Shaun Leonardo leading “I Can’t Breathe” (2017), part of the Laundromat Project’s Kelly Street Collaborative program, Perennial Love: Black Lives Matter an ongoing series of events regarding the ongoing crisis of racial violence in their communities, and moving towards creating spaces of healing, creativity and reflection. (all images courtesy The Laundromat Project)

I grab Shaun Leonardo’s wrists and hold on tight, as instructed. He moves his hands quickly, rotating his palms up and out in a motion that describes a whale’s tail. He breaks my grasp like this again and again, until he is sure that everyone in the room has a sense of how to do this themselves. This is the first lesson.

I am participating in Leonardo’s “I Can’t Breathe,” a public, participatory workshop and performance that takes the form of a self-defense class. Leonardo and I know each other only a bit, having recently attended two dinners to which we were invited. On the second meeting we took the time to talk with each other and I found out that he had done this work on the heels of Eric Garner being strangled to death by New York City police — an event that still makes me cycle between despair and fury. The first time Leonardo staged this performance was at Smack Mellon in February 2015, almost two months after the death of Garner. Leonardo estimates that by the end of May, he will have staged it a dozen times since then, at art galleries, an art fair, high schools, community centers, and universities. When I heard that he would reprise this work at the Laundromat Project, I made a point of attending.

The participants learning how to make space to breathe when placed in a choke hold.

On the evening of the workshop/performance, when I and the rest of the audience members and staff of the Laundromat Project mill around, waiting for the event to begin, Shaun approaches me and asks me whether I’m willing to be the model who works with him to demonstrate the defense tactics. I don’t think about it long. I agree. I think I do because Shaun Leonardo has a very forthright manner. I get the sense he’s not hiding because he faces me when we talk, and the look on his face tends to move between contemplative and friendly. His openness becomes more apparent the second time we meet, when he hugs me un-self-consciously, without that typical fear of physical intimacy I encounter with most men.

The author demonstrating the choke hold on Leonardo

Over the course of the next hour or so, we the participants learn to break specific physical restraints: someone holds our wrists with their hands, or grabs and holds our shirt from the front. We learn to block an overhand right cross, which is the kind of punch most typically thrown, while pivoting out of the way to make an avenue for escape. Leonardo says that over and over: we are just making enough space and time to run.

We are of all different shapes and sizes, from large to thin and petite. And we are of many backgrounds, with black, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Puerto Rican participants. The partner I am paired with is Oscar Diaz, who is only slightly shorter than me, but much younger and somewhat thinner. I am now thinking about bodies because they are present here in a way that they are not normally in an art performance. It’s crucial that I understand Diaz’s abilities so that I don’t go too soft or not hard enough. We are here to learn, after all. This awareness carries over to Leonardo’s body when he asks me to place him in a choke hold. He seems solidly built, but there is, until he decides to move, a certain softness to Leonardo, which has the effect of making me want to be very careful as I wrap my left arm around his neck, pull tight, use the fingers of that left hand to grab my right bicep, and then lock my right hand on top of his head. I know this is how people have died, and for a moment I realize that Leonardo is in more ways than one my brother, the brother that I never had, and I close my eyes.

Leonardo directing the participants to get out of a chokehold once brought to the ground

At the beginning of the performance Leonardo says that he asks only one thing of the participants: “that they take this seriously.” I can understand this being necessary, as people could easily freak out and laugh or make a game of this to dissolve their nervousness and fear. Leonardo says he requests two things of the ones who are watching: that they take this seriously and remain present. I take these injunctions to heart. I am present, with my hand clasping Leonardo’s neck until he taps my arm to indicate I need to let go.

Leonardo ends the performance by reading a script that contains key words that act as prompts for the participant who is designated as the aggressor. I remember “everybody, people, freedom, feeling, fear.” As I try to grab Diaz in one of the various holds, I realize he has forgotten some of what we had practiced. Perhaps it’s nervousness, but I also understand that it will likely take more practice for any of us to retain these movements that are meant to keep us alive.

The post-performance panel, from left to right, Shaun Leonardo, Shannon Jones, Shellyne Rodriguez, and Omar Arponare

After the performance, there was a conversation held at Leonardo’s behest with Shannon Jones from Why Accountability, Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx, and Omar Arponare from People Power Movement. That conversation was almost the opposite of what I had just experienced, which was emotional and intimate and made me appreciate brotherhood in a way I have not before — to recognize that my brothers care for my survival. In it Leonardo tried to suss out what strategies Jones, Rodriguez, and Arponare use to organize their members and communities. The panelists spent a lot of time talking about their issues with the police, landlords, and their personal struggles, but were mostly unable to focus on strategies. More, when Leonardo posed a question soliciting suggestions on what might reconfigure or restore trust between police and the communities represented by the panel, Jones loudly denounced the question as invalid. Here her speech ironically reminded me of the kinds of polemics spouted at rallies by supporters of the current President: a shallow grasp of US history, insistence on conformity to a certain linguistic orthodoxy, the rejection of any information that is not relayed through personally known sources, a suspicion of institutions (like the press) and all knowledge they circulate, a valorizing of overblown rhetoric, and contempt for views that don’t comport with their own. The panelists seemed ill equipped to reach others beyond the circles in which they already were active, and so imagined survival as rooted in shutting everyone else out.

This seems important, because part of Leonardo’s aim appeared to be to engage people in a way that gave them ideological defense tools as well as physical ones. At the end, I realized indeed how much these tools are needed by we people of color whose bodies are at risk. It’s not only that we can become angry and defensive when we are made more intimately aware of our vulnerability, but also that in these moments we often lack the tools to move through and past our anger to clarity — tools such as negotiation and long-term strategizing for achievable targets.

Still, what stayed with me is the caring of a man who acted like a brother to me, showing me how to pull down an aggressor’s arm to make space to breathe, knowing that I would be taken to the ground and possibly hurt, but down there in the muck and the mire, still alive.

Shaun Leonardo’s “I Can’t Breathe” took place at the Laundromat Project (920 Kelly Street, Foxhurst, the Bronx) on Saturday, February 25 as part of Laundromat’s Kelly Street Collaborative program, Perennial Love: Black Lives Matter.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...