Just a week after Donald Trump won the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that between Nov. 9 and Nov. 14, there were more than 400 “reports of hateful intimidation and harassment,” most of them anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-LGBTQ. At a vocational school in Pennsylvania, students were filmed roaming the hallways carrying Trump signs and yelling, “white power!” And in Wellsville, New York, graffiti appeared on the back of a dugout with the phrase “Make America White Again” flanked by a swastika on either side. While it’s unlikely that all these incidents were clearly connected to Trump’s win, there’s no question that instances of intimidation and outright attacks on the many groups the president-elect demeaned in the course of his campaign are on the rise. But as Trump unleashed hate, he summoned something else, too: a desire among his targets to fight back.
Even before the election, recent events had various minority communities in a defensive posture. Following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, in 2015, Muslim women across the country, fearful of vigilante violence in a climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, came together to give one another lessons in self-defense. And the Pink Pistols, an LGBTQ gun-rights advocacy group, saw a sudden spike in interest after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But the reality of a Trump presidency brought with it a new sense of urgency and fear that touched a range of demographic groups.
Since Election Day, many Americans who are not straight, white, and male have judged wise the saying that a good offense is the best defense. Class attendance for various types of self-defense practices, from Krav Maga and MMA to those specifically designed to train women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have seen interest skyrocket over the last few months. Tracy Hobson, executive director at the Center for Anti-Violence Education, told me that the morning after the election, voicemail requests from different organizations seeking to collaborate on self-defense programming were laden with a sense of “desperate” urgency. (She also said that interest in their longstanding classes, including one for women and trans people, has quadrupled.) A Muslim woman from Chicago, Zaineb Abdulla, made headlines for her viral instructional “hijab grab” defense videos, as did the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment, a New York City-based nonprofit for Muslim women, whose November post-election self-defense workshops reportedly sold out in just 10 hours and were shared on Facebook hundreds of times.
Of course, the trend is a prime example of history repeating itself: Communities feeling under siege in the U.S. have long sought ways to protect themselves against a hostile system. Like the LGBTQ community in the midst of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, women during the emergence of the anti-rape movement, black Americans during the Black Power movement, and other periods of harsh blowback against social progress, in the age of Trump, self-defense has again become crucial.
Queers Bash Back
Jesse Geguzis, a transgender person with short, dark hair and a frame “on the smaller side” had wanted to hold a self-defense class for the queer community for “forever.” A fight director and choreographer for off-Broadway and Broadway shows (and who prefers the pronoun they), Geguzis had originally planned to create such a course with some of their fellow fight directors following the mass shooting at Pulse, but it ultimately fell through due to scheduling conflicts. But with Trump’s election, Geguzis kicked into high gear: In December, they, along with actor and playwright J. Stephen Brantley, put together a free class offering training in techniques targeted at the queer and gender-nonconforming community in New York City. Capped at just 10 people due to space constraints and the desire to focus on making the teaching as individualized as possible, Geguzis took their training of Krav Maga, tae kwan do, judo, kickboxing, akido, and stage combat and created a hybrid of moves that could work with a variety of different body sizes and types. Included in the instruction was how to get out of chokeholds, bear hugs, and other grabs, as well as how to use everyday objects—like house keys—in the event of an attack. In the coming months, Brantley and Geguzis plan to host more classes.
The AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s coincided with a profound increase of reported gay bashing across the country, and the LGBTQ community found ways to resist through self-defense—in that, Geguzis, Brantley, and are following an illustrious tradition. Community-organized patrol groups like the Pink Panthers (a simultaneous nod to the Black Panthers and the movie comedy series of the same name) in New York City and the Q-Patrol in Seattle took to the streets to serve as protective forces looking out for their queer peers. With training in what one Pink Panther member called “artful dirty street fighting” in a 1990 Newsday profile, the collective was defiant in the face of the increase in attacks—“We’re bashing back” proclaimed founder Gerri Wells. But they were also wary of appearing to advocate for violence. The Pink Panthers emphasized their presence in high-risk areas as efforts to diffuse potentially violent situations, “armed with cameras, our caustic wit, and our intense anger,” rather than actual weapons. The Q-Patrol’s language was even more guarded and benign: As member David Chinello told the Seattle Times in 1991, “We’re not a loudmouth militant group of people marching up and down with our slogans.”
The ways in which these groups and others approached their resistance is indicative of the fine line those advocating self-defense within the LGBTQ community have had to walk—namely, a worry that their actions could be characterized by outsiders as vigilantism. “I would hate to see us use the tactics of our oppressors,” Ann Sanders, a liaison to the mayor in Boston, told the Washington Post in a 1990 article on Queer Nation (an activist group known for staging “kiss-ins” in straight spaces). Her outlook aligned with the belief that taking the high road is the best way to go about effecting change—though perhaps it assumes too easily that the victim will turn into the aggressor. That same year, a rousing pamphlet called “Queers Read This,” written anonymously, was distributed at New York City’s pride parade:
The more we allow homophobes to inflict violence, terror and fear on our lives, the more frequently and ferociously we will be the object of their hatred. … If you know how to gently and efficiently immobilize your attacker, then by all means, do it. If you lack those skills, then think about gouging out his fucking eyes, slamming his nose back into his brain, slashing his throat with a broken bottle—do whatever you can, whatever you have to, to save your life!
While such rhetoric could be viewed by some as inflammatory, the context is important: The health crisis within the community was at its peak, and walking outside as an openly queer person at that time could easily end in assault or worse. It’s also important to note that this passage refers to violence on the part of the LGBTQ community in a defensive, rather than antagonistic, manner—any response is to be directed against a clear assailant.
Defending Black and Brown Lives
The worry about the optics of self-defense translates to other groups as well, particularly the black community and other people of color. In the weeks following the election, a small assembly of martial artists and athletes in New York City came together to form a group specifically designed to train others to be better equipped in the event of a biased attack. The weekly class is open to all demographic groups, with an emphasis on anyone who has been or could potentially be victim of a hate crime—women, Muslims, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ.
While one of the leaders of the group, a black male in his 40s, was open to discussing their practices and the impetus behind them with me, he admitted that the other members and some of the class participants, which include members of the Muslim community, were “really nervous” about being talked about in this article. Likewise, he didn’t want his real name or the name of the program to be mentioned. (I’ll call him David.) “We definitely came [together] as a result of the fear,” David told me. “It all came from this uptick that we’re seeing in xenophobic stuff that’s happening around the country.”
The intent of the class is to coach students how to get through the “arc” of a confrontational situation—it’s not only about learning techniques to protect one’s body, but also knowing how to recognize potentially violent situations so that one can avoid them to begin with. De-escalation is a crucial aspect of the training. Yet it’s telling that David and the rest of his group worry about the word spreading too far about what they’re doing: When I asked to observe a class, David told me that one of the teachers threatened to discontinue providing instruction if press was allowed in. The reaction is a testament to how fearful many people have become after the election of Trump.
History tells us that people of color, not to mention Muslims, have every reason to proceed with caution. Consider the federal surveillance that effectively dismantled the Black Panther Party—which advocated strongly for armed black self-defense against police brutality—under J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO-BPP. During that time, the FBI conspired with local police departments across the country to conduct raids on party members, most famously chairman Fred Hampton in 1969. It also helped establish the historical narrative of the party as inherently violent for years to come, while ignoring the successful programs they helped establish for their communities. Likewise, the Muslim community has been subject to increased surveillance and racial profiling for years following 9/11, and in 2015 the FBI recorded the highest number of anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001. (According to David, one of his instructors, who is Muslim, shaved his beard and bears no markings that might indicate his faith after several post-9/11 incidents.) Meanwhile, the president-elect has discussed plans to establish a Muslim registry, and the person he’s named as a cybersecurity adviser believes Black Lives Matter is “inherently racist.”
Pussy Grabs Back
For women in this post-election world, the rush to sign up for self-defense classes calls to mind the anti-rape movement that emerged in the 1970s and focused on the characterization of rape as an act of violence rather than uncontrollable male libido. While such classes were encouraged at the time by some feminists and rape crisis centers, there were those who discouraged fighting back, under the assumption and fear that a woman was more likely to be injured or killed if she did. The intentions behind this thinking were noble, but the logic has since been debunked by studies showing that the rate of reported rapes decreased when the attacker was met with violent force. And, of course, the assumption also positions women as “weaker” and more fragile—a questionable claim that self-defense courses can do a great deal to remedy. Today especially, courses targeted at women and trans people tend to be sensitive to past traumatic experiences students may have had, while tailoring instruction to practical, real-life situations. The Center for Anti-Violence Education notes this in their official philosophy: “We stress the right of each individual to protect themselves if they are being disrespected, threatened, or abused. At the same time, we stress that if you are experiencing violence, it is not your fault.”
While the emphasis in the media and elsewhere has been on hand-to-hand self-defense, there are those who are also looking to other means of protection. Mary Pryor is a black social media strategist based in New York City who has started a women’s gun club post-election with a small network of friends and acquaintances of various backgrounds. When I spoke with her in December, she had planned a trip to a gun range in the Poconos that would be the inaugural meeting for the women, with instruction on shooting, gun safety, gun rights, and de-escalation. (The trip wound up being postponed due to inclement weather and was to be rescheduled for a later date.) Pryor told me that she’s been called nigger several times while on the subway since Nov. 8: “Does it mean that I have a gun to bust out while I’m on the train? No, I don’t want to get arrested. But I have to know what it is to de-escalate and to be calm. I also need to know what it is to know about my rights to bear arms and what it is to shoot.” She doesn’t “believe in safe spaces” anymore, but hopes that with her club, she can create a venue where women can talk freely about how to confront an increasingly hostile environment in the age of Trump.
An undercurrent running through all of these stories of group preparedness, both past and present, is that it’s not just about looking out for one’s physical well-being, but also one’s mental and spiritual health. David and Geguzis each stressed the psychic effects that come from being attacked or engaging in a fight, and how understanding and coping with the experience is a necessary component of self-defense training. Geguzis’ collaborator, J. Stephen Brantley, told me via email: “I wanted to get people in a room not just to learn survival techniques, which, hopefully, they will never need, but also just to connect in person. To look into another person’s face and feel some sense of connection and community at this uncertain time.” As the institutions ostensibly meant to serve and protect us seem poised to do the opposite over the next four years, turning to tight-knit groups for support and resistance—or perhaps to a strong left hook—may prove an invaluable method for survival.