The martial arts of social justice

Turning reaction into response and being flexible in their moves, Californian campaigners use capoeira tactics to fight zero-tolerance in schools.

Jeremy Lahoud
18 December 2013

Capoeiristas in Brazil. Credit: All rights reserved. 

“Capoeira é defesa, ataque, a ginga de corpo, e a malandragem.”
“Capoeira is defense, attack, the sway of the body, and deception.”
Traditional capoeira song

Every activist knows that awful moment when they realize their campaign is about to hit a dead end.

I experienced that moment recently as an organizer with a coalition of youth organizations that were fighting for restorative justice in public schools in Southern California.  Unlike harsh and ineffective “zero tolerance” policies, restorative justice programs create a way for those who have committed a crime or misdemeanor to engage with those who have been harmed by their actions; to understand what happened, agree on a remedy, and build relationships that reduce the possibility of future harm.  Deep in our bones we want to end the disciplinary policies that push out large numbers of students of color from American schools each year.

Our campaign formula seemed strong: expose incriminating data about the effects of zero-tolerance from the school district in a forum that would also feature students and parents giving powerful testimonies from their personal experience. But pretty quickly we discovered that we had no leverage. None of the school board members were willing to come to the forum. The schools superintendent told us bluntly that our proposals were “dead on arrival.”

We had to make a choice: stick with the tactics we knew and organize a march on the school district, or bust out some brand new moves. We went for the latter, and won a victory that - when multiplied in communities across the country - could deal a serious blow to the school-to-prison pipeline in the USA.

The funny thing is that the moves we made weren’t new at all. They were moves that any practitioner of the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira (or capoeirista) would recognize; moves that echoed the powerful liberatory cultural traditions that grew out of the struggles of enslaved Africans and their descendants in Brazil; and moves that I’ve been learning for eight years now.

I’ve been a student of capoeira since 2005, when I joined the Omulu Capoeira group in Los Angeles. Capoeira is a cultural expression of survival and resistance that is grounded in a holistic conception of body, mind, and spirit, a vision that is much less fragmented than dominant Western concepts of these attributes as separate elements of our identity.

As a total body workout, capoeira demands rigorous training and uses movements that stretch the boundaries of human physicality. Played in a circle known as the roda in Portuguese, these improvised games demand swift thinking and a strategy akin to chess, while moving at 100 miles an hour. The songs and rhythms that serve as the heartbeat for capoeira give it a distinctly spiritual foundation, but this art form also provides important training for those who work for social justice.

For example, when I first began my training I would often react to attacks with an unthinking reflex, rather than responding to them carefully in ways that set me up for a successful counter-attack.  Responding in capoeira requires an immediate synthesis of thought and action. In our original campaign we threw aggressive kicks such as the martelo or “hammer” kick straight at the head of a much larger and more experienced opponent in the form of the school authorities, but then we learned how to recognize and respond to the stubbornness of our targets.

Take the moment when the schools superintendent decided to boycott our long-planned forum.  Our gut reaction was to escalate our tactics and organize a large rally outside the school board meeting. Instead, we took some time to develop a more nuanced response. We knew that the school district practiced a “top-down / bottom-up” approach to policy and administration: the board and superintendent set broad policies, and then they gave individual principals a lot of leeway in how to implement them. 

We also knew that several mid-level district administrators were open to the idea of restorative justice and concerned about the overuse of suspensions in their schools. So our youth leaders and adult organizers met with these administrators to develop a relationship, share stories, and open a dialogue around common concerns. These meetings included allies from the teacher community who shared positive experiences from restorative justice pilot programs in their schools.

Capoeira also requires a great deal of physical and mental flexibility.  The best practitioners have an inspiring ability to change their movements in mid-course while maintaining a beautiful flow. This flexibility connects to another concept of capoeira - the ability to “fake out” your opponent and make him or her react to a move that you’re not actually going to use. Such flexibility is critically important in social justice work, since the landscape of power and policies is constantly shifting. Leaders and organizers must exercise a continually-moving strategy to take advantage of emerging opportunities and changing relationships between their targets, allies and opponents. But perhaps the most important shift in our strategy was to understand the underlying motivations of the school district and its superintendent.

One of the preeminent figures in capoeira lore is the malandro, which roughly translates to “trickster” or “street hustler.”  Similar to the malandro described in Nestor Capoeira’s book, Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, we capitalized on our “ability to analyze people and situations with…cunning.”

“…malandragem is one of the basic tenets in the philosophy of capoeira…Closer to guerrilla warfare than the way of fighting of the traditional army. Closer to the way someone who is oppressed fights than do those in power… The Malandro works through his [or her] intelligence, seduction, charm, and a deep intuitive knowledge of life and human psychology.”

The ability to feign physical movements and adopt an attitude or expression that will draw your opponent into a set-up for an attack or takedown is a quintessential skill of high-level capoeiristas. As a relative novice in the decades-long trajectory of capoeira training, this skill is the hardest for me to grasp, but it has probably influenced my thinking about social justice work more than any other.

For example, we knew that the superintendent and school district were interested in being leaders among urban school districts, especially in areas like accountability, closing the achievement gap, and equity. So we worked with the State Assembly’s Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color to plan a policy hearing about California’s new school accountability standards. In order to build a bridge with the superintendent, we invited him to be a keynote speaker at the hearing to highlight the district’s leadership on these issues.  Our Malandro wasn’t mean-spirited however - collaborating with the superintendent opened up new opportunities for dialogue and relationship building. Paying attention to his perspectives allowed us to see him in a different light, an awareness that’s critical to the call-and-response of great capoeira games, and similar to the empathy that’s required to make restorative justice programs work.

Our capoeira-inspired strategy paid off: to our surprise, the superintendent recently informed us that the school district was about to introduce a new resolution on discipline. The School Board voted unanimously in favor, urging “schools to build upon existing efforts to provide alternatives to suspension or expulsion, using multiple strategies…” including restorative practices.  While this resolution doesn’t represent everything the campaign wants to see, it does provide a strong basis for students and parents to advance restorative justice in schools across the district.

Our victory was certainly helped by the top-down pressure of new state and federal accountability requirements in the USA that aim to address suspensions in schools.  But it was the bottom-up pressure of our youth-led campaign that proved decisive, by turning reaction into response, being flexible in our moves, and practicing our own strategy of malandragem for social justice.

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