As police response times increase, masked vigilantism is on the rise.
In Greenwich Village last May, 32-year-old Mark Carson was shot and killed. Walking with his partner that Saturday morning, the last things Carson heard were his eventual killer calling the two men “f***ots” and asking them if they were gay wrestlers. Carson’s death was the latest of a string of anti-gay attacks that have rattled Manhattan in recent months, which has spiked the concerns and fears of the area’s LGBT community.
“It makes me angry, very angry, because I moved here 20 years ago to be myself, because New York City is a very inclusive city,” said Ricardo Tavares of the West Village. “But now, there’s all these attacks, and it makes me very angry that people are trying to scare us.”
While many rallied and protested the attacks and despite promises from New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to increase the police presence on the lower west side, which is the city’s second smallest police precinct, others have sought a more direct response to the situation.
Enter the “Dark Guardian.”
Chris Pollak, a martial arts instructor who patrols the streets of lower Manhattan as a costumed real-life superhero, feels that he must act. “I’m generally out there at night and I feel it’s my duty to help protect and guard the community,” he told WCBS 880. ”We’re trying to help with this assault problem and also help people be able to handle and defend themselves.”
Pollak is part of a superhero collective called the New York Initiative, which includes fellow costumed team members “Zero,” “Spectre,” “Spyder” and “Eden.” They all have martial arts training and patrol in non-traditional combat armor, including bullet- and stab- resistant vests, made of plastic and steel.
“Due to the anti-gay crimes that have been going on out there,” Pollak continued, “a particular group being targeted for the way they live their lives is a really despicable thing and we’re gonna step up and say ‘It’s not right.’ and we’re gonna do something about it.” Pollak asserts that his and his team’s mission is first response — de-escalation of the situation until the police can arrive.
“Of course, the first line of action, I think, for anybody, should be to call the police,” Pollak said. “But if somebody’s in real danger, we have the training and skills to help out. We’re out there as an extra set of eyes and ears for the police.”
“Taking to the streets” and trusting the police
In response to growing response times for the police and the general sense that the police cannot be trusted, vigilantism — or private citizens acting as law enforcement — has been on the rise. According to the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, 42 percent of all respondents in the United States felt that the police were corrupt or extremely corrupt.
One’s perception of law enforcement may come in large part from one’s demographics. For many minority groups, the police do not solicit respect, but fear. Cases such as the 2006 death of Sean Bell, in which three New York City detectives were acquitted after firing 50 bullets into Bell — an African-American man — and his friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, and the case in which the Seattle Police settled with the U.S. Justice Department over allegation of excessive force by police officers, have hardened popular perceptions of the police serving the public.
This is not helped by perceptions that the police openly embrace racially motivated practices. Recent comments from New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and police commissioner Ray Kelly with regard to a recent federal court injunction overturning the city’s “stop and frisk” policy suggest that both men are willing to overlook the feelings of the city’s African-American and Latino communities toward justifying their programs.
In addition, there may be a perception that the police cannot or will not help. For example, in May, Kelly announced that despite hate crimes dropping citywide 30 percent, anti-gay hate crime has risen 70 percent. “Investigators say there’s no pattern in these types of crimes,” Kelly said. “These types of crimes are outrageous. And we are going to do everything in our power to see to it that they certainly don’t occur, but if they do occur we’re going to very aggressively investigate them and bring people to justice.” There has been no announced reduction in attacks.
This feeling of impotence from the police helps contribute to a common opinion that it is better to “handle the situation yourself.”
An example of this happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, allegations of White vigilante bands roaming the flood-ravaged neighborhoods, shooting alleged looters, are still being reported. In Detroit, in light of major cuts to the police force’s budget and growing backlogs, the call for vigilante justice has split the community between those that seeks action and those that seeks the preservation of the law.
On July 17, a 15-year old girl with Down syndrome was raped in Detroit’s Mexicantown. No one has been charged and it took 19 days for the police to get the rape kit to the state police’s lab for analysis. The police have blamed an office move for the delay.
In the meanwhile, the neighborhood’s tensions have exploded. On August 3, one post on Facebook read “ATTENTION/WARNING: this piece of s— u see in this flyer RAPED A (15) YR OLD GIRL IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD !!! … me personally, if i seen him, id call the cops then i would beat the s— out of him myself till the cops arrive. I HATE WORTHLESS SCUM LIKE THIS. STAND UP FOR YOUR HOOD.”
On the fifth, the man alleged of committing the rape was accosted, beaten with baseball bats and kicked in the face and was hospitalized with significant leg and head injuries. No one was arrested for the assault.
State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D – Detroit) feels that the system is to blame from all angles. “The system failed not only the victim but this alleged rapist. His life was in jeopardy as soon as he committed that crime. No one addressed his mental illness properly,” she said. “We failed both of them completely. It’s just so sad.”
Many, however, feel that the system is actively encouraging vigilantism, instead of dissuading its use. Laws such as “stand your ground” and movements such as the expansion of concealed weapon rights have created more and more situations where untrained civilians can put themselves in a potentially fatal situation without the impetus to default to the police or seek an escape from the situation.
“In practice, ‘stand your ground’ really means ‘shoot first and ask questions later.’,” wrote Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Center. “These laws, enacted in over 20 states, radically changed the centuries-old legal rule that the use of lethal force in self-defense should be a last resort, when there is no avenue of escape or avoidance for a person under attack. According to police and prosecutors, these laws have allowed countless dangerous individuals to literally ‘get away with murder’ by claiming ‘self-defense’ in situations where deadly force easily could have been avoided.”
While the argument that civilians have the right to defend themselves without a call to retreat can be made, by the same logic, the right to feel safe in one’s own community can be made. Regardless of whether the person is wearing a mask, he is taking the law into his own hands. Society must make the call as to whether this private assumption of law enforcement is tolerable and acceptable. While vigilantism has been shown to work in some cases — the Guardian Angels are one example — one must ask to what extent one trusts his neighbors with his life.
A move toward the ridiculous
The idea of real-life superheroes is nothing new. In 2011, a costumed vigilante in a black and yellow bodysuit, complete with a mask and fake abs, was arrested for pepper-spraying bystanders he took for villains. Phoenix Justice — real name: Benjamin Fodor — of Seattle’s Rain City Superhero Movement, is a mixed martial arts fighter, with an 11-1-0 unsanctioned amateur record and a 4-0-0 professional record. One Sunday morning, Jones came across a situation he perceived as men and women fighting.
“There was a person on the ground who was getting stomped,” the costumed superhero told The New York Daily News by phone. “It was one guy versus what looked like eight people. I honestly thought the guy’s life was in danger.” Jones alleged that the unidentified victim was able to escape due to his intervention, although members of the group attest to the police that they were merely “dancing and having a good time,” when they were attacked by Jones. Some of the group claim to have been sprayed with pepper spray.
The freelance journalist that accompanied Jones offered evidence that supported him, but the police still read the situation as Jones unlawfully using force. “In this particular case, he perceived that this group was fighting and when we contacted them, they said they weren’t fighting,” Detective Mark Jamieson, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department, told ABC News. “Unfortunately, he used force. He committed a crime, an assault against these individuals. That’s against the law.”
For many, this move into the seemingly ridiculous is a justifiable response to a ridiculous world. “Indeed, there is a real subculture of genuine heroes, that bridge the gap between the fantastic and the practical. Anonymous and selfless, they choose every day to make a difference in the world around them,” wrote RealLifeSuperHeroes.com, a website dedicated to profiling and establishing an online community for the growing population of costumed vigilantes. “Whether it be feeding the hungry, comforting the sick or cleaning up their neighborhoods, they save real lives in very real ways. These are not ‘kooks in costumes,’ as they may seem at first glance. They are, simply put, a radical response … to a radical problem.”