Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) training, and also commit some “horrific” shit that would only be appropriate for saving a life. In case you’re wondering who thought the shit we taught other people was horrific, it wasn’t me:
“What the FUCK Henry? Is THIS what you’ve been teaching my friends?”
“Honey, it’s 2020 and we’re Asian, do the math”
I made this sacrifice on top of being a doctoral student in psychology, a neuropsych extern, a tech entrepreneur and someone taking care of my mom who has been undergoing chemotherapy because I still have no other way to protect vulnerable individuals from violent racism.
Before the pandemic and my mom’s condition forced my training to become remote, I was a longtime hobbyist that happened to be trained by some of the best including Chad Vazquez, Gene Kobilansky and Brandon Levi.
In no ways did I consider myself a professional or martial arts expert. It’s just that racism had gotten so violent that people just concluded this was the most ethical option as long as I was honest about my limitations.
I spent many years training Thai Boxing and shooting instructional videos. Yet, I had only competed in wrestling and submission grappling, which was my forte at the time. Given the nature of remote training and the fact that I was training myself and others for survival rather than a grappling competition, I had to quickly develop my striking (both offense and defense) to effectively set up my takedowns and to properly model what others needed to survive.
During April 2020, I was an out of shape grappler with heavy hands who could barely lift my legs. By September 2020, I was 30 lbs leaner than when I started. While takedowns remained my primary weapon for unarmed combat, my daily training and new body finally allowed me to strike fluidly from all eight limbs. One of our heroes said that my striking was like night and day.
That hero was Brian Kemsley, one of my Thai Boxing coaches. To our club, he introduced VR training so we could develop the skills to respond in real time, even over the internet. This turned my club’s training into a bootleg version of the Matrix, creating the second version of DCC. On a summer day, he would graciously make time to virtually beat the shit out of all of us in the virtual world he created.
To the rest of the world, he was the guy who saved a child from being kidnapped from his mother by restraining the kidnapper. He casually brushed aside any claims he was a hero and stated he believed that the bar on how everyday people respond simply needs to be higher. This would be another one of many things he did that would come full circle into my life later on.
Unfortunately, racism had gotten so violent that I realized it was irresponsible to have a conversation about self-defense without weapons. I began to learn Pekiti-Tirsia Kali from instructors such as Simon Burgess and Logan Lo. Every now and then, I doused myself in thai liniment oil so that the soreness from training would not distract me while attending classes in a graduate school that pretended I did not live in a violently racist world.
To ensure I carried out my responsibilities appropriately (given my limitations), I also continued my (remote) training in Kickboxing from Vinny Panza as well as weapons and tactics from Conrad Bui. With Conrad, I heard many nuggets of wisdom I would repeat when I ran my training sessions (just like that I did with Kru Brandon’s sex jokes). Vinny’s class was accompanied by a lot of fascinating commentary about exercise science, motivation and about a time in history when New York City tourists received a pamphlet called “’Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York”.
Logan Lo publicly shanks my MMA coach Chad Vazquez with a pen for the purposes for science (i.e., to break down a scene from Jason Bourne, explaining how he would have used the pen more efficiently and concepts such as exploiting angles to attack the opponent’s backside. As he would often say in the videos “If I get an angle on my opponent, whether it’s grappling or weapons, I own him.”) Logan and Chad were the dynamic duo of Scenic Fights with the former analyzing weapons work in fight scenes and the latter analyzing the use of MMA techniques in fight scenes.
In addition to regular rigorous training to become proficient with basic martial arts (that made beginners tell they had trouble walking the next day), all members were now expected be capable of educating those around them and also carry a minimum of two force multiplier tools: a tactical flashlight and a pen (or any stabbing instrument appropriate for one’s line of work). Carrying anything else was context dependent and at their own risk.
My criteria for what people needed to train was considered rather extreme compared to what others would qualify as self-defense. I half jokingly told everyone that heavy hands were a required part of our religion. However, I believed this was the sacrifice that I believed the typical person needed to make to survive this violently racist the world.
Coach Vinny was another one of my instructors who made a guest appearance in DCC to virtually beat the shit out of us.
Of course, I was not going to train anybody since I was doing this on my own time. For that reason, and because I wanted to make sure I was only training the right people, our club was invite-only. In contrast, Coach Vinny’s classes were open to the public even though it was donation based. His generosity always struck me and when I brought it up, he would casually brush it off saying “Well I think this type of training should be accessible to everyone.”
Martial arts saved my own life during a very difficult time and this was one of the reasons I ran my initiative but I could not see myself going that far. Nevertheless, I had occasionally demonstrated our training to the public via fundraisers.
The first fundraiser was in May 2020 to honor the passing of our club’s co-founder: Ray Long, something suggested by my best friend Lizzie who figured a way to help us heal when she noticed I was still awake at an unusual time.
At the time, the rest of the world saw us as people doing something with exercise and the memorial led to thousands of dollars being donated to mental health and animal rescue initiatives. In fact, many of my own club members had no idea I had any plans beyond providing basic combat sports training until the first presidential debate in 2020 when I explicitly verbalized that combat sports was merely the foundation for what I planned for us all along.
I met Lizzie during my Master’s program in Brooklyn College from 2013-2016. We lived near each other. When her dad could not drive me home, I took her home. During those years, I safeguarded her from physical dangers while she protected me from non-physical dangers (many times they involved making sure I did not do things that would unintentionally piss people off or get me suspended/fired since I had still been figuring out how to manage being autistic at the time).
In addition to my social skills, she also taught me about the sense of danger women constantly faced when alone that men were typically oblivious to. On another night that I walked her home, she told me to observe the difference in the way people looked at her when I was near her and when I was not. While I did not have to physically step in this time, I was a little disturbed at what I saw and realized all those times Antonieta confirmed whether I walked Lizzie to the door and vice versa was not merely a formality.
I began to realize the lengths people like her went for a possible sense of safety that too many remained oblivious to.
As an Argentinian American and Chinese American respectively, we taught each other the basics of our native language and our foods. I would say only the latter really stuck with her since she has no recollection of how to any Cantonese other than “ka fe” and “hut yee.”
When we graduated, I took a school psychologist position that focused on assessments since that leveraged my autistic splinter skills while she took a school psychologist position that focused on supporting children with emotional disturbance or children on the autism spectrum. Even as our professional paths diverged, we stayed in touch. She helped me become open about being on the spectrum, running my business, planning my surprise engagement with Antonieta and the fundraisers even though getting her to train was pulling teeth. I designed tech to make her job less difficult and at her request, brought Coach Gene to her school’s career fair to literally show them what wrestling was.
During the earlier days of DCC, Lizzie suggested that I open training to the public or more people, which I brushed off like I did with her idea of being open about being autistic back in the day. She was also the brains behind an important infographic that opened many peoples’ eyes to anti-Asian racism.
“Lizzie, you didn’t know it was this bad all this time?”
“I really wish you told me how you felt! You never told me…”
I really didn’t tell anyone. For eight months, I really thought people knew, until I told my other friend Radwa who became horrified, followed by the rest of our schoolmates.
“Henry, let’s look at the infographic we’re making, I think you want to put an icon about a fire, just because people will be like what? Somebody got set on fire because they’re Asian?! Make them wonder “They Can’t Burn Us All? Who are they burning?!””
From October 2020 to 2021 February, beginning with a speech I made at my school revealing the existence of violent anti-Asian racism (that targeted mainly women and elderly) and the Darth Brazzers’ Death Squad, uhh I mean….Dragon Combat Club (DCC), I was an outspoken advocate against the erasure of violent anti-Asian hate crimes on top of my responsibilities until mainstream media broke its silence.
There was a significant mental toll of being amongst the few to use my voice against anti-Asian racism in a manner that respected the struggles of other groups (such as my Black American friends who validated my struggles when people who looked like me gaslit us under the guise of speaking up for Black people). That was the sacrifice I needed to make to fight for our humanity.
“I’ve felt this pain in my stomach all week after making my speech”
“Welcome to the racial trauma club Henry”
In late 2020, we learned about an organization that served the marginalized communities called Center of Anti-Violence Education (CAE) when they outreached to the Asian American community in light of the attacks by distributing bilingual self-defense booklets. Upon reading the booklet, I was impressed by their kindness and their verbal de-escalation strategies.
Their methods were leagues above merely telling people that if they are female they should use pepper spray, groin kick and run. However, I was rather alarmed about the absence of certain critical details in their physical defense strategies that I had drilled into my trainees ad nauseum to maximize their probability of survival.
I took a deep breath, reflected on what Lizzie taught me during my younger years and addressed my concerns in a more productive way: making my own instructional videos on how my club did things and reaching out to offer to train up to two of their instructors.
Upon training and getting to know Lorraine (one of their teachers), we would adapt some of their methods for avoiding violence while while Lorraine in our more violent yet nuanced methods hoping that the skills she gained would help her as well as those that she served. Lorraine would become one of the many women with no prior training or competitive aspirations that internalized the basics of our system.
Through running my club and spreading our story about how far the will to protect those around you can take you, I realized that I was not alone in my beliefs. I was shocked at the praise my actions received from my professors, including Dr. Boyd-Franklin who I really looked up to. People in our graduate program saw her as a one-woman army for leading efforts against anti-racism and were concerned about what would happen after she retired. Some schoolmates half jokingly referred to me as “the anti-racist ninja.”
Jon, an engineer (who I erroneously called a science teacher in my last story) and friend of our late co-founder who had spent as much time training weapon based martial arts (including Kali and Silat) and tactics as I had been training MMA joined our cause. My first story led him to join our club and gain the motivation to train again. We trained each other as well as those around us in our respective specialties.
In addition, some of Ray’s former training partners from his home gym including Rich and Karoline joined our community. I was also reunited with a friend named Sean from decades ago who also became an engineer and shared my own struggles with fighting for multiple marginalized groups simultaneously in a society that pits them against each other. Sales for my tech startup went up when my customers found out what the money was going towards and told me they were now purchasing these upgrades out of convenience rather than need. They were also checked in to see how I was doing mentally.
Our story led to people realizing what should have been common sense all along as well as some fun ideas:
“So my friend read your story and he was like I want to buy a “Violent Problems Require Violent Solutions” shirt”
“I got you bro, let me talk to my buddy Drew. We might even make a rashguard”
“O and any way we can low key sneak in “HenTaijutsu” on there?”
Jon and I would combine what we had learned over our martial arts journey into creating the Next-Generation Ninja through the fourth version of DCC.
By February 2021, Anti-Asian American bloodshed got to the point where hundreds of volunteers (many with no prior combat training) decided to take the safety of vulnerable Asian Americans into their own hands. Our club did our part through extending that same offer of training two members to volunteer patrol teams in NYC as the other side of the country:
“Greetings and solidarity from New York City: where the burn of “They Can’t Burn Us All” comes from. We don’t have it as bad as you folks do in the Bay Area, but it did get to a point where our solution to violent racism included ninja. Our doors are open to two members of your team.”
We typically held all levels training on weekends and reserved weekdays for experienced practitioners who could benefit from the high-paced training that we referred to as “D Squad.” This was a reference to our original name and because I felt rather insulted that neckbeards stormed Washington DC to terrorize marginalized communities called themselves a Death Squad even though they looked like the only death they would inflict without a force multiplier tool would be via their own physical health.
There was one problem with DCC’s schedule, a lot of the protests and patrols were happening on weekends, so our club instituted a new change: The “All Hands On Deck” Protocol. We would maintain our high pace of training on weekdays but accommodated any newcomers, particularly volunteer patrols since they would be risking their life the upcoming weekend and there was no guarantee people would not be in the hospital or morgue by then.
When the country finally acknowledged what we went through, it was time to retire my voice and return to the shadows to possibly maintain my energy and my sanity. After all, if Megacorporations and the rest of society finally began to pretend they gave a fuck, awareness was no longer the problem.
“Haha. O my god. Why is there a Chinese background?”
“I must say, President Biden got the uhh…Kente Cloth energy going for him”
“You know there are other Asian cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year”
“At least he’s trying”
“I am relieved that we have somebody with common sense that actually straight up condemns hate crimes which is WAY better than what Boba Liberals have done, such a low bar though”
“HUGE upgrade from that Golden Headed Monkey we had the last four years, not saying much either.”
After a long struggle of finally turning a street war against our humanity into a trending hashtag.
“Hen Hen, I’m going to be in a town hall for my company’s ethnicity group to discuss recent anti-Asian sentiment. I’m on the panel for what we can do outside of just speaking up, so I told them about D Squad.”
“Seriously Rich? You told your company you’re part of the Darth Brazzers Death Squad?”
“No! It was a professional meeting. I had to keep that shit PG-13. Thing is, I wanted to highlight what you’re doing. I want to get the word out that you with you as an example, we could do more”
“Thanks brother. That means a lot coming from you. You’re the one on the ground.”
However, two problems remained.
First, Anti-Asian violence continued to worsen. We still saw multiple violent attacks each day on our feeds (mainly in the NYC and Bay Area). This included footage where an Asian American was fatally stabbed from behind by a man with an 8 inch knife who later turned himself into the police and claimed the man looked at him funny. The police initially stated it was not a hate crime until they realized this was not the assailant’s first anti-Asian hate crime.
While all the new infographics on anti-Asian racism and bystander intervention are helpful in many contexts, they were juxtaposed with footage of an Asian man trying to intervene against an attack who would get pushed against the wall and stabbed by multiple individuals (a scenario that would likely kill any of our clubs’ top practitioners, let alone the average individual).
People messaged me hoping we had countermeasures against knife attacks not because they had plans to join us but because they were concerned about us. Just like with unarmed and blunt weapon attacks, the answer wasn’t no. At the same time, the responsible answer was never just yes.
Back in 2019, having basic MMA training alone was overkill for self-defense. In 2021, I told trainees that violent racism was so bad that if one were sharp enough to avoid violence, engage in daily MMA training and weapons practice as we did in our club, that they only might survive with this level of preparation.
Second, there were still too few of us who actually gave a fuck.
You had the usual White Americans from the death cult decrying companies for pandering to politics when politics was the reason the bloodshed was silenced for a whole year.
Boba liberals, including those who believed that my methods were extreme/unnecessary had more concerns that my first story entailed a man (me) forcing a woman (my fiancee) to do something (train) than the fact that she had been a victim of a hate attack and that people were literally getting the fuck beaten out of them or killed for their race on a daily basis) finally sang a new tune.
Yet, in many ways it was still the same tune. They only suggested ideas that would take years to figure out how to implement (and even longer to implement). MSNBC Asian America questioned whether there actually were a significant amount of hate crimes and warned that calling them hate crimes would demonize other marginalized groups. Much like how it was my Black training partners from my home gym who gave me empathy and encouraged me to continue what I was doing to “protect the weak”, it was the schoolmates from those same groups that ended up taking action in my school to make changes to support the Asian community and seemed to understand what we had been going through.
“I want to acknowledge how horrible it is that it’s been almost a year until the country stopped being silent”
“Wow…I did purchase my first force multiplier tool about a year ago…”
That tool was the tactical flashlight I purchased in the event my 10 years of (on and off) MMA training was insufficient for dealing with hate attacks. At that time, I had no idea that the violent racism would lead me on a journey that included acquiring more force multiplier tools, learning a new martial art and running a group named after my late best friend that has trained over fifty individuals.
“That means that when the George Floyd murder happened, your community had already suffered in silence for three months”
“And I’ve seen those attackers, they also include BIPOC, like us, which by the way, I don’t stand for no matter who does the hate crime”
“I’m pretty certain about that”
“Yet you still found it in your heart to speak up and be there for us”
I was shocked that anyone gave me credit for doing the fucking obvious, especially since I missed the first of two meetings my school held to address anti-Black racism due to a headache that probably came from coping with the loss of Ray Long.
“Can’t say it was easy, had to introduce some interesting new methods, and find some…novel sources of inspiration. At the end of the day, every group has their share of fucking imbeciles, but it doesn’t change the fact that your humanity is not up for debate, and that the only right thing to do, isn’t the convenient choice.”
To add fuel to the fire, the murder of Vicha that had me mentally fucked up in the beginning of February was referred to as a “temper tantrum” by a DA.
Boba liberals that finally said something kept talking about “white supremacy” as if it was another person’s problem, expecting us to forget that white supremacy was the same reason they told us to shut the fuck the up for an entire year. The fucked up part was not that this would create new problems, but that it would perpetuate the same fucking problems last year including anti-Black sentiment from people who were rightfully angry but seem to have never gotten the memo that hatred does not actually protect people.
I heard from community “leaders” that were supposed to represent us claim that “We get angry when something happens to one of us, but we need to be vocal when something happens to another group.”
One assemblyman who looked like one of us derided They Can’t Burn Us All as merely a movement of young, angry youth who wanted to project their toughness and masculinity despite the work that many including Will did such as helping Warnock and Osoff in Georgia.
Why the fuck was anyone, let alone hundreds of people, watching a meeting of imbeciles mentally jack themselves in the middle of a violent pandemic for social credit when you can physically do that shit yourself for actual stress relief? At least it wouldn’t perpetuate the cycle of hate that erased the solidarity that actual community leaders tried to build.
Thankfully, the meeting was not a complete waste of time. One of the few people in that meeting who did not need to be fucked in the ass with a durian was a gentleman named Rej, one of the leaders of CAE. Like me, he was a fellow martial artist who trained for the last decade that wanted people to be safe. I had learned in the last year that in this fucked up world we live in that the will to protect others alone generally puts you above most people.
“I found these when shopping, looks like we just gotta find some assholes”
“We’re joking right? Not sure if this is legal”
“Can you make this a mandatory part of our everyday carry?”
“Nah it’ll be like the buckler, something we reserve for uhh…special situations”
Thankfully, I had already detached myself from the conversation, just like I did last year. Not just for self-care, but also from a year’s worth of lessons that trying to change peoples’ minds over the internet was not going to protect anybody.
This time, I counted my blessings, including the moments of genuine solidarity, such as with the Oakland Brown Berets, a female-led Chicano American paramilitary group that were amongst the first to step up and protect the vulnerable before higher powers bothered to denounce it. As our way of supporting the fight, I had trained two of their brave volunteers: Karen P & Jill. From speaking with their leader, who referred to herself as “Chu Chu”, I learned that their bravery did not spare them from complications:
“I hope my story gave the Brown Berets and your community the representation it deserved. I’m sorry the last motherfucker in the oval office built his presidential campaign off of demonizing your community, so I figured this is the least I could do in return for you guys.”
“Thank you brother. The world needs more people like you. There’s a lot of people complaining but I don’t hear them stepping up. There’s not a lot of people other than us, and we need people in this community to step up too, because we don’t speak the Mandarin or Cantonese. So we’re just watching for problems but we don’t know how to ask them if they need help. We’re not even sure if they know we’re here to protect them.”
I was a little embarrassed that as a former Bilingual School Psychologist I didn’t even consider the language barrier. That being said, if Asian Americans weren’t running the other way, I’m sure they knew what the Brown Berets were there to do.
“So yeah we’re taking a break from patrol duty right now eating our lunch. I’m having Chinese.”
“Nice, what are you eating?”
The younger version of me during a more civilized time may have “suggested” something less basic, like that time I took Lizzie to a place known for pan fried noodles but she initially insisted on pork fried rice. However, since we were practically in a fucking war that took place during a pandemic, I figured that somebody’s palate (and possibly from what Lizzie taught me) was the least of anybody’s concern. In fact, I was grateful somebody came to support an Asian owned business in a time when imbeciles avoided Chinese businesses due fear of COVID (even though that somehow didn’t stop them from beating the shit out of us) and that a fellow fighter was enjoying her meal.
People have always asked me about self-care, it was even a discussion prompt at a workshop at Columbia University I discussed earlier.
“Even if I do step away, I’m still going to wonder if I trained my members sufficiently when they patrol. Innocent people who look like my family will still die. What happens when people have all this anger they don’t know how to redirect in a way that protects the people they love? We all talk about white supremacy being everywhere, so guess what direction it will go when that turns into hate? Obviously, towards my friends from other marginalized groups who have to deal with their own kind of racism. I enjoy a nice meal and a cup of tea like anyone else, but what has really given me solace is seeing results, whether it’s a person who couldn’t defend themselves throwing sharp punches, or an Asian American who realizes it’s okay to speak up as long as they do so out of concern for those they love.”
My self-care is different from the typical definition of self-care.
I relished in watching people with no prior training or aspirations to compete develop the basics of boxing, wrestling and weapon work.
I relished in empowering them to understand the growth mindset to endure the physical and mental obstacles of training: that who you were, who you are and who you will be are three different people.
Earlier that week, I heard many Asian American schoolmates finally speak their truth about how they were gaslit by the very people they expected support from. Many questioned whether their struggles were valid and if they were marginalized enough while simultaneously expressing fear of losing what they worked so hard to earn if they spoke up.
I expressed gratitude for their bravery and reminded them that our community had been so marginalized that it took an autistic dude who lived in a R-rated martial arts movie to get our school’s attention on anti-Asian racism.
On the surface, our club’s actions had empowered others. Deep down, we felt powerless. Katrina was a tiny (yet obviously fit) Filipina who joined us in the summer of 2020 to add our training to one of multiple workouts she engaged in and due to safety concerns. When the time came began, as per my vision, she began to educate one of her schoolmates who was scared about anti-Asian racism on how to avoid situations, what to carry and various methods of training. During this same week, Katrina apologized for wanting to bring up something that has been upsetting her in our group discussion. She initially framed it as if it had nothing to do with what we were doing.
Upon discussion we learned she was upset that while the country may have finally pretended to give a fuck, that very few people actually gave a fuck. Turns out that was the case for most of us. We opened the wounds on our traumas about how when we were younger and told our parents we were bullied, they told us to just deal with it.
In disclosing our pasts, I learned the shocking parallels between Jon’s journey and mine to get to where we were that night. Jon and I were bullied growing up. I grew up significantly overweight while on the spectrum. Jon was significantly underweight and also the only Asian American where he grew up. We turned to the people we thought would support us: our family.
When we expressed disdain for our circumstances, we were told about a day when things were significantly less humane. One of us was told to just suck it up and things would be okay, the other one was told that if we studied hard enough, the bullying would stop. When I told my mother about the incident (someone believing I had no future because I was autistic) that led to my downward spiral where martial arts saved my life, my mother did not acknowledge the horrific able-ism, but instead told me it was just someone that wanted the best for their daughter and that I should just work harder.
On the surface, we listened. I became a doctoral student in psychology after working as a school psychologist and Jon became an engineer. Deep down, we saw through their bullshit: I spent the last decade training combat sports while he trained in the weapon based arts. To us, that was the sacrifice it took to ensure our humanity.
“These are the names of my teachers I’ve had over the years”
“Holy shit you trained under Dan Inosanto?”
“Yeah, back when I lived in California”
“Who is Dan Inosanto?”
(There were no crickets that night, but I’m pretty sure Katrina heard them.)
“O boy…time to watch some videos”
“Yeah so we can reconnect Katrina with her uhhh…”
“People? Culture? Tanner, uhh..help? I’m trying to think of the right word!”
“Yeah me too”
“Found a video! Sharing screen”
Yet, the more things changed, the more things remained the same. Since Spring 2020, we watched vulnerable individuals who looked like our families get beaten, stabbed, set on fire and murdered. We turned to the people we thought would support us: the Asian Americans who were overtly vocal about their anti-racism. When we expressed disdain for our circumstances, we were told about the suffering of a more marginalized group who suffered even less humane circumstances than we did. We were told that if we examined our privilege and addressed our anti-Blackness hard enough, that the violence would stop.
Even when the country could no longer ignore the horrors, MSNBC Asian America questioned whether there was a violent hate crime or xenophobia problem, and speculated that it may merely be “crimes of opportunity.” On the surface, it may seem like we were listening because there was no point of arguing over the internet with someone whose head was up their rectum.
Deep down, we saw through their bullshit: we knew it fell on us to take action to fight for the humanity of innocent people who were targeted for their ethnicity. Jon and I realized we led parallel lives within a cycle that kept repeating itself, perpetuated by the people we looked up to. How did the people who sacrificed so much for their kids to have a better future and some of the most vocal participants for a Civil Rights movement last year end up being the villain in each others’ story, or our story? A
s I heard stories of some volunteers in the Bay Area having to literally dodge bullets when they tried to intervene, I reflected on what I heard from this keynote speaker who I had the honor of listening to at Columbia University:
“I tell my students to avoid writing characters as villains and victims in their story, but instead write imperfect people that become complicit in others’ struggles who think they are doing their best.” – Roxanne Gay
All those times people kept their heads down low as they saw the death of innocent people and their own integrity was what people who did not know better did to survive the fucked up world that they lived in.
They lived in a world they did not know the language to, a world where they knew the language but did not respect their humanity, a world that punished them with bullets, police visits, loss of job or other obscure methods of marginalization (including having their actions erroneously labeled as anti-Black) if they decided to step up for what was right.
They lived in a world where they did not have the luxury to process and reflect on not only what they did to themselves, but to those around them. This apathy and complacency, wasn’t written into law or explicitly taught, but it sure as hell was taught. This mentality that if it did not happen to them that it was not happening sure as hell was learned. Now innocent people continue to die because of it.
I reached out to Lizzie about my frustrations:
“Even my grandmother doesn’t want me to speak out anymore since the cops came to our house even though I’m doing this shit to protect her. I can’t even talk to them about it and I just tell Antonieta to explain that shit to my mom and grandma, and I’m lucky she does.”
“My team is feeling demoralized. We feel like extremists in the very community we are trying to protect. It’s like society has pathologized our will to survive. Why the fuck is it that other groups are more vocal about our survival than our own?!”
“Do you think some people don’t want to admit what’s happening because its’ too painful to realize you are hated for no reason? I went through that phase with being Hispanic years ago.”
“Model minority myth gone wrong.”
“For me, back when I realized being Mexican was not cool and was associated with the worst stereotypes. I couldn’t accept it and said this hate was just for Mexicans even though all Hispanics were targeted by the hate.”
“Fuck, I’d give you a big hug but we’re in a pandemic and this is the internet”
“I went years, more than a decade without telling a soul that I was half-Mexican”
“I’m really sorry you had to go through that shit. I wish you opened up to me earlier so you’d see how I still look up to you the same way.”
“Wait, I never told you I was half-Mexican?”
I was blown away how deep denial and shame could go, even in the best of us. It was not just within politicians and influencers like that student from Yale University that no Asian American will ever name their kid after for decades. It was not just for people who wanted to push political points for social clout under the guise of fighting racism when others were concerned that those around them were dying. It ran in the people who were convinced that apathy and denial was their way to survive, even in one of the brightest and empathetic people I knew, even in the people I love and look up to. It was what Lizzie believed she needed to do growing up as the only Latina growing up in her school hearing nonstop racist remarks about Mexicans. It was not just within the people who I saw as the villains in our struggle, but for the sheroes of my life.
“I don’t know anyone else of Mexican descent, it’s sad, it’s like that part of me is gone.”
“I know a few in Oakland. Maybe if you finally come to practice when they show up, I can reconnect you with your… um…yeah they’re awesome people!”
As I was still processing this revelation, Lizzie and I talked about how this administration still placed children in cages, brainstorming solutions to keep people safe and her opinion of our “Violent Problems Require Violent Solutions” slogan (in her case, it was probably to protect me from myself, again).
While our community’s view of us was mainly due to complacency and apathy, it was partially my doing. My Instagram training videos and our club’s catchy slogan did not always create the most holistic and accurate impression of what we did, particularly to many who never sat down to read my stories or have a conversation with us. For example, while Will expressed support for my work and was awesome enough to give me our club shout out during his IG Live, I had to explicitly explain to him and other people that our club also teaches and expects individuals to de-escalate and avoid violent confrontations first. This was not to stop him from calling the cops, but to explain why it was a good idea for our club to train his team.
By then, I lost count of all the conversations Jon and I had with our loved ones about this million dollar question:
“How do you protect and empower a group of people that generally doesn’t give a fuck about their own survival?”
In a club of martial arts practitioners including multiple doctoral students (including psychology), engineers, computer programmers with a track record for playing a role for fighting anti-Asian racism and promoting solidarity amongst minorities before it was cool, the only solution we had was to find and empower people to make racists afraid again. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same. There were still too few of us, it’s just that this time, I was no longer alone.
At that time, the Bay Area already had patrol teams, with some that we had a hand in training including the Oakland Brown Berets. New York City was still at its infancy when it came to these matters. We had a few members including Sean and Rich who did their thing in Chinatown. Will had been so busy with other activities that his Flushing team had yet to be formed. This was a problem when Asian elderly were getting shit beaten out of them on a near daily basis, including in Flushing. A scumbag shoved an Asian elderly woman onto the floor causing head injuries, only to be quickly caught and released with “misdemeanor” charges.
Without ever conversing with me, two women who dedicated their lives to training martial arts (mainly for film and performance) decided that the state would not protect us, so we would need to do that shit ourselves. Many other individuals would join them, including an ex-soldier with similar training background in our club, a film producer named Jay who had shot videos for my coaches Chad & Logan. By that weekend, we had a pair of members in multiple teams in both New York City and the Bay Area, including a newly formed team in Flushing.
These two brave women joined our club for their first combatives training. While they had much to learn, their hard earned attributes made it easier for them to pick up what we had to show.
That Saturday, I stopped teaching for the first time in awhile to spend time with my fiance as everyone, including Jon, was either protesting or patrolling or resting. As a former school psychologist who worked in Flushing, I would have joined that new Flushing team if my mom was not recovering from chemotherapy. Perhaps it was time to finally sit back and re-energize myself.
While there were a handful of martial arts practitioners on that team that were not in our club, Jon and I were slightly concerned. From our perspective, the martial arts that many practiced prioritized preserving traditions through complex and beautiful forms.
In contrast, the martial arts we practiced prioritized preserving our lives through weaponizing our minds and bodies first. Nevertheless, we figured that as long as our training philosophy and methodology slowly became normalized in that community and that they would do what they could to keep each other alive, we would have done our part. Unfortunately, it turned out that the same team I would have joined in person needed a lot more than just combat training.
“So I stalked those teams to see the kind of people we were supporting. They weren’t talking to the vendors, they weren’t looking around, they were just in their own chatter. None of them noticed that I was sneaking up to them all this time.”
“So basically, you could’ve stealth killed all of them yourself if you wanted to. Jesus fucking christ Jon, we went from living in a martial art movie to living in a ninja anime now.”
“How are we going to explain this to like…normal people? I think you’re better at this people stuff than I am Hen!”
“For fuck sake, you’re asking an autistic guy, but I guess I’ll just tell them if shit really happened then: Omae Wa Mou Shindeiru”
Just like our combat training, we realized we needed to install schemas to ensure survival, not just their own, but that of their community: from defining typical behavior to understanding atypical behavior, detecting possible weapons including imprints within clothing, communicating with store vendors to establish relationships within the community who would serve as sources of intel to simply using their eyes in a way that allows them to be aware of their environment.
We already knew how to develop reflexes against strikes and certain ranged takedowns using VR training. The cover system granted trainees some leeway against the rapid punches in the event they did not have the energy or sufficient reflexes to evade. While they could not use the same cover against the more heavy-hitting techniques including takedowns or knees, those movements were much easier to read. Despite such amenities, beginners still verbalized their horror stories on realizing that if this were real life, they would have been hospitalized by one of my flying knees or double leg takedowns. It was my responsibility to ensure they had no delusions of immortality while still maintaining the growth mindset: that who you were, who you are and who you will be are three different people. The latter was necessary to keep them from coming back due to the difficulty level and because first timers would end up walking funny the next day.
After Jon joined the team to help create version 4 of DCC, we also began VR training with weapons as well as scenarios where we began “unarmed” but somebody would deploy the tool out of nowhere. There was no cover system to fall back on and the hand strikes were equally fast except this time, each blow was potentially fatal. Needless to say, Jon virtually turned all of us into sashimi everyday when he was carrying an edged weapon, and gave virtually beating our meat a new meaning when he carried a blunt weapon. Thankfully dying in the Matrix did not apply to real life, because I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve died so far, let alone all the less experienced members of the club who had the responsibility of learning both the basics of both armed and unarmed combat despite its overlap. This was the time I needed to embody the same growth mindset that I preached: that who we were, who we are and who we will be, are three different people.
Internal monologue that night: “Haha, spinning kick with no setup, that was easy to defen…ahh fuck, he just virtually disemboweled me with his Karambit that he pulled out of nowhere during mid-spin”
To date, we’ve never come up with an official name for what we practice. That was intentional in order to ensure that people focused on training what kept us alive rather than meaningless debates about semantics or tradition. Of course, we credited the systems that we “borrowed” our training methods from out of respect and so our trainees would be encouraged to continue their learning with the experts and professionals who trained us in conjunction to training at our club. This did not stop some newbies from asking that question at the end of class after I already explained our roots:
“So what style is this? Karate?”
“As I said earlier, we take from Thai & Western Style Boxing, Wrestling, Filipino Martial Arts and Jiu-Jitsu. It’s not really a style.”
FYI, those were the main ones. I probably missed a few. Not sure what Conrad would think about the omission of Silat or what Vinny would think about the omission of Kenpo. Oops.
“Yup Hen and I put what we’ve learned over the years together, boil it down in a way that’s meaningful and digestible so people can pick it up the functional skills really quickly”
“Because as you know racism is so bad, it might just fucking kill you tomorrow”
“Of course, we have space for regular practice since it’s quick to learn but takes a lifetime to master and at the same time we do encourage that you also learn from our instructors if you ever have a chance to”
“So, is there like a name for this style?”
I had to take another deep breath and reflect on what Lizzie taught me
“Yeah we don’t have an official name, but our system half jokingly has an unofficial name”
There were no crickets, but I’m pretty sure Jon heard them as he rolled his eyes knowing what I would say next.
“Well you see, some people refer to us as a ninja clan, and the “ fighting style” ninjas practiced based on whatever they had available at the time was referred to as “Taijutsu” My short name is Hen, so put those two together…”
I figured since nobody wanted to claim that they practiced “HenTaijutsu” (The Way of the Pervert), that people would finally stop asking that question.
VR training with weapons honed our reflexes and agility to new heights and also made us all fully comprehend our mortality. This was more than necessary as knife attacks (even bricks, pepper spray and axes) became an everyday reality as an Asian American. Despite all my years of prior training, the rapid dodging movements put a strain on my body. As I felt the burn of the liniment oil during recovery, I realized this was what Conrad meant by “The blade is my tool, I am on the weapon.”
All these simulated fatalities convinced us that we needed to keep training and also made us realize that situational awareness and avoidance was key to survival. Stay alert, Stay humble, Stay kind. Look around. Don’t bury your head in the phone. Use windows as peripheral vision. Monitor for potential force multiplier tools. Those were the obvious. That being said, how the fuck were we going to develop situational awareness reflexes? We had some ideas, including some training videos that we would try to implement in class.
I gave the first one a shot. I had to count the number of people in orange shirts that got orange submarine sandwiches in a busy college campus. As a neuropsychology extern, I figured that this would be some kind of distraction task where I had to look for a person who was hiding a knife or gun that would try to stab me or someone. By the end of the activity, I had successfully counted the number of people in orange shirts that got the submarine sandwiches and I asked myself, did I miss any shinies or people with weapon imprints? The good news is, I didn’t. The bad news is, I had failed to notice the man that was there to blow me
away. My dumb ass literally missed someone dressed as a unibomber carrying a giant duffle bag, dropped it there and walked off from what could have been the worst day of these peoples’ lives as if it was Tuesday. That video was a nice distraction from my schoolwork before I had to get some clinical supervision and my next fun adventure: my mom wanted cake from our local bakery. I might have lost 30 pounds from running DCC, but my inner fatass also wanted cake. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen in my neighborhood, but I followed my own club’s protocol anyways.
On my way home from the bakery while carrying cake and wearing my helmet, there was a tall guy without a mask that was following me from behind. I realized it was a bad idea for me to unlock my bike on the spot and kept walking. He kept following me even as I changed my angle when walking. That’s when I figured he wasn’t just minding his own business. So I turned and looked at him while flashing the handle of one of my three tools in my EDC since I was far away enough to do just that. He immediately turned and walked the other way. I made sure he was nowhere in sight before I unlocked my bike to jet off.
I did not tell my mother or grandmother so they could enjoy their cake. Obviously, I told DCC members who were quite alarmed. Everyone asked me how I felt. On the surface, I felt relieved that I was fine because I had followed my club’s protocol that I designed with the help of other people. Deep down, I was slightly disturbed at what it took for me to get cake for my mom without getting beaten or killed like all those people from videos we had been seeing just because I was an Asian American. A decade of martial arts training that instilled knowledge of angles, distance and body language. All that continued learning to understand how to generalize that to non-sport scenarios.
Things got a little awkward in the cohort meeting the next day when we had to check in on how we were doing. With the other responses in the room, from ducks who lived in a different pond, I didn’t want to be that autistic kid who ruined the vibe because he failed to read the room. At the same time i wanted to be honest so, I was left with the following:
“My mom’s getting her appetite back. She wanted cake, I wanted cake. I went out to get some. Cheesecake for her. Chocolate mousse for me. It was delicious. Now she wants more so…you know what means: more for me.”
All my classmates smiled, imagined how delicious the cake was and moved on because I conveniently omitted some important parts. That afternoon, my professor insinuated that she wanted a student other than me to answer her questions. On the surface, at least to my classmates, their favorite happy-go-lucky tech-savvy food-loving stats nerd who programmed the tech that made their lives easier was back.
I did tell some of my schoolmates though
“Isn’t it crazy Radwa? It took all that just to be able to go about my day”
“You just wanted to get cake for your mom and then suddenly you were like “O wait I forgot, there is racism too””
I also posted about it on social media to convey how understanding of best practices for situational awareness, angles, distance, body language, and fluency in using various tools that comes from regular training in violent or lethal means was necessary to get through a day without violence. I was shocked at how many people reacted, particularly those that had not reacted to my posts before. While my ideas were indeed radical and extreme compared to my own community, I guess everyone was able to relate to somebody who wanted to get cake for their mom without incident and realized the level of preparation it took if you were Asian American.
“You do realize that guy is going to prey on an Asian who isn’t an easy target right?”
“Honey, are you now telling me I’m not violent enough for you?”
While I joked about how Antonieta was grossed out at some of the things we taught only months ago, I couldn’t find a single lie in what she was saying.
Anti-Asian violence was not just happening on the news, or to people who were unprepared or in front of patrols who volunteered to walk headfirst into the horror, it had become so normalized that it was happening in front of trained individuals that were just trying to go about their daily business.
My incident was just one of many examples. That same week, one of our members was pursued by three men that our member believed was likely armed in Midtown Manhattan during broad daylight forcing him to repeatedly change directions to confirm they were following him. Similarly, he had to flash his equipment to “convince” those three men that it was a horrible idea to fuck with him.
The same week, coach Chad saw a man aggressively approaching an elderly Asian couple on the subway station near my fiancé’s house. In response, my coach dropped his gym bag and stood up, causing the potential assailant to go away. That same night, Jon and I discussed situational awareness and maintaining a reactionary gap to increase your chance of detecting sucker punches. The next morning, I discovered that the same night we discussed that topic, and in the station next to where my coach intervened, another elderly Asian American was sucker punched and ground and pounded by another ruthless assailant.
I know the least that could have happened if my training partner wasn’t aware and ready to use his equipment. I know the least that could have happened to the couple if one of my coaches didn’t step in. I’ve watched enough videos of all those hate crimes to know the least that could have happened if I was not ready. Yet, upon breaking down and retelling my story to my own club as well as Conrad’s class, I will never know if I would have been sucker punched or stabbed as I never confirmed whether or not he was armed. Some of our members who have stopped training for a while suddenly wanted to come back due to some verbal racism they personally saw other Asian Americans go through.
All this awareness on social media merely meant the possibility for a better day for those that were still alive in the far future. Jon and I spent our entire lives as social outcasts. While having radical ideas was not new to us, the difference of opinion was on what it means to survive and whether we were human that had put peoples’ lives at stake. As I was dousing myself in liniment oil again so my body would heal in time for my meeting with another patrol team followed by a subsequent training session, I realized that no matter how loud we screamed, the only people who were saving us anytime soon that wasn’t due to sheer luck was going to be ourselves.
There were too many people who did not have the privilege to wait for years until society finally treated us as human. At the end of the day, most of the people who finally heard us from all those trending hashtags and rallies chose not to listen.
In the beginning of the story, I asked Antonieta how the fuck things could actually get crazier. Perhaps that was the wrong fucking question. The more important question was: what the fuck was I going to do about it and was there somebody that wasn’t seen as a radical that actually gave a fuck that I could reach? Jon answered that question as he attended a public meeting:
I told Lorraine to have Rej contact me. What would we talk about? As an autistic living in a neurotypical world, I got to where I am at life today by staying a few steps ahead but this time, I honestly I had no fucking clue. At this point, it was whatever the fuck it took to help save as many lives as possible. To be honest, this wasn’t the first time something like this happened. I was at a loss on what to do against anti-Asian racism back in Spring 2020 when I reached out to my MMA coach:
“Listen buddy, it’s going to get rough out there for you folks since everyone is suffering and nobody’s going to pay attention to Asian Americans, you might just have to build an army or something”
“O boy… So just, survive, help others survive, got it”
“Yeah, survive, help others survive, hang in there Henry”
Rej decided to join our basic tactics class and chat with us later. I figured at the very least, he would pick up a few things from our program to bring back to the people that needed it, and the best case scenario he would take the whole damn thing. By the end of practice, we were grateful for each others’ presence and work we had done for our community. I discovered that Rej actually knew about my best friend who passed away after we started our club together. We also learned that through both observing his movement and our conversation that he too had a desire regarding how to distill his entire decade of training to help the people who really needed to defend themselves and spent many nights reflecting on how to do so. While he acknowledged that my club emphasized important details, he also told us stories about how individuals in need struggled to internalize details they were shown repeatedly even without resistance. Presumably, live training (even remote) would be out of the question. Rej believed that our program was great for people who wanted to learn more rather than everyday people that just wanted to survive.
“Henry, who is your audience for this club?”
“Everyday people, including women. People with no competitive aspirations that just want to survive. Over the months, I’ve watched them grow in ways nobody had anticipated, in ways people did not believe was possible.”
Rej spoke his truth and at the same time I had spoken my truth. I learned what made us the same as well as what made us different.
Rej believed in finding ways to help people in danger that were not willing to make that sacrifice survive this fucked up world.
I believed in helping people in danger make the sacrifices necessary in order to empower themselves and those around them to survive this fucked up world.
“My doors are open to those who I know will make the world a better place: including you Rej.”
“Thank you. Would there be a way we could refer people to your program?”
“Jon and I will need to talk about it.”
I was a little concerned about the floodgates being opened, particularly about Jon who was teaching two of the weeknight classes and half of the weekend classes and losing sleep over concerns of our trainees’ safety and the stupidity of the same conversations I’ve had to detach myself from (except this time it was on this new app called Clubhouse). I asked Jon whether we should increase our cap of two members per team or affiliate organization to four or five.
“Hen, why not every member of those teams?”
“Jesus fucking christ Jon, you want to open the floodgates all at once?”
“How the fuck would you feel if somebody on one of those teams got hurt or killed, because we didn’t train them since they were past that limit?! We’re in crisis mode now”
I reflected on how my training partner and I left unscatched because of our extensive training, and we were just regular people going to work or getting our cake. I realized that in such a hypothetical tragedy that no rationalization or intellectualization we made would clear our conscience. At this point, all this bloodshed just led to the system installing security camera installations.
“and I’m the one who’s been saying All Hands on Deck since we’ve been at war all along…”
“You sure we can handle this?”
“I’ll do what it takes to protect our people for free.”
“Whatever it takes.”
I showed Rej our methodology with hopes he would bring aspects of it back to better serve those who were in danger. Yet, it was I who needed to learn how to better serve those around me. It should’ve been obvious a long time ago after my conversations with Coach Vinny and with Lizzie. How could I claim that our way was for the people when I placed a limit even for the teams who stepped head first into danger?
How was I complaining that our ideology was not normalized yet when I was the one who hesitated to open our doors to those that were in danger? Antonieta and I had been sickened by the mentality of others, even those who looked like us who did not give a fuck about what we go through since it never happened to them. Yet, even as an Asian American who verbalized we were at war, it took much more than a trending hashtag we finally made happen for me to truly process that idea. If one of the smartest and empathetic people in my life that I look up to shied away from the horrors and the reality of racism, I clearly was not exempt either.
“On a second thought Jon, why not just anybody they refer?”
“There were a lot of people that wanted to learn more during that meeting I attended.”
“I’ll tell Rej to send them over. I’ll have a little chat with them beforehand to make sure they’re the right people.”
“If we get too big, we’ll figure out what to do afterwards.”
“That’s not a bad problem to have”
Coach Vinny’s shirt and my rashguard.
New York City decades ago and New York City in the present era.
In the fucked up world that we live in that repeats itself in ways too many do not realize, the will to protect others alone puts you above most people. I began to have a deeper understanding of why Coach Brian had been trying to tell the world that we need to raise that bar. In that same world that will continue to question our suffering no matter how many trending hashtags or security cameras may finally make us visible, that’s the sacrifice we make to protect our humanity.
It’s a world that requires people who believe that violent problems require violent solutions out of their love for those around them.
It was insufficient to merely name the problem, pretend we were not part of the problem or avoid perpetuating the problem ourselves: we had to become the solution. It’s this journey of being amongst the few who give a shit in a world that pathologized our will to survive that makes us realize that who we were, who we are, and who we will be, are in many ways, different people.
“Ray always liked to wear stuff with his surname. I wonder how he’d feel about what we’re doing”
“I think he’d be proud”
“I really hope so…”
March 9th: I sat in a memorable presentation by Dr. Boyd-Franklin about racial trauma. The focus was on Black Americans. Yet, during my eleven month journey of running DCC, I learned about what we had in common that brought us together. While it was irresponsible not to acknowledge the stark differences, I also noticed parallels in a cycle that repeated itself. During her talk, I turned my camera off since I did not want them to see my eyes as I reflected on the lengths marginalized individuals needed to go for a mere chance at survival and humanity. Some of my classmates noticed I wasn’t that sharp when I attended class that afternoon. Thankfully, I had another great training night at Vinny’s, followed by a second one that Jon and I ran together filled with NSFW one-liners from me while watching people get better by their attempts in not letting me punch them in the face, or not letting Jon beat their…wait, never mind.
“Karen P, your turn for the question”
“For weapons, how do I tell which way to move if it keeps changing?”
I look to Jon who is busy fiddling with his Karambit.
“So uhh…the homicide stuff is Jon’s area, unless he wants me to take a stab at answering this”
“Yeah go ahead”
“Generally, to the outside, so you can get around them, that’s the pattern. Of course, you’ll need to be able to read the tells beforehand and that will come with more live practice, because this isn’t just about knowledge, it’s about training your eyes, your mind and your body in order to maximize your chances of survival. Remember that striking, grappling, weapon work and the showers of a men’s prison have one thing in common: if you get behind them, their ass is yours”
I take a pause and turn to Jon
“Jon, I hope I got that right”
“Yeah…but goddammit Hen!”
On the surface, I was once an eloquent yet vulgar voice of principled rage for a community whose cries were silenced and whose bloodshed was erased by the very people who were supposed to speak for us. My schoolmates from graduate school will likely remember me as that anti-racist ninja long after they graduate. Yet, deep down, it is the many women who worked behind the scenes in different ways, made the sacrifice to train, risked their safety to protect others and served as exemplars that our methods are truly for the people. In a society that merely celebrates them in name for one day each year or possibly a month at best, filled with so-called leaders that attribute the will to protect those around us as another form of toxic masculinity, it is these many women who serve as the anti-racist shadow.
At the end of practice, I came across some terrible news from Oakland about a 75-year-old man that I felt we needed to process in real time rather than over chat. We would later discover that his care manager warned him not to go to Chinatown because of the attacks on Asians during the previous few weeks. I wasn’t sure if Jon knew, so I told Jon to give his closing comments before I gave mine. In Jon’s closing comments, he disclosed the news first himself. Whatever smiles and laughter came from the fun of getting KOed, slammed or killed in the metaphorical Matrix, from our progress and probably from my usual antics quickly vanished into thin air.
“Mr. Pak Ho will only be expected to live for a few more days due to brain trauma. This hits close to home for each one of us, in different ways. This is another brutal reminder that what we do is more than necessary. It’s unfortunate we live in such a violently racist, horrific, senseless and seemingly hopeless world.
It’s unfortunate that it falls on us to be the ones that give others hope, to be the ones that have to make sense of this horror, and that it falls on us to give each other a sense of purpose in these seemingly hopeless times so that anger does not turn into hatred. It’s unfortunate that it fell on people like Karen and her fellow Brown Berets to step up and protect the vulnerable long before the world finally cared to say this violence is wrong.
This is the world that requires us to become the solution. At the same time, this is why I’m grateful we exist. I’m looking forward to seeing you all in the next practice session, so not only can we sharpen each others’ hands and minds, but so we can inspire each other and give each other that sense of purpose in these dark times as you always have.
Let us stay safe and be there for each other as we continue our journey through the difficult and violent years to come, because that is our club’s mantra: