Fight Club

How I learned self-defense from an anti-immigrant group and lived to write about it

Keith Hardine is a tall, fit African-American with a big smile; he looks not unlike a younger Ernie Hudson circa Ghostbusters, or Larry Elder if he hit the gym a little more. He shakes my hand and gives me some pepper spray.

Hardine is about to teach me how to defend myself against Mexicans.

We're at the Women's Club in Garden Grove, and five to eight people have shown up for the self-defense/pepper-spray training advertised on the website of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), the notorious anti-immigrant group that spawned Proposition 187 and the Minuteman Project. Hardine is not only an Aikido instructor, but also a spokesman for the Christian conservative group Campaign for Children and Families, as well as the right-leaning Coalition on Urban Renewal and Poverty.

I'm the only one who has actually purchased the pepper spray from Hardine at the door, and he has considerately covered the nozzle in masking tape so I won't accidentally hose anyone. He asks us if we're familiar with the group he belongs to—the Minutemen. Most of us nod.

At this point, it seems fair to wonder, given that the Minutemen are primarily obsessed with the border, why one would need pepper spray to fend off dehydrated Mexicans crawling through the final stretch of a desert crossing? Before the question can be asked, however, Hardine makes it clear that the main focus of the class is protecting oneself at protest rallies. What do you do if a disgruntled local throws a frozen soda can at your head or tries to snatch your "Tancredo for president" sign? We're about to find out.

"The police have already told us: don't carry metal objects on our marches," Hardine says, before demonstrating the use of a hard plastic cylinder called a kubaton. As I'm the only person in the room close to Hardine's size, he picks me to demonstrate on, but thankfully, unlike Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite, he stops just short of kicking my ass, while making it very clear he could easily break my wrist or jab the kubaton into my neck in a matter of seconds. In case you were wondering, the kubaton is more effective than the black cat, a kind of knuckle duster with two triangular points shaped like feline ears.

We are advised against marching with large flagpoles; even though they can be used as weapons, they're too long to do any good in close quarters. A CCIR member who's just observing the class chimes in at this point on the value of sawed-off shotguns and machine guns in urban combat. Hardine favors a hard plastic sign with "Stop illegal immigration" printed on it, and shows us how you can easily attach to it the kind of small American flag frequently seen on cars after 9-11. He proclaims it "nice and conservative," and it isn't clear if he means modest or right-wing. Possibly both.

Like every other culture warrior in the country, Hardine has seen the movie 300and applied it to his world-view, though it's not clear he was paying close attention, since he misidentifies the protagonists as Romans and the villain as "what's his name—Irxes?" Nonetheless, he advises us to think of the plastic sign as our shield and the pepper-spray canister as our spear. The basic technique here is to strap the pepper spray to the inside of your hand with the Velcro holster it comes with. (We are also admonished never to give up said holster, even if security somewhere forces you to hand over the spray canister.) With the spray thus secured, we are to hold up the sign with both hands, in a manner that ensures your weapon cannot be seen.

Hardine advises us against getting into shouting matches with counterprotesters, noting you never convince anybody that way and it's best to keep a cool head. But if one tries to grab your sign, he or she is taking your property, and you have the right to defend yourself. Hence, the maneuver we now practice, wherein when a sign is snatched by an enemy, we twist it with our left hand while raising and firing the pepper spray with our right.

"Why don't you sock 'em in the Adam's apple?" inquires a hunched-over old man in the audience.

Hardine laughs.

"We don't want to kill them!" he says.

Maybe Hardine doesn't, but I'm starting to get the sense that some in attendance do.

There's footwork involved, as well; a basic fencing stance to begin with, followed by four subsequent steps that Hardine does so quickly I can't keep up. We're paired up to practice the moves, and I'm teamed with a middle-aged Asian woman who's having a harder time following directions than I am. She's way too slow at raising the pepper spray and doesn't even lift it high enough to get me in the face. I help her improve a bit, only later realizing that that might make me indirectly responsible for the temporary blindness of a protester somewhere down the line.

When our sensei is convinced we all have the basic idea, he has us sit down, and then he demonstrates his mad skillz with a bamboo fighting fan.

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