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Trouble-Shooter : Former Gang Member Ron Johnson Uses Combination of Karate and "10 Rights of Passage" to Help Keep Teen-Agers in Line

September 13, 1990|BRUCE BEAN | Bean is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.

When Ron Johnson was a 13-year-old member of the Suicide Stompers, a Brooklyn, N.Y., gang, he often found himself in tough situations. But one day, a gang fight changed his life.

"We were fighting and this guy came after me with a gun," Johnson said. "This was a .38, and when he shot it, it sounded like an atom bomb going off. So I took off running."

Johnson darted into a recreation center where a group of men dressed in white were practicing karate. When the man brandishing the gun came in, the instructor walked up to him, quickly disarmed him and sent him on his way.

"I was amazed," Johnson said. "I said, 'Look, whatever y'all are learning in here, I want you to teach me so I can kick some butt.' "

But karate instructor Pedro Viallez would not accept that gangland attitude. Before Viallez allowed Johnson to join the class, "he made me read the Bible, the Koran, the Torah and several other books," Johnson said. "I was a real gangster."

Today, Johnson--a black belt and karate teacher--brings the same anti-gang philosophy to Los Angeles youngsters.

Using martial arts and his "10 Rights of Passage Into Manhood," Johnson teaches black and Latino boys and teen-agers what it means "to be a man." Johnson developed the "rights" after years of working with and counseling troubled youths.

Johnson, 36, runs the Los Angeles branch of the Little John Davis School of Survival, where he teaches boys a form of jujitsu called Kumite Ryu and Shotokaa karate. Classes are held weekly at Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church, on West 25th Street near the University of Southern California. Tuition is $25 a month.

"We developed this program because of our concern that young black men are not being taught to be men," Johnson said.

Statistics show that Los Angeles County incarcerates more black men than any other prison system in the world, he said, adding, "It became very clear that we had to organize programs targeted at specific populations for specific purposes."

Johnson, along with karate teachers Skip Falconer and Joyce Reece, show beginning students how to fall, how to kick and punch, and how to lock up an opponent.

Their philosophy is to teach the boys to avoid trouble, Falconer said. "But if you have to defend yourself, defend yourself in the best way possible so you can get home."

The instructors conduct workshops, using Johnson's "10 Rights of Passage" to help black and Latino males deal with the gang situations they may face every day, and show students ways to avoid drugs, truancy and other pitfalls.

"Currently, on the streets of Los Angeles, there are four ways for young men to prove themselves as men," Johnson said. They are: Get money (it doesn't matter where), be sexually active, be violent and go to jail.

"Using the martial arts as a way of life, we teach young men that these four things don't make you a man," he said.

Johnson, who graduated from Columbia University and works as a consultant for the California Department of Public Instruction, is writing a book for the state on his "10 Rights of Passage." They are: personal, spiritual, emotional, physical, economic, mental, historical, cultural, social and political.

Johnson exposes the students to his philosophy on each right. For example:

* Personal: Life is hard, but it doesn't mean you quit. Instead, it means you equip yourself with the skills, self-esteem and self-concept you need to make it through this rough life.

"We teach them under 'personal' that they need a super sense of self-esteem to survive," Johnson said.

* Spiritual: High-risk youths must recognize that there is a force in their lives that will never abandon or forsake them. Their efforts to make their lives positive and productive are God-prescribed and God-supported.

* Emotional: Because they have never been taught to express a full range of emotions, boys learn that it is not unmasculine to be loving and caring. Young men are taught how to initiate positive relationships with the opposite sex.

* Economic: If you are going to be a man, you have to earn money. But before you can earn money, you must learn to manage it. Under "economic," the students run their own business, invest the money and open a savings account.

* Physical: Because black men die younger than almost any group in America, you have to take care of yourself by eating right, exercising, and practicing good hygiene. Responsible sex is also taught under "physical."

Under each right, the students are given tasks to complete. For the "emotional" right, for instance, the teen-agers are taught how to approach girls.

"What we did was take them to the mall and asked them which girl they thought was cute," Johnson said. "We then told them to go up to her and tell her that they had noticed her from across the way and thought she was attractive. Then they were to introduce themselves."

The students were surprised.

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