Self Defense with the Flashlight Phone App

Photo on 8-20-13 at 8.37 AMIf you have the free Flashlight app on your iPhone, you know how handy it is in a dark parking lot or when you discover, as I often do, that you stayed a little too long at the park with your dog and can no longer see the trail. The app activates your phone’s built-in camera flash, which you can use as a constant light source, a strobe, or a distress signal (there’s even an automatic Morse Code “SOS” setting). It also has a compass that uses your phone’s GPS to show you which way is north.

I’ve also noticed this about the app: If you point the light directly at someone’s eyes,  it will effectively blind them–for the same reason people blink when you take their picture: That flash is intensely bright. I’ve tried this on a dark night and it makes the person holding the phone impossible to see. In an uncertain situation, that’s the arrangement I prefer: Me in the darkness, the other person brightly lit. The light of the flash also leaves afterimages on the retina pretty quickly, so the benefit lasts past the initial burst of light.

Unlike devices that promise to turn your phone into a Taser (I can’t imagine that ever malfunctioning, can you?), Flashlight wasn’t designed as a weapon. But like all useful tools, it has practical self defense applications.

Accident and injury risk factors for martial artists

accident_sign300I thought some other martial arts instructors out their might be interested in this list I put together to help assess factors that contribute to accidents and injuries during training. As a rough rule of thumb, the more such factors are in play at any one time, the more alert instructors and students should be to avoid accident or injury. If I have a lot of these factors present in a class, I lean more toward the conservative options every time I’m faced with a choice about what to do next (let people work on their own, or spend a little more time reviewing first? Full contact sparring, or half speed with hands only?)

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I welcome suggestions and comments. What factors have played into injuries and accidents in your experience?

Space and equipment

  • Are you in a space designed for the purpose, or are you using a space that was designed for some other activity?
  • Is the space large enough for the number of people and the activity level?
  • Is it small enough that everyone can see and hear you?
  • Does the space have proper equipment, such as mats?
  • Are participants wearing the correct gear for the activity? If not, how are they adjusting? (Does “I forgot my mouthguard” mean “No head contact” or “Sit out”?)
  • Is the lighting adequate for everyone to see what is going on (not just in their immediate space, but throughout the room)?
  • Is the temperature excessively cold or hot?


  • What range of skill levels is represented among the students? Are all students similarly skilled, or do you have a mix of beginners and old pros?
  • How much experience do participants have with this TYPE of activity or technique?
  • How much experience do they have with this SPECIFIC activity or technique?
  • How much experience do YOU have with the activity or technique?
  • When was the technique or activity last taught, reviewed, or practiced?

Physical issues

  • Do participants have any injuries or limitations?
  • Does anyone have a significantly different fitness level from the rest of the group (lower OR higher)?
  • Are all participants adequately warmed up?
  • How fatigued are they?

Partner/relationship factors

  • What is the size/weight/gender/age/experience differential between partners? (In my experience, more disparity generally translates to higher risk.)
  • Do the partners have a prior history of working well together? Of problems?
  • How new is each person to the group?
  • Has any participant ever expressed, privately or otherwise, concerns about working with anyone else in the group?
  • Are partners actively communicating about appropriate force and speed levels? Have you explicitly told them they need to do this? Have you demonstrated how to do this?

Energy levels

  • Are there observers, photographers, or guest students present?
  • Is it a formal demonstration?
  • Is it a promotion class?
  • Does anyone have a brand-new belt or stripe?

Chance-medley, martial arts, and self defense: Why “stand your ground” laws are hazardous to our health

Fistfight, circa 1700

Chance-medley: An avoidable fight

Kind of a long post here. I’ve been thinking about these things a lot in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.

Back in March 2012, Garrett Epps wrote an illuminating piece on “Stand Your Ground” laws for The American Prospect, locating their roots in the traditional “castle doctrine,” which allowed people to use deadly force when attacked in their homes. Epps also explains how state legislatures in America have distorted the castle doctrine into a mechanism that privileges violence as a response to any conflict: Modern “stand your ground” laws conflate life-threatening, unprovoked assault (being attacked by a home invader, for example) with the far more common sorts of conflict people engage in. These more common conflicts were called, in old legal terms, “chance-medley.” Chance-medley occurred

when two people got into an avoidable quarrel—in a pub, say—that graduated to violence. These quarrels could easily escalate. If one party to a chance-medley attacked the other, the person attacked might end up with the choice of killing or being killed. When the party attacked killed the attacker, he or she might claim self-defense—but only when the evidence showed that the eventual killer had tried to break off the encounter, or “retreat.” Even then, the killer was not justified but merely “excused.”

That obligation to retreat if at all possible, in order to avoid taking another’s life, is critical. It demonstrates a basic awareness of the social contract that even medieval Europeans appreciated. And this obligation ought to be familiar to martial artists, because it was drilled into us by our teachers: A martial artist is humble. A martial artist controls her power. A martial artist only fights when absolutely necessary.

We weren’t taught these precepts solely because our instructors were worried about liability. They reflect thousands of years’ experience with the use and abuse of violence. They are an acknowledgement that if we cannot subdue our own egos, we damage not just our opponents and ourselves, but the very fabric of society.

OK, so I find stand your ground laws repugnant because of my martial arts training. You might think that, as a self defense advocate, I see some value in them. After all, they give me the right to use as much force as I deem necessary, up to and including lethal force, if I’m attacked. That means I don’t have to worry about hurting my attacker “too much.” I’ve gone on the record with my doubts about the “ethic of least harm” for women’s self defense. The idea that we have an obligation to do as little harm as possible to our attackers is appealing in theory, but not always practical. And this approach can do more harm than good if it makes women less likely to resist an assailant, for fear they’ll be punished for fighting back “too hard.”

The problem is that stand your ground laws aren’t really designed to protect women who hit an attacker’s windpipe so hard that he suffocates, or women whose attackers fracture their skulls on the sidewalk when they are knocked down. Instead, they provide justification for people in chance-medley conflicts–avoidable fights–to use deadly force. Florida’s statute (which was written by the NRA and ALEC) legalizes deadly force if someone “reasonably believes it is necessary . . . to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself,” and explicitly states that the person using force “has no duty to retreat.”

We’ve now seen how that plays out. An adult with a gun and a vision of himself as a lone enforcer of justice can follow, accost, and shoot an unarmed teenager, and walk free. A man can confront someone who owes him money, escalate the argument to a physical fight, retreat to his vehicle to obtain a gun, start a four-person gunfight in the middle of the street, finally shooting his debtor dead, and be immune from legal sanction–either criminal or civil.

This would be a bad thing even if stand your ground statutes were applied impartially–which they aren’t–and even if our justice system wasn’t permeated from top to bottom with racism and sexism. Stand your ground laws mean we can start and escalate fights with impunity. We can create as many victims as we like, in the name of defending ourselves. They give those who already favor violence as a solution to life’s problems an advantage over people with self restraint; they make responding with anything other than lethal force pointless. After all, if someone accosts me and I hit him in self defense, what’s to stop him from shooting me, claiming he “feared great bodily harm”? (Trust me, I can hit someone hard enough to cause great bodily harm.)

The logic is pretty stark: If I’m scared enough to hit someone, then I might as well just go ahead and shoot him instead, before he can shoot me. The law says I’m justified either way, so why take the chance?

And thus all my years of training, of learning to assess a dangerous situation and respond wisely, of nurturing compassion for myself and others even in the face of violence, of teaching women that they are worth defending because all humans have worth–all of that goes right down the toilet. Under today’s stand your ground laws, those values are deemed less important than any random asshole’s desire to pick a fight and play cowboy.

And that’s the ground we now stand on: Barren and blood-soaked. As any martial artist can tell you, unrestrained ego and pride leave you with nothing to be proud of, and little that’s worth defending.