Kung fu fighting

Apr 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Clara Bradley's ex once punched her face so hard he cracked her cheekbone. Then he broke a couple ribs. A good relationship went bad because of booze, and the whiskey made him violent.

She escaped to a safe house and eventually moved on, but the assaults led her to take self-defense classes at the Yellow Tigers karate school in southwest Detroit, where she earned a black belt. "Now I can defend myself," the 40-year-old health care worker says confidently. She's now a teacher here. "Had I known that then, I could've saved myself the emotional and physical abuse."

Yellow Tigers, on Michigan Avenue near Junction, is a traditional karate school with an inner-city angle. Though its emphasis is on martial arts, the lessons here incorporate defense tactics against street violence, rape and domestic assault. The school's motto sums it up: "We come in peace, but we'll tear you to pieces."

"Our whole thing here is just teaching them about safety and being as much on their game as possible," says Delford Fort, the school's tall, 47-year-old founder and leader. "It's a mixture of street and just straight-up common sense. You have to be the kind of person who says, 'Today I'm not going to be a victim — you're going to be the victim. When you grabbed me you just became a victim.' So that's the attitude."

Fort grew up near Joy Road and Grand River Avenue, a corner along the path the '67 riot took as it blazed through the west side. "It completely destroyed the whole area over there," he says. "There was a Woolworth's, Jupiter's, Cunningham's, everything was there. Now? Coney islands."

He was 3 when his father died as the two were in a car accident. "I remember being in the back seat and going through the front windshield," he says. "I remember lying in the grass." In the years after the riot, his now-single working mom watched their neighborhood go to hell and its kids turn to crime, and enrolled her son in martial arts lessons to keep him out of trouble.

Fort trained under a karate teacher known only as Master Hotz, a 70-year-old bricklayer. "It was a very good mentorship," he says. "He gave me some good values, the same as I do with these guys now."

Fort picked up more karate styles from black military veterans returning from Vietnam, who'd claimed they learned them from the enemy who'd enter their compound. "They liked the black soldiers. They was telling them that this wasn't their war. They could've blown this place up, but they would just come back there, they would exchange different culture things — cigarettes, food, drugs — and they would teach them different martial arts."

By age 12, Fort had earned a black belt and began teaching neighborhood friends karate in his mother's basement. They called themselves the Yellow Tigers and wore yellow uniforms modeled after those in the 1973 Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon because they thought they looked cool. It grew from there.

The school has had 25 different addresses since it began, Fort says; sometimes in storefronts, other times in church basements or community centers. They're now in a high-ceilinged commercial space that once was part of a shopping district. The stores are empty, but a huge parking lot with hundreds of lines marking unused spaces stretches far out at the back, a fading imprint from prosperous years past.

Inside, there's a weight room, a vestibule packed with tall, shiny tournament trophies and an area in the basement called "The Alley," with eerily lit cinderblock walls and mats on the floor in a confined space meant to simulate a dark alley.

But most lessons take place on the main floor, where four times a week kids and adults throw kicks and punches, disarm each other of weapons or learn techniques like strangling an attacker with the handles of a purse. "You're not just a victim, you're a witness," Fort lectures them. "Now you've seen them, you're gonna come to court and testify, so they're gonna make sure they don't let you come to court."

Fort's lessons are stark and plain, simple advice for modern life in a violent city.

"If someone grabs you, they're going to hurt you," he tells the kids. "Their intention is not to take you to get ice cream. Their thinking is to not let you go home again. When they put a knife to you and say, 'If you scream I'm going to kill you,' if they get you into a building they're going to kill you anyway. So scream."

There's a creed the kids recite at the end of each session, reminding them to respect themselves, their elders and their school, and to do the right thing in life. The lessons here are meant to inoculate them against the allure of street life and the gangs that infest this part of town.

For adults, Fort offers sensible tips about avoiding dangerous situations, like not fueling up at 2 a.m., not engaging hustlers who approach you, not walking down a dark alley. Desperate people in tough situations resort to preying on others, and Fort sees things getting worse.

"Times are getting really bad," he says, "You've got people that climb up under your car and steal your catalytic converter just for the metal in there, and they punch holes in the gas tank and steal the gas. It's like in the Mad Max movies, the reality is that is coming true. Now it is over gas, or people flat-out just robbing — 'I don't have any warm shoes. I want your shoes.' Things like that."

In a city full of fatherless children, Fort and the other adult men here find themselves playing the role of father figure, teaching kids basic life lessons. "We develop them," says Fort, whose wife is a Detroit cop and whose three kids are enrolled here too. "We teach the young guys how to talk to women and give them their respect. If a guy disrespects his mother, he's definitely going to disrespect his wife or his girlfriend. A lot of these kids don't know that it's a cycle, how everything goes. So we try to break that cycle."

They also do activities familiar to traditional families, such as celebrating birthdays and rewarding good grades, little gestures that some of them don't see at home.

Though the kids get taught the same self-defense skills as the adults, Yellow Tigers offer them anti-bullying classes, like the one taken by 9-year-old Detroiter Robert Johnson. "At my old school, every day at lunch when I first get there, I would get beat up by these two kids," he says, shyly. His mom moved him to a charter school and enrolled him in self-defense classes here two years ago. The next kid who bullies him is in for a big surprise

The cost for lessons is relatively low — $85 per month for up to 16 sessions. "We don't make any money here," Fort says. The adult instructors here, all of whom are black belts, volunteer their time. "A lot of kids can't afford this, so we bring them in anyway, bring them into the class, but we get them to do things, like do the cleanup, work it off, because if you give it to them for free they won't respect it.

To Fort, the school takes the place of closed community centers and discontinued city programs for kids. "This is the center there used to be 30 years ago, that people have somewhere to go, that's like a safe haven for them," says Fort, who explains that he has passed up opportunities to move his school out of the city. "You can be out here helping them, or you can be out here chasing them. It's up to you."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]