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Priming Witnesses: Look the Part when Defending Yourself

Violence Happens Fast

The last blog post of 2013, How to Look Like a Victim for Self-Defense generated a fair bit of discussion and raised some questions that I would like to take a bit of time to address a little more in-depth. There were of questions raised I would like to address specifically:

  1. Why do I need to do this at all, why can’t I just explain it afterwards, I’ve never been in trouble with the law before.
  2. Why would a smaller person attack larger people?

Why do I need to look like a victim?

In my line of work, the event security industry, we call this act priming witnesses. That means getting them aware of the context of the situation they are witnessing. When I need to remove someone from the premises for whatever reason, I take a calm measured approach, explain loudly and clearly why I need someone to leave (unless it would cause undue embarrassment on behalf of the subject, which could lead to a fight), and ask them to do so. I use a relaxed but ready stance, open hands. When force is required I give loud verbal commands, often in the phrase, “stop resisting,” or “get on the ground.” I make it clear I am only using physical force because the suspect is making it necessary.

Even with the additional context, being in uniform, and legally justifiable, people still question the use of force because they are not used to it. Violence is something that happens on TV and the movies, they aren’t used to the close proximity and even the smoothest and “by-the-book” use of force scenario can seem rough to someone unused to seeing it. Read Why Arrests Seem So Violent for more information on this.

Now remove the uniform, the additional context, and let’s look at the scenario demonstrated in Dave Woods Sensei’s video. Imagine Sensei is in a coffee shop ordering his double cream no-fat latte (*I know nothing of coffee…). He steps outside and bumps a small guy who fails to accept his apology. The guy tells him to “go f*ck himself” and then slams him into the wall. The first thing most witnesses will hear is most likely Woods Sensei hitting the wall. The first thing they see is Woods Sensei defending himself against a smaller guy and absolutely kicking the stuffing out of him. By the time the cell phone cameras pop out, all they’ll capture is the last blow or two as the little guy drops to the ground, probably injured and potentially bleeding.

You then watch that video – who performed the assault?

That depends on the version you see. Clean crisp strikes, with him standing in an aggressive stance looking for more trouble, or the guy yelling for help and running away?

By acting like a victim, yelling, making it clear you you’re trying to escape, and that you want no part in the violence, you are getting the witnesses on your side. You do not have the opportunity to explain the situation to witnesses afterwards, as they’ve already made their judgement and are unlikely going to change their mind when they see someone on the ground hurt, nor will they want to let you get close to them to explain.

This isn’t acting. The fact is, most people when confronted with violence for the first time will be awkward, even with extensive training. They will move awkwardly. It’s just a matter of adding in vocalization to your training.

And keep in mind, this is more in context of your attacker being smaller or even the same size as you. If someone clearly has the size advantage, people will view things in your favour by default. And yes, small men attack bigger men all the time. If you don’t want to look like a goon when all you’re doing is defending yourself, make it clear to your witnesses that you don’t want to be involved in violence. This is done both with body language and your voice.

Just because you’ve never been in trouble with the law before and have never gotten in a fight doesn’t mean the police will assume you were the one assaulted. Police and witnesses believe what they see and the evidence available. Your explanation will be considered along with the evidence present. Unless your attacker is well known to police, they’re going to give your explanation the same amount of weight as your attacker’s.

Most of the people I end up using force on in my job are not people who routinely get into fights. They’re your normal average, usually upstanding citizen that is making a mistake for some reason, generally due to external stimulants like alcohol. So when both parties involved in the confrontation provide differing views on what happens, the onus falls to witnesses and any evidence. If a dozen people say they saw you acting like you were being attacked, even if they didn’t see the initial attack, then your odds of avoiding charges increase dramatically. If a dozen bystanders can only say they heard a bang, turned and saw you beat the crap out of someone, end in a strong aggressive stance, then you’re going to be viewed as the aggressor, regardless of how it started. It might not be fair, but it’s reality.

Do small people really attacker bigger guys? Why?

The psychology of this could take up its own article. Rather than going into it, I’ll just use my own anecdotal evidence. I’ve seen small guys go after much larger guys for imagined affronts and to save face. I’ve even intervened in an altercation between a “little person” attacking a guy over 3 times his size. It happens, and often enough that larger men should be aware of how important it is they prime their witnesses.

The thing to take away from the previous article and this article is that violence happens very fast. From my own experience in security, after we break up an altercation it takes us a while to find out who started the fight. It’s rarely clear, since every witness sees things a little differently and even when we witness someone throw the first punch, there’s a chance it began before that. And most witnesses to violence are not used to seeing it. The brutality will often catch them off guard, and they’ll generally feel more positively towards the person who appears to be the victim, the guy lying on the ground afterwards. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of how your actions can be interpreted and perceived and why the concept of priming witnesses is important in self-defense.

Ever seen something out of context and jumped to the wrong conclusion? It’s easy to do. You don’t want other people doing that when it comes to you defending yourself.

Have you ever faced anything like this, or seen examples? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “Priming Witnesses: Look the Part when Defending Yourself

  1. Good article, and especially relevant information for someone like me who, in the situations you described would easily end up looking like the aggressor. Ironically enough as well, some of the most violent individuals I have known throughout my adult life have been smaller men.
    You mentioned adding vocalization to your training, and I’m curious about something. Aside from stating your intent to your attacker and any surrounding onlookers through vocalization, is it also something that aids you in working through the effects of adrenaline in your body. I have found that in any potentially violent situation I’ve been in, once I’m adrenalized, my ability to communicate clearly gets pretty limited.
    Would forcing yourself to communicate verbally with a potential attacker be an effective way to work through that?

  2. Great advice Chris! My adult experience in real-life situations is very limited and quite a long time ago (fortunately). It sounds very odd now when people used to use expressions like “he used karate on him”. Once you’re trained in martial arts, do you really know of any other way to fight if you ever have to? They also used to say black belts had to be registered with the police. I haven’t heard of that but certainly the old cliche of announcing to a would-be attacker that you have one, or know this or that style would be foolhardy. I can also imagine that if a case got to court, one’s marital arts training could be brought up against you even if you were “only defending yourself”. The common school-yard theme of “he started it, no you started” probably carries over into adult altercations too. I knew some heavy guys once, some of whom were trained. They would usually beat any assault charges because the victims and witnesses wouldn’t show up in court. Thankfully I don’t know them any longer.

  3. Super intéressant…adopter un profil de victime pour les témoins (verbal- non verbal et para verbal) dans ces circonstances, adopter des mesures pro actives comme le positionnement, ainsi que le facteur déterminant temps-espace et considération tactique- par la lecture du body langage, etc. Toutefois pour un intervenant professionnel en fonction, je crois que la phrase suivante ne s’impose pas nécessairement mais pourrait s’avérer utile : Toujours garder à l’esprit que les conséquences de nos actions doivent pas être plus grave que ce que nous recherchons à prévenir…

    Jeffrey L.

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