By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Crime and violence against Asians increased in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 scapegoating and long-held prejudices. In 2021, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) reported 112 racially based crimes against Asians in King County. Between March 2020 and March 2022, Stop AAPI Hate received reports of almost 11,500 hate-motivated incidents nationally. The battle is nowhere near over. A few days ago, Michael John Allen was charged with fourth-degree assault against an Asian woman in downtown Seattle. He also attacked two Chinese tourists. These types of incidents have driven many people to seek advice on how to protect themselves.
We “always want to be playing the ‘what if’ game. What am I going to do if the ball gets hit to me?” said Lauren Balter, a patrol officer at Seattle’s North Precinct. Mental preparation counts for a lot and is just as important as being physically capable.
“Envision what you will do in a certain situation…Do it physically as well. That’s another layer of motor programming that’s going to help solidify that training. Do it with other people and now you have a team.”
Balter, along with SPD Crime Prevention Coordinator Jennifer Danner, are part of that team. They and other SPD members teach a mixed gender personal safety class that is available online, as a hybrid, and in person. There are also related self-defense classes offered similarly through the Seattle Parks Department. In addition, on today’s phones, there are many apps, such as Life360, that will come to your aid in times of danger.
Most of us think of two kinds of safety when we think of self-protection. There’s how to be safe around our homes and environments, keeping poisons away from kids and pets, having an escape plan in case of fire, bringing enough water when we go hiking, that kind of thing. And then we think of self-defense if we are attacked. These days, the latter is more top of mind for many.
Grandmaster Chae Un Kim, of Burien’s Kwon Moo Hapkido, has been teaching self-defense to private citizens and public servants for years. At his school, martial arts is not a sport.
“There are two different types of martial arts…There is sport martial arts and real martial arts. Karate, taekwondo, these are good sports for kicking and punching…hapkido style is for self-defense. It’s not kicking. It’s punching. And using pressure points and twisting. It’s more defensive.”
“A lot of people find their way here for different reasons,” explained Kwon Moo Hapkido instructor and 3rd Dan black belt Elaine Chang. “Grandmaster doesn’t call it a sport…It’s a martial art and it’s something that could be applicable but hopefully you’ll never need…You have to be comfortable with the concept of violence but hoping that you never need to do something like that. Preparation…situational awareness I’m going to say is the most important.”
That mental preparation that you might have to hurt someone to protect yourself—yet hopefully never will—is key. A lot of what they teach at Kwon Moo Hapkido is practical, such as learning how to fall down without serious injury—but it’s also crucial for face-to-face confrontations.
“The violence, hopefully you’ll never use it. But we try to get people to be comfortable with it,” said Matt McDevitt, 3rd Dan black belt, instructor, and Chang’s husband. And they do get violent in class, which is why they don’t compete. Their moves could seriously hurt someone.
“Really that’s what it is, how to inflict damage on someone,” McDevitt added. [Grandmaster’s] flag is a fist.” Every class is spent punching, twisting joint locks, and McDevitt likes to add falling.
“Hopefully we’ll never punch anybody, but gravity is always out to get us.”
What do you do if someone hostile confronts you? First, call attention to yourself. SPD advises yelling, “Help!” though others feel that will make bystanders run away. The key is to make noise and let an attacker know you might be more trouble than it’s worth.
“It can be empowering to remind ourselves that we can be loud,” said Balter, who suggested practicing yelling in the car.
“This is not a fun topic to think about, but it’s one that we have to think about…You should never feel guilty about having to fight back. You have every right to protect yourself.”
During their personal safety class, the SPD representatives were mindful of cultural and gender differences. They spent a slide on assertiveness and brought up how women, especially, are taught not to say no.
“You are setting boundaries. You are exercising your autonomy and you are entitled to do that,” reminded Balter.
“Embrace boundary setting. That’s all you have in terms of personal safety. This applies throughout every aspect of your life.” It’s not always strangers that threaten us. People can make us feel unsafe at home or work. In those cases, set boundaries as a “litmus test” for the person’s intentions. “A normal person will respect that,” continued Balter. “Someone intending to do you harm might pressure you or question you or not respect those boundaries. That gives you even more information about what they might be intending to do.”
How do you protect yourself if it goes beyond yelling and the other person gets physical? One thing is to be aware of everyday items you can use as weapons, and objects you can place in between you, particularly in cases of “de-escalation”—today’s catchword due to increasing incidents of anger in public. Grandmaster Kim suggested using car keys as a weapon, making sure you hold them correctly so as not to injure yourself in the process—and aiming for the weakest points in a person’s body. He stressed this as the best type of defense for those with no martial arts training.
“If someone grabs you, you can jab the keys in their vulnerable spots, such as their ribcage, neck, etc. This is a good weapon.” In general, he said keep your keys out on your way to your car. Don’t be staring at your phone, and pay attention to what’s around you.
Danner emphasized listening to our instincts and quoted from a book, The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker:
“‘It’s okay to know without knowing why.’ I’ve felt fear and felt silly or ashamed and tried to explain it away. Stop doing that.
Fear is a gift to us. It’s our body’s way of telling us something is wrong before our brain can process. Learn to listen to those feelings.”
It’s hard to face the idea that danger might come to us, but facing that idea is the first step to survival in the moment. In stressful situations, we want to avoid losing the ability to think rationally—and help others get it back—which is why practicing in advance is helpful. “When you’re reacting versus acting, you’re always one step behind,” said Balter. “Make a plan and it helps you catch up.” We can do everything within our control to be safe and still, Chang warned, “If someone is going to attack you, they’re going to attack you regardless, so be prepared.”
For more information on Grandmaster Kim’s Kwon Moo Hapkido, go to: hapkidokwonmoo.com.
SPD’s personal safety classes can be accessed through:
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.