“Capoeira é defesa, ataque, a ginga de corpo, e a malandragem.”
“Capoeira is defense, attack, the sway of the body, and deception.”
—Traditional capoeira song
Every organizer knows that awful moment, that slow stomach-churning realization that your campaign is about to hit a dead end.
I had that moment recently in my work with a coalition of local youth organizations fighting for Restorative Justice in public schools. Unlike harsh and ineffective “zero tolerance” policies, Restorative Justice programs create a way for those who have committed harm to dialogue with those who have been harmed, to understand what happened, agree on a remedy, and build relationships that reduce the possibility of future harm. Deep in our bones we wanted Restorative Justice and an end to the disciplinary policies that push out large numbers of African American, Latino, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander students every year.
Our formula seemed strong: expose incriminating school district data in a forum that would also feature students and parents giving powerful testimony from their personal experience. But pretty quickly we discovered that we had no leverage. None of the school board members were willing to come to the forum. The Superintendent boldly asserted that the issue of discipline reform and our campaign proposals were “dead on arrival.”
We had to make a choice: stick with the moves we knew and escalate our current strategy (e.g., march on the school district headquarters) – or bust out some brand new moves.
We went for the new moves, and won a victory that – multiplied in communities across the country – could deal a serious blow to the school-to-prison pipeline.
The funny thing is, the moves we made weren’t new at all. They were moves that any capoeirista would recognize, moves that echoed the powerful liberatory cultural practice that grew out of the struggles of enslaved Africans and African descendants in Brazil.
Moves that I’ve been learning for eight years now.
Let me start from the beginning: I’ve been a consistent student of the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira since 2005, when I joined the Omulu Capoeira group in search of a sense of community after moving from Chicago to the often isolating, urban sprawl of greater Los Angeles. As the only known martial art to emerge from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the European conquest of the Western Hemisphere, capoeira is now a global phenomenon. Capoeira is a cultural expression of survival and resistance with deep African roots grounded in a holistic conception of body, mind, and spirit – one much less fragmented than dominant Western concepts of the three as separate elements.
As a “total body workout,” capoeira demands rigorous training and uses movements that stretch the boundaries of human physicality. The improvised game of capoeira – played in a circle known as the roda in Portuguese – demands swift thinking and a strategy akin to chess, but moving at “100 miles per hour.” The songs and rhythms that serve as the heartbeat and energy for capoeira give the art form a distinctly spiritual foundation.
So what does capoeira have to do with social justice organizing?
While eight years is a relatively short time to practice capoeira, I’m starting to glean broader life lessons from the art.
Take the key campaign moment I mentioned, when the Superintendent of Schools had basically decided to boycott our long-planned community forum. Our gut reaction was to escalate our tactics and organize a large rally outside the school board meeting.
Instead, we took some time to develop a more nuanced response, inspired, in part, by my experience with capoeira. We knew the school district practices a “top-down / bottom-up” approach to policy and administration. The Superintendent and Board set broad policies and give individual principals and schools lots of leeway in how to implement them. We also knew several mid-level district administrators were open to the idea of Restorative Justice and concerned with the overuse of suspensions. Over the summer, our youth leaders and adult organizers met with these administrators to begin to develop a relationship, share students’ stories, and open a dialogue about common concerns. One meeting included an ally teacher who shared very positive experiences with the Restorative Justice pilot program at her school. We reviewed the School Board’s current policy on student discipline and shared our ideas for revisions. Our campaign leaders worked with the teachers’ union and principals to promote Restorative Justice. Supportive City Council members helped us to draft a city resolution urging the district to support alternatives to suspension.
Looking back through a capoeira lens, I can name three key ways that we shifted our approach – three shifts that lay at the heart of our 2013 campaign win.
1 Turn Reaction Into Response
When I first began practicing capoeira, I would often react to attacks with an unthinking reflex, rather than respond to them. I would often flinch and barely escape a kick flying towards my head. As I’ve progressed in my capoeira skills, I now try to be much more responsive to attacks during games in the roda. My responses are quick but thoughtful defensive or evasive moves that set me up for counterattack. Responding in capoeira requires an immediate synthesis of thought and physical action.
In our original campaign plans we were set to throw aggressive, straight kicks – such as the martelo or “hammer” kick – at the head of a much larger, more experienced opponent. Of course, we could have played the game that way, but it wouldn’t have been very wise. In the roda, this approach would have left us with hurt pride or hurt bodies or both. Instead we regrouped and figured out a response to our target’s stubbornness.
2 Make Flexible Moves
Capoeira requires a great deal of physical and mental flexibility. The best capoeiristas have an inspiring ability to change movements in mid-course all while maintaining a beautiful “flow” to their game. They almost instinctively choose from the capoeira “toolbox” of many different physical movements to lead or respond to the flow of the game in the roda. This flexibility connects to another concept of capoeira practice and philosophy: the ability to “fake out” your opponent and make him or her react to a move that you’re not actually going to use.
Flexibility is critically important in social justice organizing, as the landscape of power and policies is constantly shifting. Organizers and leaders must exercise a flexible strategy in order to take advantage of emerging policy opportunities or changing relationships between our institutional targets, opposition, and allies.
The shift in our campaign strategy demonstrated this flexibility. Taking the time to build relationships with district folks on the “ground level” and to surface shared values was akin to a capoeira game played on the “floor” that builds a good “flow” with your opponent. These weren’t the moves of surrender, but rather evasive and defensive moves that set us up for more proactive tactics. They were similar to the capoeira-like takedown moves and sweeps that allow a smaller or less physically strong capoeirista to bring down an opponent from the floor. While we didn’t actually use the famous capoeira tesoura – the scissors move you do with your hands down and legs up — building relationships with mid-level managers, the teachers’ union, and principals played to the district’s “top-down / bottom-up” approach.
3 Analyze With Cunning
Perhaps the most important shift in strategy was our attempt to understand the self-interest and motivation of the Superintendent and the district. One of the preeminent figures in capoeira lore is the malandro, which roughly translates to “trickster” or “street hustler.” Similar to the malandro described in Nestor Capoeira’s book, Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, we capitalized on our “ability to analyze people and situations with…cunning.”
The ability to feign physical movements, to put on an attitude or expression that will draw your opponent into a set-up for an attack or takedown is a quintessential skill of high-level capoeiristas and mestres (masters). As a relative novice in the decades-long trajectory of capoeira training, this skill is the hardest for me to grasp. But it has probably influenced my thinking about social justice organizing campaign strategy more than any other.
The Brazilian-Portuguese word malandragem, best describes this skill. Malandragem doesn’t easily translate into English. In his book, Nestor Capoeira offers this explanation:
…malandragem is one of the basic tenets in the philosophy of capoeira and is similar to the cunning of the Hunter (Oxóssi)… Closer to guerrilla warfare than the way of fighting of the traditional army. Closer to the way someone who is oppressed fights than do those in power… The Malandro works through his [or her] intelligence, seduction, charm, and a deep intuitive knowledge of life and human psychology.
Using this psychological “hustle,” we knew the Superintendent and district were interested in being leaders among urban school districts, especially in the areas of accountability, closing the achievement gap, and equity. We worked with the State Assembly’s Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color to plan a policy hearing about California’s new school accountability standards. One of these standards requires districts to address discipline issues, including the disproportionate suspension of student subgroups. In order to build a bridge with the Superintendent, we invited him to be a keynote speaker at the hearing. It provided an opportunity for him to highlight the ways the district is playing a leading role in new accountability measures and improving outcomes for students in need, especially boys and young men of color.
The Superintendent accepted the invitation, which allowed us to meet with him to review the agenda and plans for the hearing. In reality, our “hustle” wasn’t mean-spirited at all. Collaborating with the Superintendent opened up new opportunities for dialogue and relationship building. Paying attention to the Superintendent’s perspective allowed us to “see” him in a different light, an awareness that’s critical to the call-and-response of great capoeira games.
To our surprise, at the end of a recent delegation meeting, the Superintendent informed us that the district would introduce a resolution on discipline policies and practices at the School Board meeting the following week. Poised to respond to the Superintendent’s move, the coalition mobilized 200 youth, parents, and community members for an energetic and positive rally outside the School Board. More than fifty campaign members attended the Board meeting inside to support the passage of the resolution. A slew of student and parent speakers shared their perspectives and support during public comment.
Our capoeira-inspired strategy paid off. The Board voted to unanimously pass a resolution that “urges careful monitoring… to prevent… a disproportionate share of suspensions from occurring at a given campus or within demographic subgroups of students” and “urges schools to build upon existing efforts to provide alternatives to suspension or expulsion, using multiple strategies…” including restorative practices. While the resolution is not everything the campaign wanted to see, it provides a strong basis for students and parents to advance alternatives to suspension and Restorative Justice on campuses across the district.
Our win was certainly helped by the “top-down” pressure of new state and federal accountability requirements to address discipline and suspensions. And our bottom-up pressure as a youth-led campaign was key, turning reaction into response, being flexible in our moves, and practicing our own strategy of malandragem.
Now if I could just get my own capoeira skills to progress that quickly!