A Knockout Punch Against Violence

A boxing British anthropologist deploys martial arts to develop the potential of young people living in slums and violent communities in 26 countries

Cristiano Cipriano Pombo
Rio de Janeiro

Luke Dowdney is a fighter. But the thing that moves him is not to be found on any ring: he fights to end violence.

And this is a desire that comes from early in his life when Dowdney was the target of bullying in a private school in London.

"I got beat up, a lot. That messes with you, physically and mentally. I was small, and there was nothing I could do. But, being stubborn, I was like the proverbial nail that stuck its head out again after each punch. I was afraid, but would not let fear control me".

So much so that the English kid, son of a journalist father and a psychologist mother, became a promising boxer, holding the British college title for the light middleweight category.

"It was cathartic. I got into the sport for the wrong reasons. I wanted to be tested by someone I could punch back against. And boxing is not slow in teaching you that mistakes cause pain".

British boxer and anthropologist Luke Dowdney, creator of Luta Pela Paz, a social project that uses boxing and martial arts to reduce violence in Rio de Janeiro - Renato Stockler/Folhapress

His fights in the boxing ring were soon replaced by a different kind of fighting, at Edinburgh University.

As part of his Social Anthropology coursework, Luke first tried his entrepreneurial skills in Katmandu, Nepal, organizing group trips for English classmates; with the money he earned, he helped in upgrading a local school.

Later, impressed by the news about the slaughter at Canduária in 1993, when police officers killed eight boys in Rio de Janeiro, Luke turned his attention to social violence.

That took him to Recife in 1995, after a three-month Portuguese course, Working for NGO Ruas e Praças, he had an insight, after telling street children that he used to be a boxer.

"They asked me ' do you fight?', and then begged me to show them some moves. It was the first time I got their full attention; they set aside the glue they used to sniff to repeat my movements".

In Recife, besides learning to see boxing differently, Luke also saw first-hand how indifferently officials and law enforcement personnel treated the murder of children.

Back in Edinburgh to conclude his studies, Luke thought about everything he learned. After one season as a prizefighter in Japan, he moved definitively to Brazil. Candelária became his stage.

He arrived in Rio carrying a backpack in 1997.

"He came to see me. He wanted to work with social projects. It was unheard of, but he was so determined that I knew good things would come of it", says anthropologist and writer Rubem Cesar Fernandes, who managed the NGO Viva Rio.

Diving headfirst into the NGO initiatives, Luke also started to research violence in Rio de Janeiro, gaining access to slums and learning about the drug underworld. The experience resulted in two books, "Crianças no Tráfico" [Children in Drug Traffic] (2003) and "Nem Guerra Nem Paz" [Neither War Nor Peace] (2005).

Luta Pela Paz became a social project when Luke found an investor for Viva Rio and asked to use part of the money to bankroll his organization. "I thought it very clever. He wanted to teach boxing in the favelas. To use controlled violence, in a combat sport, to fight against armed violence", says Rubem.

The first ring in his fight was the Complexo da Maré, a nine square-kilometer region with 140,000 inhabitants that encompasses 16 favelas, and is fought over between three different organized crime gangs and paramilitary organizations.

"We had to dig holes in the ground to anchor it," says Luke about his organization's first boxing ring, in a favela community center.

The initiative fits the youngsters like a glove. Like Luke, the opportunity motivated them to fight for something better. "We came here to learn how to defend ourselves. For free, man. No one ever gave anything for free, here. And it was innovative, being a sport other than soccer", says Pedro Arthur, one of Luke's first pupils and currently a supervisor at Luta pela Paz.

"Young people need to burn energy first and listen later. It's no use trying to talk before a training session", says Luke.

To fight, the pupils had to earn their spots, through weekly meetings with psychologists, community action classes and educational workshops. This close connection to the pupils led the Englishman into many expeditions to the favelas, looking for his pupils even in drug dens.

"He went after the kids in gang redoubts, walked the favela streets. That was very innovative. He wanted the kids no one wanted. I could see that he was fighting to avoid their death", says photographer Ubirajara de Carvalho, a community organizer at Maré.

"People used to tell me I was nuts to insert boxing into an already violent environment. But true violence is trying to support a family when you earn the minimum wage, true violence is the lack of opportunities", says Luke.

While the methodology centered in five tenets (Hug, Solidarity, Champ, Inspiring and Courage) changed, Luta Pela Paz grew, building its own headquarters at Maré and becoming a development hub for athletes (like Robert Custódio, who won a gold medal at the 2013 Pan-American Games), youth leaders and work methods.

Luke expanded his work against violence to 26 countries and 160 organizations, with successful experiences in the United Kingdom, Jamaica, and South Africa.

He was trying to prove his organization's worth and to make it sustainable, at the same time. That is why he created Luta, the first sporting goods brand born in a favela and with a social mission. Reebok bought the brand, and his organization has royalties due up to 2020.

Drying ice

Luke has a four-year-old son and was mugged four times in Rio, but he still gets shocked, particularly with police brutality in operations carried out in the favelas. There were 41 of those in 2017, a year when Maré recorded one case of violent death every nine days.

"Imagine receiving a call from a desperate friend, who had to order his children to lie down because there is a firefight going on in the favela."

In 2011, he decided to reconsider. "We had helped 10,000 kids and teenagers or more, in Rio. But no matter how much Luta pela Paz grew, the figures about gun violence in the favela wouldn't budge. It was like drying ice".

Many pupils of his first class at Maré had lost their lives. Then the anthropologist decided to treat the fight against violence as a public health issue. "State and society know only how to use punishment and repression. The UN just recently recognized violence as a global problem. And people who live in violent areas deserve much better than that", he says.

In 2014, when security policy in Rio de Janeiro led criminals to move to Maré, Luke restructured Luta pela Paz into primary, secondary and tertiary actions, to provide shelter for those who were trying to leave crime behind them.

"When you leave crime and get jailed, society won't accept you. So going back to that life seems like the only option, even if you know it's not a good choice", says Alcir Antero, a baker assistant who served time for armed robbery and gets aid from Projeto Especial, one of Luta Pela Paz's tertiary action projects. "So, when people from Luta welcomed me, they did more for me than my family did."

Luke disagrees that there's an urban war going on. "By using the word 'war' you're justifying a helicopter firing its weapons against a favela," as one did on June 20, killing student Marcus Vinicius da Silva, 14, at Maré.

To the British social entrepreneur who chose Brazil as his home, and as a place to create innovative social technology, the issue is systemic. Government, managers, companies, society, and citizens must get involved.

"It is not impossible to solve," he says. And just like he didn't bend when beaten up at school, Luke, 46, keeps his guard up now, to keep Luta pela Paz in fighting trim.

Read the article in the original language