CHARLOTTE — Travis Cook held his hands by his chest. Fists clenched. Arms together.
Cassie Wilson bound his wrists in layer after layer of duct tape.
About 30 students — women, men, and teenagers — looked on, faces sweating in the muggy air of Urban Revolution Martial Arts, a small taekwondo studio in south Charlotte.
“There are no rules in self-defense. I don’t care what it takes. You have to do what you have to do to survive,” Cook said.
The scene, set in the stifling July heat, was entertaining and unsettling. Punching bags, rolls of duct tape, piles of zip ties, and stacks of black canvas surrounded Cook and Wilson, whose was changed because of privacy concerns.
It’s an ominous backdrop. Here, though, it’s part of the lesson.
“If your hands are tied together, there’s still plenty you can do to defend against your attacker. Use your arms like a hammer. Knee them in the groin. Head butt them. Whatever you do, don’t freeze,” Cook said.
For more than an hour the class had learned hand-to-hand combat, punches, kicks, and headlock defenses. The students were tired, but they faced another 45 minutes of fighting against duct tape and zip tie handcuffs, all the while trying to escape from the bags hanging over their heads.
The teaching method is intense, but Cook and Wilson have their reasons.
Founders of Armored Self Defense, the pair are on a mission to teach women, men, and children how to protect themselves. And how to escape.
Based in Winston-Salem, Cook and Wilson teach the Krav Maga system, a self-defense and fitness program developed by Israeli defense and security forces. They are concerned about risks such as human trafficking — which is on the rise in North Carolina.
In 2016, 181 cases of human trafficking were reported in the state, placing it among the top 10 for trafficking in the United States, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reports.
But victims don’t self-report, so, say law enforcers, that number isn’t even close to accurate.
Charlotte is the largest known hub for trafficking in the state, given its location near Interstate 77 and I-85 — corridors for trafficking — and its status as a center for sporting events and business conventions.
Human sex trafficking victims are beaten, raped, and subjugated into captivity until they believe they cannot escape. All the more reason to be prepared, said Wilson, who — though not trafficked — for five years was trapped in an abusive relationship. “It can happen to anyone”
“In the outside world, no one knew it was happening,” Wilson told Carolina Journal later while sitting cross-legged on the cool gym mat. Targets and kicking shields lined the wall behind her. A lone taekwondo student practiced roundhouse kicks against a bag in the corner.
It didn’t make sense, she said. She’d had everything. A career. A house. Wonderful parents. Prestige as a nationally recognized public speaker.
Everything changed in 2009, when Wilson met her boyfriend during a scuba diving lesson. Everything seemed normal — until he began abusing her financially and emotionally. Then, one night two years into the relationship, he choked her. Wilson lost consciousness.
“When I came to, I addressed it immediately, because I still had that much confidence left. And I said, ‘If you ever do that again. …’ But he did it again.”
She stayed. Subjugation is a tough concept for most people to understand, Wilson said. But for her, the captivity was real.
“He knew what my trigger was. My trigger was I didn’t want to live by myself again. Once he got me to that point of ‘you need me,’ I didn’t need him, actually, but in my brain he’d convinced me that without him I was going to be all alone.”
He persisted in the physical abuse until, in 2014, Wilson reached a breaking point.
“The last time I saw him I was against a wall, and his hands were around my throat, and, literally, the life dropped out of his eyes. He said, ‘I love the sound you make when I’m choking you.’ And I thought, ‘I’m dead.’”
Wilson got out, but her confidence was destroyed. She couldn’t look people in the eyes, much less talk to strangers.
A few months later she walked into Cook’s gym for a woman’s self-defense seminar. She threw some kicks and punches. Something awoke inside her.
“There were three women in particular that I wound up in a line drill with,” she said. “And as I watched them kick and hit, I just said, ‘Holy crap, if they can do that, I can do that, too. OK, yeah!’”
“I had zero training” Wilson added. “I mean we’re talking about knowing how to do nothing.” She began taking classes in earnest.
Cook, a Krav Maga expert and fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo, learned of Wilson’s past in 2015 and spent extra time training her to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m a fighter,” Wilson said. “So one of the first conversations [I ever had with Travis] was, ‘The person in front of you is not the person I am, and I’m looking to find her again.’ And that was my mission.”
Two years later, Wilson still suffers some symptoms of PTSD — but she has found her voice.
In April 2016, Cook and Wilson launched their company and began traveling the Southeast, teaching martial arts seminars and leading team-building exercises at companies and corporations.
The greatest challenge of the job is getting people to take responsibility for their safety and to take training seriously, Cook said.
It’s especially important for North Carolinians to realize that dangers such as human trafficking ride close to home, he said.
“A lot of times people don’t realize that stuff’s going on, because they see it on the news and it’s so far away,” Cook said. “We bring it back to the state level, and even tell them, ‘This is what it looks like on the city level — right here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.’ Honestly, the biggest response I get is, ‘I didn’t know what I didn’t know.’”
Self-defense is intimidating for those who have never received training, Wilson said. The point is to empower and not to instill fear in people. “Hey, this stuff does happen. Recognize it’s going on so that you can avoid it for yourself and for your friends, too.”
“Don’t stop. Take control!” Wilson circled the room, calling over the din of sparring. With just 15 minutes left, trainees were alternating defenses, some with bags over their heads, hands bound together. Others attacked them from behind.
The exercise finally ground to a halt, and Cook challenged students to escape their zip tie handcuffs by breaking the plastic strips across their stomachs.
Successful breaks ended in scraped wrists, sore abs, and satisfaction. Failed attempts dissolved into good-natured laughter. “The point is, even if your hands are tied, you can still disable your attacker and get away,” Cook said.
No amount of training will prevent the trauma that comes with an attack, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from preparing.
Training isn’t about fear. Rather, it’s about empowerment and escape, Wilson said. In any case, people should take responsibility and do what they can to fight back against capture, assault, or any other abuse, she added.
Wilson learned that the hard way. To this day, she doesn’t talk about how she broke out of her abusive situation. She maintains focus on helping others avoid and escape similar destinies.
“I was a prisoner, but I didn’t even know it,” she said. “That’s the [awful] thing. So if you think action needs to be taken, or [a situation] was bad enough in that moment, don’t start second-guessing yourself on the flip side.”
“I know that now, so it’s not going to happen again.”