America is a nation divided in many regards, one splintered along lines of identity and circumstance. There is, of course, a long history of internal conflict in the United States, but the 21st century seems marked by intensified hostilities, resistance, violence, and threats of more to come.
One element of our national turmoil is the fight over racial equity in this country, the fulcrum of which has been the issues of police brutality and violence against black and Latino people in this country. There have been protests and countless debates but, as a nation, we still seem deadlocked over fundamental questions of how to treat the most vulnerable among us. It’s a worthy debate, but not one in which Shaun Leonardo is interested. Instead, he’s working to keep people safe.
For over a year, Leonardo has been leading public-participatory performances that take the form of self-defense workshops. In the past, the multidisciplinary artist had conducted performances that required him to get physical—he’d trained and performed as a wrestler, boxer, bull fighter, mixed martial artist.—but his most recent work taps into the current zeitgeist. Last year, after national headlines had been filled with the names of black people killed at the hands of police, Leonardo decided to put on I Can’t Breathe, a performance and self-defense workshop in honor of Eric Garner and other killed by cops that teaches participants actual defense moves and techniques to outmaneuver attacks, including the choke hold that ended Garner’s life.
“It really started when Trayvon Martin was killed,” says Leonardo. “My wife and I were considering having a kid and I remember looking at Trayvon’s face and realizing that much of what I had buried in terms of fear was all resurging. And I realized that the child I brought into this world would experience much of the same fear I experienced growing up in Queens. How do I cope with that? What can I do?” In 2015, Leonardo put on his first I Can’t Breathe workshop.
In the workshop, participants are paired off in a staggered arrangement around a room and given while Leonardo demonstrates a series of attacks and corresponding defensive moves. Taking cues from him, participants alternate between the roles of target and aggressor. It ends with the recitation of a script adapted from a Nina Simone interview.
“What's free to me? Same thing it is to you. You tell me. Just a feeling,” Leonardo shouts while the group performs the moves they’ve learned. “I'll tell ya what freedom is to me: No fear!”
Recently, Leonardo performed his workshop at The Cooper Union School of Art’s Wound study center in New York City. Complex joined Leonardo a performance of I Can’t Breathe to better understand the intention behind the workshop and to see it in action.
Have you received any pushback to the idea of teaching techniques for people to do more than just comply if they’re physically attacked by police?
I’ve been fortunate enough to bring this particular piece to different kinds of communities, communities in which this piece is felt very differently—young brothers and sisters for which the idea of police violence is very much felt. So, as far as reaction goes, all I can tell you is that there's a level of seriousness in the room so there is no controversy, to be very honest.
You started this workshop before Donald Trump was elected president but, throughout his campaign, there seems to be a rise in fear among American—people are afraid to that they’ll be assaulted. Does I Can’t Breathe land differently now?
What I have discovered, even in the bubble we consider New York City and in my immediate circles, is that there is a denial of the fear that is now embedded even more so than it was yesterday or the day before, in certain bodies prior to the election...People want to argue other aspects of that choice—the choice to elect someone like Donald Trump. People want to debate, people want to deny through words, but what it comes down to is that for some of us, words have direct implication to how others treat and perceive our bodies.
I return to this idea of embodiment, and it's something that I’m really invested in my work. How close can I get people to that fear? How can I have it live through another’s body so that at least for a moment you can feel and understand through feeling that it's not something that can be talked away.?
I’m curious: what have you seen I Can’t Breathe do for participants who, just based on their identity, feel targeted? What does it offer them?
For those individuals, these are tools that they can take home with them. However, it comes with the same warning that these techniques can very well lead to more harm because they are considered resisting arrest or they are considered resistance. What they do with that information really is up to everyone in the room.
Aside from the practical skills, is there any greater message that you want participants and witnesses to take with them when they leave?
I've said one thing before that holds true more now than ever, in my work, I'm not necessarily interested in empathy. And I’m certainly not interested in a conversation about compassion right now. More words. You have to let people feel. You have to let people be in their anger. And you have to let people face fear right in its face. To be in it, to try to understand it. You can’t talk away someone else’s fear. And so for right now in this moment, in the day that I find myself conducting this workshop, I want to make it hurt.