Monday, February 13, 2012

Austin Women, Don't Quit Now

Austin women, I’m so proud of you. Don’t quit now.

Our city has had a rough start to 2012. A rash of assaults and the murder of 29-year-old Esme Barrera early Jan. 1 shattered Austin’s sense of security. Women feared solo trips to the grocery store at night, jogging alone at sunrise, and walking their dogs in neighborhoods where they had once felt safe.

In 11 years as a self-defense instructor, I’ve learned that in times as these, women either become ostriches or rise to fight.

Austin, you rose.

As tragic and heartbreaking as Barrera’s murder was, it burst open a floodgate of moms, daughters, career women, and sorority sisters taking proactive steps toward self-protection. Women snagged free pepper spray and self-defense classes. (About 300 women signed up for just one of many free self-defense courses offered by local martial arts schools.) Women of all ages, sizes, races, and financial means were eager to feel safe again.

In Krav Maga, Taekwondo, Ving Tsun Kung Fu, and other martial arts studios across the city, women learned to become aware of their surroundings, set and enforce boundaries, and apply simple, effective strikes to vulnerable areas of the body. They learned to kick shins, knee groins, and stomp feet; scrape and gouge eyes and punch and break noses; use their voice with confidence (at least two recent attempted assaults were thwarted by Austin women who cried out for help), and identify weapons of opportunity (a comb end thrust into an attacker’s throat, lip balm jammed deeply into the eye, the firm edge of a credit card pushed against the base of the nose).

Students repeatedly asked me, “Do these techniques work? I mean, will they REALLY work against a big guy who’s much stronger than me?” Again and again, I replied, “Yes, as long as you don’t panic, target soft zones, are explosive and relentless, and don’t quit. When you’re free, run.”

I’ve never witnessed such massive transformations. Once scared and meek women stood taller, spoke louder and clearer, and grew stronger and more empowered. They shared stories of past assaults. Some revealed their trauma to another for the first time, found support, and began an imperfect path toward healing.

Many women were understandably relieved the night the Austin Police Department announced that James Loren Brown, the prime suspect in Barrera’s murder and a string of other assaults, had committed suicide.

However, the harsh reality is that Austin—and the nation—has more than one perpetrator. Consider these sobering U.S. statistics:

• One in six American women have been victims of rape—either by a stranger or by an acquaintance, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

• More than 600 women are raped or sexually assaulted in the United States every day, according to a National Crime Victimization Survey.

• About 60 percent of sexual assaults are NEVER REPORTED to police.

Life amid so much violence can be overwhelmingly disheartening and terrifying. But Austin women, you rose. You chose not to be victims. You have thus far been determined to not become a crime statistic by being diligent and unreasonable regarding personal safety. And now some of you are turning to female neighbors and co-workers and sharing what you've learned:

Make yourself a hard target. Be aware of your surroundings. Lift your heads from the text you’re about to send and look around. Who’s there? Who’s not there?

Trust your intuition. When your gut is screaming that something’s not right, oftentimes, it isn't. Believe in what your body is saying.

FIGHT. When awareness and escape fail, be explosive, vicious, and unrelenting. Use your hands, feet, voice, and any other weapon within reach. Don’t stop fighting until you’re free and safe.

"But seriously," women repeat, "do these techniques really work?"

Ask 7-year-old Brittney Baxter, who fought off a would-be kidnapper last week in the toy aisle of a Walmart in Bremen, Ga. She struggled and screamed until her attacker let go.

Violent individuals are in our world—in aisles of super stores, in parking garages, on hiking trails, and in other places you might least expect. A woman can be aware and safety-mindful, and perpetrators may still cross her path. For instance, I consider myself uber aware, and that didn't stop a scary incident from happening recently.

Last week while I walked home at night from the boxing gym, a man in a Chevy “Good Times”-like van with duct-tape covered windows tried to lure me toward him by acting concerned.

He drove by me slowly and stopped a few yards ahead. So I stopped walking.

“You all right?” he asked, careful not to stick his head out of the van or show his face. I heard only his voice.

“I’m fine. Keep going,” I said. I was still wearing hand wraps from boxing class; I was obviously O.K. But he didn’t budge. Neither did I.

“You all right?” he asked again.

A little louder and more firm, I repeated, “I’m fine!”

Finally, he drove away—slowly. Once the van was out of sight, I ran home and called 911.

The need for self-defense technology is real—necessary for average women and veteran martial artists alike. (I'm a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo. I can break stacks of boards and tile with the blade edge of my hand, but I still have to practice self-defense skills every day.) Last week, I was able to stay safe by keeping my distance, remaining strong, and speaking confidently. More women and girls need these simple, basic tools.

Austin women, I’m proud that so many of you have been proactive about your safety since New Year’s Day. You've refused to be paralyzed by fear. You've willingly stepped outside your comfort zone. But don’t let your guard down now. Don’t let Barrera’s murderer and other perpetrators threaten your future safety and steal your freedom. Austin women, you’ve come so far. Don’t quit now.