If the election of Donald Trump has inspired you to take a self-defense class, you’re far from alone. In fact people who are thinking exactly like you are already stretching the limits of New York City’s self-defense instruction facilities. In America’s cultural capital, fighting is the new crying.
Gabrielle Rubin has been practicing martial arts for 29 years. For the last nine, she’s run a women’s self-defense school in Manhattan called Female Awareness Self Defense. “My class for this Monday was packed,” she says. “I usually have packed classes, but between Wednesday and Sunday is the most packed I’ve seen in nine years.”
“It’s unbelievable,” she adds. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
After the long, quiet subway ride home from the place people expected to be when they witnessed Hillary Clinton win the presidency Nov. 8, after the days of tears and sleepless nights of speculation over just how difficult a Trump administration could make life for people who aren’t white and straight and men, a curious trend has emerged among some dejected liberal voters. They have decided to fight. Literally.
In New York and beyond, people concerned that in Donald Trump’s America the government and law enforcement won’t stand with marginalized groups are flocking to facilities that teach self-defense and fighting techniques. In many cases, demand for training for hand-to-hand combat vastly outpaces facilities’ ability to provide it.
New Yorker Lena Afridi, moved by Election Night, attempted to put together a self-defense workshop for people who thought learning self-defense might be a good idea, in light of recent events. The workshop she organized was met with so much demand, she says, that they had to change the workshop into a series. More than a thousand people RSVP’d.
At the Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Executive Director Tracy Hobson says what she’s seen in the last week is the biggest spike in interest in classes since her martial arts-meets-advocacy organization’s founding 42 years ago. “We saw another uptick in interest after 9/11… We do think it’s more now than then. The size, the number of calls that we’re getting.”
Hobson says her organization has fielded requests from upstate New York, from North Carolina, from Pennsylvania. In one case, a Muslim-American group requested self-defense training for 7,000 people. Hobson says 300 people RSVP’d to a multiweek self-defense and violence de-escalation workshop the organizational periodically offers. Their facility can accommodate 25 at a time.
“For the next one,” Hobson says, “we’re getting a bigger space.”
Patrick Lockton, the director of the Krav Maga Institute in New York, is a bit mystified by the sudden rush at facilities in the city. “Traditionally, just before Thanksgiving, it’s a quiet time of year,” he says. “It’s been the busiest November, especially in the last week. It’s been unbelievably busy.”
KMI, with branches spread over New York plus an affiliate school in London, is the largest self-defense school in the U.S. He tells The Daily Beast that two days after the election, the number of attendees at an introductory session to learn Krav Maga, a fighting technique originally developed by the Israeli Defense Force, was double what one would normally expect around this time of year. One week later, the introductory session had swelled to triple its normal size. And the demographics of those introductory classes had changed, too. Normally, about 55-60 percent of entering students are men. Since the election, the gender balance has flipped. Lockton can’t declare conclusively that current events caused the surge, but he can’t think of anything else that might have done it.
Fighting techniques that rely more on aggression and less on defense are seeing an increase in interest as well. “Usually each week I get about five or 10 inquiries,” says René Dreifuss, head coach and head instructor at Radical MMA in New York. “And just yesterday, I got 15.”
“It’s huge,” he adds. “Huge.”
Many martial-arts and self-defense schools contacted by The Daily Beast say that women, Muslim Americans, and LGBTQ individuals account for an uncharacteristic portion of the latest barrage. This could be due to increased instances of hate crimes targeting specific groups that happen to typically align with the other side of the aisle than President-elect Trump and his supporters. The FBI recently released statistics that showed a 6 percent increase in hate crimes last year, mostly due to an escalation in incidents against Muslims. “It’s definitely the level of—I wouldn’t say paranoia, but I would say cautiousness,” says Dreifuss.
Radical MMA is in the planning stages of putting together a special seminar for members of groups that could be targeted by hate crimes in a cultural climate where the mainstream has deemed the attitude behind them more acceptable. “In hate crimes, the patterns of attack can be very different [than non-hate crime attacks],” says Dreifuss. “If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, you’re probably going to be approached by more than one person, it’s usually two on one or three on one. They triangulate you. They back you into some sort of corner and they bum rush you. They trap you first, they corner you first.”
The number of Muslim-American, LGBTQ, and women’s groups that has contacted Brooklyn’s Center for Anti-Violence Education has far surpassed the facility’s capabilities. Executive Director Tracy Hobson notes there’s a desperation in some of their requests. They need self-defense training, and they need it now. The organization has called on per-diem employees to help address their increased needs, but those can only go so far.
In other parts of the country, the cause-effect relationship between President-elect Trump’s #MAGA nation and a flocking to self-defense instruction is less cut and dry. For example, in Southfield, Michigan, a middle-class suburb of Detroit, more people than usual have filled classes at Dallo Martial Arts. But Nick Cavellino, who holds the title of Sihing (which loosely translated means “big brother in the art”) at the facility, says people aren’t heading his way because they’re worried Donald Trump’s minions are going to personally victimize them. “Some people are interested in self-defense because of all the riots and stuff,” he says.
And in Chicago, Jeff Horvitz’s Krav Academy Inc. has seen an increase in membership due to local crime—assaults, robberies, and sexual assaults in gentrified neighborhoods like Wicker Park. “I’m getting a lot more interesting calls from more women. I’m getting more calls from people from India, which is unusual. I’m getting calls from women who are joggers and women who work late at night,” he says.
Panic over what a Donald Trump administration would actually do to already-marginalized groups isn’t confined to New York City, where it seems the masses are unwittingly fashioning themselves into an army of hand-to-hand combat experts.
Amelia Dorn, director of IMPACT Personal Safety of Colorado in Denver, has also noticed a marked acceleration in people interested in enrolling in self-defense classes. “We’re getting this week as many as we’d get in a month or two,” she says.
Dorn believes that the election’s outcome indicated to many of her students that they can’t trust the government to look out for their needs. “I think that there is the sense that while the judicial and legal system were less than helpful [to sexual-abuse survivors] a couple weeks ago, now it feels so permissive, it seems to excuse the behavior of misogynists… These women feel now that trusting the people in power is not even a choice. Reporting it to the police is not even a choice. If something happens to them, they feel like half the world is going to think that they’re ridiculous and blame them.”
For those concerned about Donald Trump, the real battle over the next four years will be fought in the Supreme Court confirmation process, in local and state governments, in Washington backrooms that would be filled with smoke 20 years ago but now are filled with the ghosts of bygone senators’ flatulence. And a real revolution, if it were to come to that, wouldn’t be fought through grappling. So why engage in physical training in the wake of existential trauma?
Southfield, Michigan’s Nick Cavallino believes there’s catharsis in the art of physical engagement. Chicago’s Jeff Horvitz says Krav Maga teaches practitioners not to hesitate in responding to violence. Brooklyn’s Tracy Hobson believes that while self-defense can’t defend anybody against the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, it can encourage people to remain engaged in society as human beings, to leave their houses, to be a part of a world that suddenly feels hostile.
“I do think it helps people build their confidence right now,” she says. “We see this with survivors. Self-defense helps them get their confidence, helps them move in the world with their whole selves. And I think that’s not to be underplayed.”