By Stefan Verstappen
Originally published in Black Belt Magazine June ’01
What would you do if you found yourself in a dead end alley, at three in the morning, in the middle of gang town, and you’re surrounded by a dozen armed men?
This is the type of question so often heard in martial arts schools these days and what the questioner usually wants to know is how to rip someone’s head off.
The current trend is to judge a martial art according to its combat worthiness on the street. This increasing need to know what will work on the streets has spawned numerous schools, from Russian Spetznaz and Navy Seal Training, to styles invented by bouncers, bodyguards, and bikers. Students of these styles can rest assured that what they are learning will truly work on the street. The problem with this approach is that it implies that the only answer that martial arts has to offer about conflict, is to resolve it with violence. But is this what martial art were designed to do?
For traditionalists, martial arts are intended to teach, in addition to physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, basic survival. Man as a species rose to the top of the food chain as a result of his wits, an observation not lost on the ancient generals of old China. For the cunning, to face an enemy in open confrontation would be a fourth rate solution for someone who has already made three serious mistakes: Not knowing the territory, not moving about in secrecy, and not evading a direct attack. It is only when all your strategies and tactics have failed, that you resort to ripping someone’s head off.
The following will correlate crime prevention and street smarts with the writings of East Asian military strategists to show that the ancient battlefield and the modern urban jungle are not so different after all.
We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country and its terrain. We are unable to take advantage of natural terrain unless you use local guides.
The most important piece of advice is to always know where you’re going and what the local terrain will be. Whenever you go on vacation, visit friends, attend a new school, or travel through unknown areas, find out what the neighborhood is like. Ask locals, such as waitresses, bartenders, taxi drivers, police, tourist and travel agents, questions such as: is the area known for street crime? Is there a lot of gang activity? Do buses and taxis go there after dark? Is it an area you should avoid entering? If it is, then don’t go there. It’s that simple.
In social and professional relationships, the attitude is the same as that of the warrior, even when there is no discord. The mindfulness to observe the dynamic of situations, even in a group, is the art of war.
Yagyu Munenori, The Book of Family Traditions in the Art of War
Keep alert, walk with a purpose, be attentive to your surroundings and prepare yourself mentally for an attack. Think of a plan of action you would follow if you were attacked. Consider where you could run to for help such as the nearest police or fire station. When entering social situations scan the crowd for troublemakers, the loud and obnoxious, the drunks, and the brooding loners. Note exits, cull-de-sacks, and always sit facing the entrance.
It is a doctrine of war not to assume the enemy will not come, but rather to rely on one’s readiness to meet him; not to presume that he will not attack, but rather to make one’s self invincible.
When you plan to walk a fair distance, wear footwear and clothing that are comfortable and can allow you to move quickly. Do not overburden yourself with bulky packages. Carry only the bare essentials. If you must for some reason travel through territory known for street violence then you should be well prepared: travel with friends, carry a cell phone with the speed dial set for 911, prepare a decoy wallet, carry a legally concealable weapon.
Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as the night.
Play the `Grey Man’ which means being inconspicuous while blending into the background. Dress like the locals, the more one is different, the easier it is to single you out. Do not display large sums of cash in public or wear highly visible and expensive jewelry or clothes. If standing alone at night at a bus stop, avoid standing directly underneath the light, by doing so you make it easy for anyone to see that you are alone. Instead stay in the shadows away from the light so that your silhouette does not stand out. This makes it more difficult to spot you from a distance or from cruising automobiles.
Do not linger in isolated areas. On difficult ground keep moving.
Do not allow strangers to stop you on the street for conversations, to give directions, or to light a cigarette. These are stalling techniques used to set up an attack. Walk facing oncoming traffic while walking near the curb away from dark alleys and doorways.
One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable; one who excels in defeating the enemy does not join issue. This is known as the virtue of non-contention
If confronted by a mugger or gang, co-operate. Listen to what they say, and always answer in the affirmative in a quite, calm, voice. Be polite, while you might feel angry and believe you could overpower the robber, it is nevertheless essential that you pretend to be intimidated. This will allow the robber to relax his guard, then, if you feel you have no alternative but to attack, you can use your meek appearance to launch a surprise attack. Acting hostile and indignant may encourage the criminal to use a weapon that may or may not be visible. Personal safety is more important than material things. Resist only to protect yourself from harm, not to protect your belongings.
Hide Your Intentions
When the Sage is about to move, he will certainly display a stupid countenance.
The Six Secret Teachings of the Tai Gong
Another alternative when faced by a group of attackers is to play stupid. Say little or nothing and continually nod your head. Pretend to be mentally unbalanced. Act as though you have no idea what’s going on, drool slightly and let mucus run out of your nose. Most ignorant people are somewhat afraid of ‘crazy’ people, as though madness was infectious. In a street gang confrontation, humiliating an idiot brings only little face and hopefully they will get tired and leave. The important thing is to survive. Do not be led astray by stories of martial arts heroes who beat multiple attackers one after the other, the odds are just too much against your winning.
In single combat also, seize opportunities, and employ various tricks: Feint blows and thrusts and make your opponent think that you are going to strike him. When in this manner, you have induced a state of confusion in the opponent, take advantage of it and win.
If the demand is for money take out your cash and hold it up for the attacker to see. Then throw it on the ground between you and the assailant while backing away. When he bends to pick up the money, make a run for it.
If traveling through high risk areas carry a decoy wad, that is a wallet that has a real money bill on the outside but play money or paper cut to size on the inside. It may include credit cards that look official but are really under phony names and addresses (Cut out credit card ads from a magazine and glue them to cardboard). The decoy should look valuable, then if attacked or robbed you can throw the decoy in one direction while carefully and quickly leaving in the opposite direction. If the assailant is really after only your money then he will go for the decoy rather than you.
Escape and Evade
When overwhelmed, you don’t fight; you surrender, compromise, or flee. Surrender is complete defeat, compromise is half defeat, flight is not defeat. As long as you are not defeated, you have another chance to win.
The Thirty-Six Strategies
If given the opportunity, run. Try to get a good lead on your assailant and run towards lighted and crowded areas. Try to make the terrain between you and the attackers more difficult to cross. Knock things over as you run such as garbage cans, mail boxes, signs, tables, chairs, lamps, broken bottles. If it seems you cannot escape attract attention by throwing something heavy through the window of a house if in a residential area or storefront in a commercial area. The sound of breaking glass is distinct and always rouses interest to see what is being broken. In a store window this will set off an alarm that will attract attention and the police.
Choose the Place of Battle
It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not
The Thirty-Six Strategies
Never allow the assailant to take you to another location. If his purpose is to rob you then he will be satisfied with the money tossed down. If he tries to bring you to another location there is usually an ulterior motive. As a rule, anytime someone wants to take you to another location it is because they will have a greater advantage, and you will have less chance of being rescued. If you are going to have to fight it out, then do it before the odds are any more in the attacker’s favor.
Everyone has heard the old saying; live by the sword, die by the sword. If you are taught that aggression is best resolved by more aggression you will in the end only lose. After all no matter how strong and fast you are now someday you will get old, then what do you do?
There is also another old saying; patience and cunning beats youth and energy.