Thursday, June 19, 2014

Summer clothing, summer crowds, and self-defense

South Side crime happens here
If the endless street fairs, endless heat/humidity, and endless violence are any indication, summertime is finally
here in Chicago. For anyone who was tired of our equally endless winter, that's good news for all those beach volleyball and downtown shopping plans. But it also means an uptick in crime, both in the shootings and gang-related violence that harry the city's poorest neighborhoods, and for crimes that affect the average reader of this blog. Summertime often sees increased robberies, snatch-and-grab thefts, random batteries, and other violent interpersonal crime that happens even in Chicago's "safest" areas. That said, it is unlikely that any individual will be a victim of these crimes (there's less than a 1% chance of being robbed in any given year, and it's a lot less if you don't live in neighborhoods similar to Englewood or East Garfield Park). But as I tell my self-defense classes, those numbers won't matter to you if you are a victim.

North Side crime happens here
To kick off the summer in chicagowarrior style, I want to talk about two safety tips that should be at the forefront of your mind this summer. Instead of giving the usual generalized tips (e.g. stay off of those damn phones, don't be afraid to "cross the street", etc.), I want to focus on martial advice. Here are two concepts that are often on my mind in the warm Chicago months, concepts that you should at least be thinking of when considering self-defense situations.

  1. Self-defense in your summer street/beach/outing clothes is different from self-defense in your gym clothes.
  2. Defending yourself while in a crowd is much harder than defending yourself when you are alone.
These tips will be most useful for those with some kind of martial training, but even a general reader will be able to appreciate the advice and see its application in defending yourself or a loved one.

As with all posts, a quick disclaimer. Don't break laws. Don't be stupid. Don't do something that you aren't trained to do (and by "training" I mean sweaty, heart-pounding repetitions under stress, not watching YouTube videos). Ultimately, you are responsible for knowing your own limitations, whether those are legal (it's probably not okay to choke out that guy who just called you a punk), personal (you might be morally adverse to choking anyone period), or technical (chokes are hard to perform correctly). Know those limitations and act around them.


When I was a little younger and a lot stupider, I walked a bad route to get to a Red Line station. This was partially because I didn't know my bus route (forgivable) and partially because I thought I was a serious dojo-dancing badass (less forgivable). I passed a pair of teens in front of a house, impolite words were exchanged, and a scuffle started. Some details of that incident are a bit fuzzy and others are quite vivid, as if they happened only yesterday. One of those details is how it feels to break a fall when wearing shorts and a t-shirt. If you've ever fallen off of a bike, it's like that. With a 160 pound bike on top of you. A bike that is trying to punch you and tear your shirt off. Between your unprotected elbows and knees, and the shirt ripping under your back, there's a lot of scrapes/cuts/bruises involved. And that's all because of the clothes you chose to wear.

Warriors of the dojo
When you execute techniques in the gym, you probably wear clothes that are designed for training. This could be a hefty gi for Jujitsu or a thinner dobak for Tae Kwon Do. It could be the latest in rashguard technology or an underarmor supporter complete with cup. Add in a mouthguard, headgear, knee braces, wraps on your toes and fingers, and you are fully prepped for in-gym combat. All of that equipment feeds into the way you train, the techniques you choose to perform, and the way in which you execute those techniques.

Warriors of North Avenue Beach
Fast forward to your weekend trip to Navy Pier to catch the latest IMAX flick and spend too much money on bad pizza. For whatever reason, a physical confrontation starts. Pack your gi? Rashguard? Headgear? Flexible dobak pants? Chances are that you are wearing board shorts, flip flops, and a t-shirt. Whatever wardrobe you brought to your day on the Pier, it's almost assuredly not the same clothes you wore back in the gym when you trained. That is going to have a big effect on the way you defend yourself.

So if you ever need think you might need to use self-defense training over the summer, be mindful of your attire. Here are some points to consider when thinking about your clothes and their effect on your martial art. Notice how these all work both ways, applying both to your clothes and to your attacker's.
  • Padding
    How much protection do summer clothes offer? If you are on your back, is that bro-tank going to offer additional padding or just guarantee your shoulder get scraped along with your elbows? If you take a punch or kick to the stomach, will your clothes absorb it at all? If you stomp on an opponent's foot and they are wearing sandals, how much more damage would that cause than if they had on boots?
  • Running
    Can you flee a pair of muggers while wearing nice summer heels? Could you pursue a purse snatcher (of course, observing all relevant laws) in your hip leather Tommy Bahama sandals? What about the attackers? Would they be able to chase you barefoot if you ran down the sidewalk in your sneakers?
  • Ripping
    When you perform your collar choke on an opponent, is it going to cut off their air or just tear their collar? If you go for a tackle and your opponent holds onto your shirt, will the material just rip away or will it support their weight? Would it be smarter to try and grab their thin cotton tank-top or their durable surfing shorts?
  • Provocation
    Do you look more or less threatening in that TapOut cap without a shirt? If cops look at a fight and need to quickly assess who is the defender or attacker, do your clothes make you look more like one or the other? Is a potential aggressor going to give you the benefit of the doubt if you have no shirt on and he's with all his pals? Is that going to appear more or less aggressive than just wearing a neutral t-shirt?
Except the TapOut tank.
You can leave that at home
To be clear, I'm not advising anyone to throw out all their "impractical" (for a self-defense scenario) clothes. That would be totally contrary to the art; an important tenet of self-defense is that its practitioners shouldn't have to substantially change the way they go through the world. Self-defense is about making you comfortable, not making you paranoid. But self-defense is also about making smart decisions, both defensively (maybe wearing sneakers downtown instead of sandals) and offensively (stomping an opponent's uncovered toes instead of just kicking at their leg).

Instead of donating all your summer tanks, instead think of how those clothes affect your techniques. How will those work in summer clothes? How will your technical limitations play into a scenario? Whether you are going to the beach, heading downtown, or taking stupid routes from bus stops, be aware of what you are wearing and how it might affect your overall self-defense strategy. And even before you leave for those trips, make sure you know how your attire will give you different benefits and drawbacks if an incident should occur.


Most winter self-defense incidents happen late in the day when there are few bystanders. There just aren't as many people out and about when it's -20 and your eyeballs are freezing shut.

Good luck finding your favorite food station at the Taste
let alone the guy that just grabbed your purse
Outdoor violence in the summer can look a lot different. Sure, you still have your isolated after-hours muggings, your indoors crime (which are pretty similar regardless of what season you are in), and your random encounters on evening streets. But you also have incidents that occur in massive crowds, with multiple attackers and/or multiple victims and/or multiple bystanders. Operating in that environment has its own unique challenges and, in many respects, is much harder and more demanding than operating alone.

A quick scenario can help you appreciate these differences. You are downtown on a Saturday night. It's 8:30 PM and you are leaving the Red Line station at Chicago. As you come out of the station, someone grabs your phone (which, grumpy old man Sheridan would remind you, you shouldn't have been staring at anyway!). If it's the middle of February, chances are good that you can race down the mostly empty street in pursuit of the thief, grab him without causing much disturbance, and subdue him without a massive scene. Or just hail a cop or bystander to get help. But if it's mid-July, try following him for more than 10 feet without knocking over someone's daughter, American Girl Doll and all, and starting a whole new fight with the dad. Even if you do catch up to the assailant, you better not knock down anyone else as you get him to the ground. And don't forget that some of the hundreds of bystanders probably think that YOU are actually the attacker.

Self-defense situation or otherwise, crowds are confusing. Hell, I get anxious in grocery store lines, let alone the tourist hordes swarming up and down Michigan Avenue on a June weekend. There's a lot of noise, a lot of heat, a lot of people in your way, and a lot of variables to consider. If violence arises in a crowd, or near a crowd, then you need to execute your self-defense plan in a way that respects both the danger and the crowd itself.

Here are some of the challenges when trying to defend yourself near a crowd. In presenting these difficulties, I walk through the different stages of self-defense and see how summer crowds interact with them:

  • Identifying a threat
    • Can you actually identify a threat in a crowd? With so many people around, it is hard to even focus on any one person, let alone determine that they might be a danger. 
    • If you can identify an threat (say, someone menacing you: "Hey asshole, you lookin' at my girl?"), can you also identify if he has friends or accomplices? 
    • Once you identify the threats, can you alert your friends/loved ones nearby that a threat exists? Will you be able to point out the threat(s) in a timely manner?
  • Avoiding a conflict
  • Your mission: Evade the assailant 
    with this lady. Don't forget her bags
    which are apparently so heavy
    they have to be dragged
    • Having identified a threat, how can you escape in a crowd? You don't want to knock other people over. You also don't want to lose track of your attacker in a rushed evasion attempt. 
    • Can you lose a threat if you also need to help your friends/loved ones navigate the crowd? Will they be nimble enough? What if you are with your young daughter, girlfriend in heels, or husband dragging his cooler?
    • Will too much alarm create a general panic? It's almost always a good idea to scream in an isolated street, but could be dangerous in a large crowd. You could be liable for a stampede or disturbance, especially if it was unfounded.
  • Deescalating a conflict
    • Can your potential attacker(s) hear your verbal deescalations? The crowd might be noisy and your carefully selected phrases might not be audible. Even worse, they might be misinterpreted if he can't hear you clearly, which might only escalate the situation.
    • Will your gestures be clear in a bustling crowd? If you stop moving and confront a threat in a Michigan Avenue crowd, people will probably be walking around you and bumping you and your potential threat. If you raise up your hands and someone bumps you, your hands might turn towards the threat who might perceive it as an attack.
  • Executing techniques
    • If physical force is needed, there will be dozens of bystanders in the way that can't be hurt by either you or your attacker. Consider the following examples of techniques and their challenges in a crowd:
    • First, I saw a knife disarm. Then I saw
      a bystander cut from the knife, a child
      crushed by the falling attacker and an
      old lady knocked over by the defender
      • Kicks: Front kick to create space? Watch out for knocking your attacker into someone else, like a child or senior citizen. Roundhouse kick to chop out their leg? Be careful that you don't clip someone as the kick flies. 
      • Grappling: Whether standing or on the ground, wrestling takes up a lot of space. Flailing limbs can knock others down into the dogpile or just cause injury. You also don't want to get stepped on and don't want others to fall on you.  
      • Knives: Blade can cut nearby pedestrians. Even if you are controlling the weapon, the struggling attacker might stumble into a bystander. Disarmed weapon can fly into crowd and cause injury. 
      • Firearms: Missed shots will hit bystanders. Rounds may pass through target and hit something behind target. If you disarm a weapon quickly and take it in your hands, bystanders might only notice afterwards and assume you are the attacker.
  • Interacting with law-enforcement
    • What will witnesses say? Some may have seen the entire incident. Others may only think they saw the whole thing and have a lot of false information. Some will be on your side. Others will not. The less ambiguous your actions were, the better off you will be here. 
    • When police arrive on the scene, they will probably be just as on edge as you. They might be particularly aggressive or prone to suspicion, and might treat you (and innocents) as attackers, at least until they can sort out the truth. Be prepared for lots of questioning and detainment. 
    • Can you identify when law enforcement is on the scene? In a mid-crowd melee, if someone grabs you from behind, you might want to fight back. But that person might be a police recently arrived on the scene.
When I first started writing this section, I envisioned it as having fewer challenges. But the more I thought about the Michigan Avenue crowds, the more difficulties I identified. This just underscores the complications that can arise when you engage in self-defense in summer crowds. To some extent, these tips aren't exactly summer specific. Popular bars or clubs, packed theaters or venues, parties, and a variety of other locations would have similar challenges for you to consider. That said, given the high level of downtown foot traffic we see in the summer months, it's particularly important to remember them when you are taking your pals out for a Mag Mile stroll. 


But don't take it too far...
The most important thing to remember with these tips is something I have stated before, both in this post and in others. Don't confuse preparedness with paranoia. Don't believe that being mindful of self-defense is the same as living in constant fear. No one should finish this article, martial artist or otherwise, and think I am advising you to stay at home all summer wearing your headgear and mouthguard at all times. That defeats the entire purpose of self-defense, which is to enable you to move freely (albeit smartly) through the world with reduced fear of victimization. Indeed, the whole point of these tips is to empower you to go out this summer, armed with more knowledge of how self-defense might play out in the July crowds. 

So as you take to Chicago's parks, malls, sidewalks, and lakefront this summer, remember to think like a martial artist. Don't let it interfere with your enjoyment of the day, but do make sure that the mindframe is there if you need it. Wear smart clothes and/or understand how your clothes will affect your martial arts. Be smart in crowds. And overall stay safe.