Photos by Natalie Shmuel
We were practicing capoeira—or, perhaps more precisely, Harrison Tesoura Schultz, the founder of the 420 Fight Club, was practicing vapoeira. I was kind of flailing around helplessly like a desperate drowning fish. It wasn't just that I lack coordination or a sense of timing. I had come to this martial arts event and public smoke-out wearing heavy jeans that simply couldn't stretch the way Harrison was stretching—unless I pulled them way, way up, Steve Urkel–style. I was also high as fuck, which surely didn't help.
The first few lessons were easy, the techniques resembling dance moves. I was still pretty bad (I'm a terrible dancer), but Harrison was positive and supportive. He soon had me feeling like I wasn't totally inept, no small feat by any means. It was only when we started with the high leg kicks and sudden ducks that I found myself getting more and more lost.
"All right," Harrison told me. "So next, I'm going to kick and you're going to duck."
Every impulse in my body was telling me to call it quits and fire up another blunt. The weed in my system was making everything happen way too quickly, our limbs flying through the air faster than I could control, or even properly comprehend. A deep, abiding fear—both of getting kicked in the face and of looking like an idiot in front of all these people—was the only thing helping me coordinate my movements. After he'd done the nearly-kick-my-head move a few times from the left and then the right, and instructed me to return the favor, I begged off for a short break.
My mouth was dry, and I was out of breath. I desperately needed a rest, so I told him I wanted to write down a few ideas. It was a lame excuse he surely saw through (and it was belied by my immediate trip to a nearby hot-dog cart to buy a water bottle). I sat on a bench nearby and took a few notes, highdeas all of them, and drank the water frantically. Was I really supposed to go back to fighting? I was too high for this shit.
Nearby, an artist named Eve Lesov played an acoustic dub/reggae song that was wonderful and far, far too appropriate, given the circumstances.
I'd met Harrison a few weeks back, at the Flood Wall Street protests. Funny and easy-going, Harrison is a natural leader, and that morning he was happily hawking his 420 Fight Club to the environmentalists waiting for the march to begin. We didn't talk long—there were a lot of other people angling for his attention—but he told me about a public smoke-out/martial-arts class that he conducts every Tuesday night at 6 PM in Washington Square Park. I was immediately intrigued—the strange incongruence was too interesting to pass up. I offered to come by and check it out, and he warned me it was mostly BYO weed. I told him that wouldn't be a problem.
420 Fight Club—along with its umbrella organization, Occupy Weed Street—is the project of a few deeply committed individuals with ideas that can sound like a blend of Ron Paul and new age philosophy. Take, for instance, a pamphlet they pass out that's adorned with a photoshopped black-and-white image of a ripped dollar bill and demands that we "Federalize the Federal Reserve" to "Fix our nation's broken privatized money system." Many of their ideas would be more at home on a Free Republic forum thread than at a pro-weed rally in Washington Square Park.
When we arrived at the main event, the Toke of the Day, we stood in a circle, the default weed-smoker formation, while Harrison held a bag of dank bud, a home-grown strain smuggled direct from Chicago. It was really good weed, and soon my hanging-out-and-eating-potato-chips instinct won out as more and more joints were sparked and passed around.
Then Harrison hurriedly called the group of 20-plus smokers back together. A police van had just rolled up nearby, he warned us. The energy shifted as paranoia set in, but Harrison took back control and articulated a course of action. The whole point of this gathering was smoking publicly, after all, and running at the first sign of trouble would undermine that goal.
But as he spoke, I snuck off to a nearby bush to hide the jar of weed I'd brought. I was supportive of their mission, sure, but I wasn't about to get arrested for it. When I got back to the group, Harrison was announcing that we would do one more round of capoeira, altogether this time, before moving somewhere else where we could smoke in peace.
Once the capoeira started back up, the group's paranoia quickly faded. Our confidence swelled. Coordinated physical activity quickly provided a remedy to the fear—at least until we got to the last part of the lesson, my dreaded kick-and-duck move.
"Pair off into groups," Harrison instructed us. I really didn't want to do that, but peer pressure compelled everyone around me to pair off, and suddenly there were just two of us left, looking at each other awkwardly.
"So," I asked my new partner, "do you want to start by kicking, or should I?" He looked at me through squinting, bleary, bloodshot eyes. "Yeah, sure." The guy who'd be swinging his foot at my head was too damn high to comprehend why we might want to decide in advance who would kick and who would duck. "I'll start," I offered.
Whatever marginal skills at capoeira I'd gained from Harrison earlier in the evening were long gone. I was also way too high to really commit to kicking this total stranger. If I'd been sparring with Harrison again, self-consciousness and embarrassment likely would have inspired some real effort. As it stood, I was far more concerned with avoiding the swinging legs of the stoned participants energetically kicking all around me. Maybe this is why there aren't more 420 Fight Clubs, I mused. After I'd done my kicks, I made some lame excuse and faked taking blurry pictures of the group to escape the trajectory of his shoe. Call me a coward, if you must.
However awkward I felt, the commitment and dedication the group brings to bear is admirable. For people who were this high, they really knew the issues and were able to articulate them clearly, particularly when it came to the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), the holy grail of the legalization cause in New York that is expected to be put to a vote early next year. (During the event, Harrison dedicated a sizable joint to State Senator Liz Krueger, the MRTA's sponsor, before sparking up.)
Harrison told me that at its core, the project is meant to "dispel myths" about lazy, unmotivated stoners and encourage smokers to "come out of the closet" about their habits.
Smoking weed in a park isn't much of a politically subversive activity, but the 420 Fight Club isn't really about politics; it's about dismantling the behind-closed-doors marijuana culture we've internalized and accepted. Maybe it seems odd to suck down a few spliffs and practice martial arts in public, but the alternative—smoking weed until you sink into your couch amid a soundtrack of Phish live albums—isn't just a stereotype, it's boring.
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