BY DAY, I AM BRUCE WAYNE…
New York City’s Real-Life Superhero Civil War
New York City’s real-life superhero scene has family feuds, too.
UPDATE: The New York Initiative reached out to The Daily Beast to dispute Chris Pollak's characterization of their group and provided the following statement via Krystal Marx, aka "Temper" (her alias within the Initiative/Real-Life Superhero world): "The New York Initiative (NYI) is not only operational, it is a growing branch of the international Initiative Collective - a grassroots volunteer organization with branches in California, Illinois, Tennessee, Washington state, Virginia, Massachusetts and the U.K. Christopher 'Dark Guardian' Pollack is a former NYI member who left on bad terms, but we wish him well."
A supporter of the New York Initiative, who asked to remain anonymous, added in an email to The Daily Beast, "I work with the NYI, who unlike the article inaccurately states are NOT disbanded. The NYI is part of a larger effort and is currently run by a two-time Iraqi veteran." He also noted that "there IS no war" and added that the NYI "is obviously trying to to good in the world."
Dark Guardian—the alter-ego of Chris Pollak, martial arts instructor by day, civilian watchdog by night—has a flair for the dramatic. He was dolled up in red nylon pants, a utility belt (contents: red flashlight, first aid kit), and a red bulletproof vest with his personal insignia: the letters “DG” in Superman-style font.
Pollak/Dark Guardian is a so-called real-life superhero, a community crime-fighter who has spent years patrolling New York’s streets in his unorthodox uniform. His current super-crew is a team of four or five superheroes, though he used to run with the New York Initiative—you might know them from the HBO documentary Superheroes, which followed the loosely organized vigilante network as they patrolled their cities for scofflaws. But recently Pollack became disenchanted with his former pals.
“There was a bunch of them and I had to split off from the larger team—it’s a lot of weird stuff,” Pollak told The Daily Beast about his decision to go rogue. “I don’t want anything to do with them. They do some good stuff, I have no problem with them, but I’m splitting off and doing my own thing.”
So now he’s canvassing for members for his superhero splinter group, The New York Ronins. (The name, Pollak said, meant “masterless warrior” in ancient Japan.)
The Ronins will “keep doing the same work I’ve always done,” Pollack said. He doesn’t see much competition from the New York Initiative, which he claims has mostly disbanded or moved on. “Most of the Initiative people are gone, or doing their own thing,” he said.
Such is the lifespan of civilian policing groups, according to Curtis Sliwa, who founded one of New York City’s oldest volunteer patrol groups, the Guardian Angels, in 1979.
“I’ve seen many of those superhero groups pop up. I think the first I became aware of was in San Diego, then Seattle, few other locations. Some can maintain their consistency, others have faded. I think that’s true of all volunteer patrols,” Sliwa told The Daily Beast.
“I’ve always encouraged people, whether they wear pink shower caps, red berets, or cowboy hats to get out there and patrol their neighborhoods. If the glue in this case is this superhero motif—which is obviously very popular these days when you see people flooding to the movies—then I see it no different than what was the motivation for us in the late ’70s when vigilante movies were the rage.”
Sliwa warned that civilian crime-fighters should know how to physically fight if they want to be successful on the job.
“The only caution I would give any group, regardless of who they are, but especially if you have a superhero motif, is be prepared to get challenged, physically,” he said. “There are always going to be wise guys who are gonna want to see if you really are Batman, Superman, if you really are one of the Fantastic Four.”
igilante groups have to worry about more than just “wise guys.” Civilian police outfits are hugely controversial in New York, as some unofficial patrol groups act more like undercover gangs. The Shomrim, a Brooklyn-based group of volunteer police from the Hasidic Jewish community, stands accused of beating at least one black man, and faces other allegations of police bribery. Other volunteer groups like the Howard Beach Civilian Observation Patrol have drawn skepticism from criminal justice experts who fear they might overstep civilian boundaries. One New York City police union even sued Sliwa and his Guardian Angels, after it was revealed that they faked crimes to generate publicity for the group—in 1980, Sliwa claimed to have escaped a kidnapping by three off-duty members of the city’s police force.
Pollak and his teammates’ relationship with the police is “whatever,” he says. “We’ll phone some stuff in. Sometimes they’re cool with it, sometimes they don’t care.”
Meanwhile, back in the Financial District, turnout was low for Pollack’s recruitment drive. Perhaps most superheroes prefer the cover of darkness to a midday meetup. But the few men who did show up said they were inspired by a perceived spike in city crime, and disorder in the city’s police department, which is undergoing a corruption probe.
“My friend Chico—it was all over the news—he was shot in the head, and no one’s done anything about it. Everything’s just piling up,” Noel Caban, a 19-year-old from East Harlem, told The Daily Beast at Sunday’s recruitment effort.
Caban has not invented a superhero persona yet, although he has the makings of young comic book hero: The teenager is an aspiring MMA star, trained in “muay thai and a little bit of jiu jitsu.” He made his amateur fighting debut in February, but his big dream is UFC stardom.
To be clear, fighting experience is not a prerequisite in New York’s superhero leagues. Caban and Pollak were the only attendees at Sunday’s event with martial arts experience.
The three other aspiring crime-fighters were a Queens man we’ll call “Mike,” who asked not to give his real name as he is attempting to become a bona fide police officer; Jason Gowin, a documentarian who sometimes patrols with superheroes while working on a film about the movement; and Chaim Lazaros, an established figure in the real-life superhero world under his alter-ego “Life.”
Superheroes do more than just fight crime, Lazaros said. He showed up to the meeting in his standard uniform: a white shirt, black vest, black tie, and black eyemask. In a bag he carried what he calls “life packs,” sealed bags with soap, socks, and basic supplies for the homeless.
“[Pollak’s] more hardcore, I’m a little lighter,” Lazaros said. “I tend to do more social outreach. I do homeless outreach.”
Pollak, meanwhile, focuses on crime patrol.
“It’s typically going out and patrolling the streets, you know. You’re walking the beat, you’re checking things out,” Pollak said. “A lot of it is deterring crime, being a presence, stopping people from committing crimes that they would have otherwise committed if somebody wasn’t there watching. Other times I will confront people who are up to no good. They might be drug dealers, pimps, people starting fights. It’ll vary depending what’s going on.”
The danger, he says, can be very real. “I’ve dealt with a guy flashing a gun at me… a pimp in Harlem threatening to kill me. You know, stuff like that happens.”
Gowin, who has patrolled with Pollak while researching for his film, said he can confirm these stories. “I went once before in Harlem,” he says. “It was an eye-opening experience. We had some pimps who did not want us there.”
He joked that in a patrol group, he would be “more of a liability,” and that his superpower would be “on the tech side,” perhaps manning surveillance drones.
“Mike,” the would-be NYPD recruit, said he already patrols his neighborhood, but leaves the fighting to the police; he gives them tips about neighborhood crimes while he works toward becoming an officer in his own right. “I think it looks good,” the 30-year-old said of his civilian patrols. “It’s a stepping stone.”
Caban has also taken to patrolling his own neighborhood, sometimes with friends from his muay thai training, once intervening to stop a man from harassing a woman in Central Park.
“I caught one incident, but I don’t know how I felt about it,” he said. “This guy was harassing a girl, and I came to her aid and fought the guy off, but I kind of felt bad for him after… It was something I wasn’t used to.”
Several women in his life have survived rapes, “so when it comes to guys like that, I do not tolerate it. And once I saw he was harassing her, I told her to go, and I’d take care of him,” he says. “Afterward I talked to my friend and told him, ‘I don’t know. It felt good, but it also felt bad, too.’”
Gowin, who has met with multiple superhero groups nationwide, said many participants are encouraged to join after becoming the victim of a crime. “I know a guy in Los Angeles who calls himself Hero Man, who was robbed. They broke into his house. When he went to the police, they told him to file a report, but it was unlikely they’d ever find his stuff. And he just couldn’t accept it,” Gowin said.
But will the New York Ronins’ new recruits dress up as superheroes?
“I might wear a hat to disguise myself,” Mike said, but “I think I’m just going to be me.”