On February 10th-11th an autonomous gym in Ghent, Belgium hosted a training weekend bringing together participants from autonomous anti-fascist gyms all over Europe. In this feature article two two people who have been involved in their local London autonomous gym for four years talk about their experiences at the event, and about how future similar ones could be improved.
Roughly 100 people from autonomous anti-fascist gyms across Europe attended, including London’s north and south gym collectives. This was the third training weekend that the Ghent gym has organised and was the biggest and most internationally inclusive so far.
Promisingly, the email invite warned “no machos.” This is a stance our London gyms strongly hold, with north London’s SolStar being women-led and south London’s queer muay thai (featured here) having high involvement of people who aren’t cis men. The macho and oppressive environments of mainstream gyms is one reason why we train together as autonomous gyms. However, the weekend felt as if this message had not really got through to all participants, and was not necessarily a shared approach.
We appreciate the time and effort that the Ghent gym dedicated to running such a big event – organising a varied and interesting programme, arranging accommodation, and providing delicious food. Lots of the training sessions were really well run – we learned a lot from them and had fun. The training sessions were mostly classic boxing and muay thai kickboxing, but there was one grappling session which related grappling to practical street defense.
However, we were surprised at the overall macho atmosphere and approach to training over the course of the weekend, and it made us feel quite uncomfortable. It may sound naive to be surprised at macho culture — perhaps we have just been lucky not to have experienced it in such a long time because of the people we train with. We contend that it’s not luck — rather a concerted effort to make training accessible. There were times at the training weekend, such as the sparring session, where we were less comfortable than we have been in mainstream gyms. This is not how it should be! What follows are a number of issues we had with how some of the weekend was organised. This is not to take away from what was a good weekend, but to consider how it may be improved, and how we want to train together.
Thinking about improvement
Macho culture and other bullshit was noticeable in a number of ways — sometimes it was not intentional, but it does show a lack of consideration. To be fair to the organisers, one issue was responded to when it was raised, but the onus should not continually be on those marginalised by actions to raise these issues — there should be a collective responsibility and awareness. For example, the only woman-led training was originally located in a smaller venue rather than the main venue — until a spirited challenge by Solstar, who had the training moved to the bigger venue. Announcing the re-location, the person said, “the women-led training by Solstar. We are curious.” Again, this is probably a harmless or naive comment, but is a training session led by a woman really a curiosity? It certainly felt like it was to lots of people there. For instance, when we explained that we were from a queer training gym we were asked whether we were queer and if we had any politics other than queer politics. Two days of this low-level “harmless curiosity” is quite draining.
This sort of thing continued. A young woman approaching the venue, kitted out in gym gear and carrying a gym bag, was asked if she was actually here for the circus skills workshop happening next door. Some welcome for her. A badly functioning toilet was regularly sorted out by women. In fairness, the food was cooked by a trio of lovely fellas. Other than Solstar’s class and a stretching workshop, all of the classes were led by men.
One reason a macho environment was able to dominate was the lack of an introduction and explanation of why we were all there and a talk on how and why we train together. It was also noticeable that, aside from the London clubs, a lot of the other clubs from across Europe appeared to be male dominated. At the start, someone proclaimed that the reason for the training weekend was that we want to fight Nazis. This is a fine aim, but autonomous gyms should be about more than this. It would have been helpful if the weekend had started with introductions from each gym and some guidelines of how we want to train together — this is particularly necessary in such a physical activity as fighting. In this time, we could also have shared some experiences from our gyms including problems we face and the ways we have dealt with them. For example, the Ghent gym is facing eviction and is struggling to find a new space, something our south London gym has also experienced.
It was only on the second day that the wonderful Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) teacher covered many points that should have been established at the very beginning. Over the introductory session to grappling (where he also looked at which BJJ techniques were and were not useful in self-defense/street situations) he encouraged us to take care of our partners, to practice techniques with certain percentages of strength (“go at 25% of your strength and remember to check in that you are still going at this level”), and to check in with our partners. He stressed that people should feel free to skip out anything they didn’t feel comfortable doing, while their partner should not take offence. He also reminded us that this should be non-competitive. His approach made it one of the most enjoyable classes and created an environment which encouraged learning and development.
Unfortunately, the next session was sparring, which was, in practice, wild fighting, with people careering across the hall and into one another — indefinitely. Again, this approach makes it inaccessible to lots of people, fairly dangerous, and not helpful for improvement. Usually, some helpful sparring guidelines include partners discussing what they are comfortable with before engaging; setting a clock for a two-minute round; having one pair spar at a time; and having others watching and giving feedback, especially encouraging the pair to relax and “power down” when necessary. This helps to create a supportive, fun and safe environment. With our club, regularly sparring in this way helps us to develop our skills: we learn a lot from watching each other and giving feedback during and after sparring.
Training weekends and inter-clubs are a great way to train together and learn from each other, and are an important part of building and strengthening our communities. It’s exciting to see autonomous radical gyms growing across the UK and Europe with more being established and more members joining. However, our gyms and training must not be radical only in name, but also in approach — we must look after each other and create supportive, inclusive, self-aware environments.
We train together because we know our projects are better when they are collective and self-organised. We want to learn self-defense skills and help build confidence, to meet new comrades, to get fit, and to have fun. When we train together, we shouldn’t have to deal with the same old macho shit.
Some upcoming autonomous antifascist fighting events include an Antifascist Combat Sports Seminar in Brighton on April 7th and an interclub in Hamburg, by Left Hook gym, also in April.
Pic via Indymedia