On Fear and Anger and Fighting Back

by Reagan Jackson

Jab, jab, straight. V dip, hook punch. I keep my feet moving and my guard up, in sync my partner. It’s the 11th session of a 14-week boxing class called We Fight Back and we are finally sparring. My shirt is soaked through with sweat and my muscles are screaming, but I am grinning through my mouth guard. I’ve needed this.

It’s been 16 years since the last time I wore a pair of boxing gloves. I was lighter then, in the best shape of my life. I am a different fighter now, more grounded and strategic. Even with less stamina, my punches knock my partner back a few steps and land with a satisfying thud.

I love sparring. The adrenalin, the sweat, the way power feels in my body. When I am fighting it’s one of the few times I feel like all of me is in alignment. My mind is never clearer. But my love of fighting has always been complicated by my relationship to violence.

Throughout childhood, my dad tried to get me involved in martial arts, but I considered myself a pacifist until middle school when bullying reached a fevered pitch. Though I never started a fight, almost daily the fight found me. I stopped worrying about hurting people and started worrying about them hurting me. A boy in my class hit me with a brass edge folder slicing a gash just a quarter of an inch beneath my eye. Any higher and I would have been permanently blind. As it was, I had to get stitches. I was humiliated, but worse I was angry.

This was no casual emotion. It was a raw primal Incredible Hulk anger, what bell hooks would call a killing rage. Every time I saw that kid I wanted to smash his face in. I began to have violent fantasies, each more warped than the next. My rage became a source of shame and fear, confirmation that I was truly a terrible person. My parents were concerned. My dad kept pushing me to take karate, but I steadfastly refused because I didn’t trust myself. I thought if someone taught me how to really fight I might actually kill someone.

I didn’t start boxing until my senior year of college. My junior year was simultaneously the best and worst year of my life. I moved to Spain to study Spanish and fell in love with cream sherry, flamenco music and beach lounging. I also lost my best friend in a car crash and I was roofied.

I don’t know what drug it was, but I still remember every moment. A stranger bought me a drink. I was perpetually at a party those days, so it was a pretty common occurrence. But almost as soon as I drank it I knew something was wrong. I tried to convince my friends to take me home. They didn’t want to leave the bar, so they put me in a cab.

By the time I got to my apartment building the drug had taken hold and I was completely immobilized. The cab driver had to carry me out of the car. He took me to the entrance  of my apartment building and laid me across the marble steps. First, he paid himself by taking all the money from my pocket, then he reached inside my shirt. My whole body was frozen, but I was lucid. I couldn’t move, but I could scream and did. This was sufficient to scare him away, but then I lay there alone in the middle of the night on the streets of a foreign country feeling terrified and praying no one else would find me. I don’t know how long it took before the drug wore off and I was able to feel my arms and legs again, but it felt like hours.  I know I am lucky and that it could have been so much worse. Still, I had never felt so powerless in my life.

The rage I had been so careful to suppress rose up in me larger than ever and it would not go away. I was mad at my friends for abandoning me the one time I needed them. I was mad at myself for being reckless, mad at God for taking my best friend, and mad at every person, place or situation that had ever made me feel powerless. It was the kind of fury that burns you from the inside out like acid. I had to find somewhere to put it. So I started boxing.

After a year of boxing, I got the opportunity to move to Japan. I traded fighting for meditating. I didn’t fight again for several years when I took up taekwondo. I received my black belt in 2010 shortly before another travel opportunity took me away from my training. Getting my black belt was what cured me of fearing my own power. With skill came discipline and being in control of my own body gave me the peace I had been searching for.

I have endured an entire lifetime of people fucking with me. Even now I feel like I am constantly fighting to assert my humanity, to be allowed to live in this world. I think that’s why boxing feels so satisfying because for one hour a week when I feel the world pummeling me I can finally punch back. I can take all the rage and sadness and righteous indignation, shove it into my fists and punch until my arms are sore and I can’t breathe.

Now trapped in the waking nightmare of having a president-elect endorsed by the KKK, the fight has only begun.  We have elected a bully who has effectively normalized openly racist, Islamaphobic, and misogynist behavior. Hate crimes are already on the rise and it’s no surprise when I turn on the news and our nation’s “leader” is up on rape charges and caught on video unapologetically laughing about how he assaults women.

“So much of my life work has been around stopping male violence against women and challenging gender-based violence that I’m just so sick of women being raped and murdered and brutalized and beaten,” confessed Ane Mathieson when asked what inspired the creation of We Fight Back.

Mathieson and Megan Murphy, both social workers, teamed up about two and half years ago to pilot the first class. “I wanted to create an opportunity for women to fight and defend themselves from violence, but I wanted them to be able to do that for free,” said Mathieson. “So I reached out to a friend of mine who is an MMA instructor.”

MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts. The first project involved eight women including Murphy and Mathieson. In addition to learning physical skills for self-defense, they hosted concurrent conversations about gender-based violence. “So that’s been a big challenge,” said Mathieson. “Creating a space where women can feel comfortable to start really talking about this stuff authentically but then not feeling like that means that can’t have relationships with men or that it means that they have to hate every man.”

After the first program, Murphy and Mathieson took stock of what went well and what needed to change. “The first cohort we had was all white women and we all knew that this was not okay,” said Mathieson. While the program is open to all women, Murphy and Mathieson wanted to make sure it addressed the fact that women of color and queer identified women are disproportionately impacted by violence.

Another challenge was having a male identified instructor. This was a trigger for participants who had been assaulted by men, but neither Murphy nor Mathieson had previous experience with fighting. They decided to bring Genevieve Corrin as a third partner because of her experience with boxing and this paved the way for a new partnership with Cappy’s Gym. Located in the Central District, Cappy’s gym has been making boxing accessible for everyone since 1999.

The women in my cohort are a diverse mix of 20 and 30 somethings, some first-time fighters and some, like me, returning after a long break. There is a camaraderie that has grown between us over the past months. All of us have our own personal relationship to violence and fighting, some with more trauma than others, but despite the different motivations our goal is the same, to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of a fight.

For 20-year-old Azeb Tuji, We Fight Back was just something that sounded cool. “It just sounded so out of my comfort zone and something that I wouldn’t be able to do and something like so kick ass that I was like yeah I need to do something like that for myself.”

Tuji, a first-time fighter, recounts that the only physical fights she’s been in have been with her brothers when she was a kid, but she is not new to confrontation. “I think the last couple of weeks I’ve been getting harassed and people are trying to talk to me more,” said Tuji.  “But instead of kind of lowering my voice or something or being like ‘ok’ I’ve been getting super angry and my fist are clenched and I’m just ready to go.”

After an hour of physical training there is a short break, then boxers trade gloves for pens and notepads and reconvene for an hour of curriculum facilitated by Murphy and Mathieson. Often we begin with a meditation or a centering, a reminder that we are more than just bodies fighting, that we are minds, hearts and spirits too. Sometimes there are experiential activities that get us on our feet and in our voices. And always there are robust conversations.

“I’m the person that comes up with the drills and the focus and themes behind each class every week,” says boxing coach Olivia Mendez. “Prior to the start of any of the classes, we all sat and thought about the components.  Number 1 who are we working with and what do they want to know?”

Mendez began boxing 15 years ago after a bad breakup left her searching for an outlet for pent up emotions. “I think one of the canons that We Fight Back speaks to is that myself as a woman growing up when and where I did, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to experience my emotions,” says Mendez. “I really struggled with how to cope with that confrontation.”

This seems to be a common refrain. What do you do when conflict occurs? In our last class, Mendez described the three most common gut reactions. Fight, flight or freeze.

We separated into three groups based on our default reactions then we boxed a round operating from that paradigm. After years of running away from my anger and trying to avoid conflict, I’ve finally succumbed to my base reflex, to fight. The first round I gave no quarter. I used my size to force my partner to back up, but then the next round Coach Mendez asked us to practice using a different response.

For three minutes I had to freeze instead of punching. It’s one thing to take a punch and then return fire and a totally different feeling to just stand there. Though running away isn’t my default either, when I practiced boxing on the defensive it at least gave me a sense that I was doing something, blocking and ducking, but just standing there frozen I felt like a victim.

For Tuji, We Fight Back has given her the confidence to unfreeze. When she’s confronted with microaggressions from her coworkers, she has begun to speak up. “Even though it’s like hardly saying it, I’m learning how to stand up for myself,” she says.

For some like Mathieson, whose default is to attack, there is a realization that being reactionary is still no guarantee of safety. “I’m really mouthy and when men harass me on the streets I have a whole slew of tactics that I have to respond to them and I sometimes am really aggressive,” she said. “There have been so many times where I’m like ‘I am going to get my face bashed in’. One of these days one of these men is going to bash my face in and I really want to know how to defend myself in case that happens.”

While it’s been good to get back into my body, to engage with an incredible community of women and to experience the release that fighting provides, participating in We Fight Back has also brought to the surface a deep-seated grief. I’m tired of always having to fight back, of being told not to walk at night, or being made to feel as though my basic human rights are privileges.

This war I’m fighting in is not against men or white people, but against the white supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy which has done everything in its power to create, sustain and normalize bullying and rape culture. We live in an environment where we learn early on that our bodies are not our own, that we should expect to be judged by how we choose to dress or how willing we are to be complicit in our own victimization. It’s exhausting and it’s not just happening here, it’s happening all over the world.

But so is the resistance. Programs like this are popping up in Kenya:

More than a class, a community or even free boxing lessons, We Fight Back is a declaration that women are ready to stand in their power. That’s what keeps me coming back week after week, knowing that I am not only contributing to my own strength and self-empowerment but that I am part of a broader movement demanding justice in my community.

If you would like more information about how to join the next cohort keep updated through their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/wefightbackseattle

You can also help keep these classes free by donating: https://www.paypal.me/wefightbackseattle