A growing number of people are adopting a costumed or uniformed approach to community involvement. Some of us call ourselves Real Life Superheroes. Others go by a different name or see no need to give a name to what they do. It’s convenient to have a unifying term, though, so I tend to use the term RLSH for all of these people who adopt a new name, put on a costume or uniform, and hit the streets in order to make a difference in their communities.
As the movement grows, so does the media coverage. As the media coverage grows, so does the movement. The unusual mix of media hype, secret identities, internet communication, and late-night patrolling makes it almost impossible to determine just how big this movement is, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going. But given the growing forum membership, the increasing prominence in the media, and the profiles collected at the Real Life Super Hero Project, it’s clear that this is a very real and rapidly-growing phenomenon.
So far, my personal experiences as a Real Life Superhero have been very positive. I’ve been a community activist off and on for the past 14 years, so people already had some idea of what to expect when I put on my new superhero costume and declared my intentions to serve our local community. Some people celebrated my decision. Others teased me a bit about it. Others still raised some thoughtful questions about it. But ultimately, no one seemed terribly offended by the idea. I found renewed inspiration, made some new friends, and started doing what I could to make a difference.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s experience has been this smooth.
As the movement grows, so does the controversy. Anyone can dream up a superhero name and throw together a simple costume or uniform, so people in costumes and uniforms are appearing out of nowhere on internet forums, on city streets, and in the media. Some of these are cheery volunteers in brightly colored costumes who feed the homeless, clean up litter, or raise money for charity. Others, however, may dress in black body armor, wear intimidating masks, and creep down dark alleys with batons, stun guns, and other weapons.
On the one hand, this is a somewhat unfair dichotomy. There are plenty of RLSHs who patrol with protective gear but also do homeless outreach or other forms of community service. Their responsible approach to fighting crime is similar to any good neighborhood watch group: keep an eye out, report crimes to the police, be prepared to defend yourself if you are attacked.
On the other hand, based on videos that I’ve seen and firsthand testimony that I’ve read, I’m well aware that there are at least some “superheroes” out there who are just a heartbeat away from becoming dangerous vigilantes. These people study martial arts, carry around deadly weapons, wear masks, and walk the city streets late at night looking for trouble.
Naturally, this raises some questions. Who are these masked, armed, militant individuals who roam our streets and answer to no one for their actions?
Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that the question of masks has come up in my community work. In November of 1999, at a mass demonstration often referred to as the “Battle of Seattle,” a large group of protesters put on black clothes and face masks and went around engaging in militant (and often illegal) protest activities such as breaking through police barricades, “unarresting” fellow protesters, and vandalizing corporate chain stores.
The black clothes and masks of this “black bloc” tactic were adopted for a variety of reasons: to make a statement against what they saw as a repressive police state; to conceal their identities while engaging in controversial and/or illegal activities; to express solidarity with others who are rendered nameless/faceless by the corporate and governmental bureaucracies that arrest them or coerce them into a life of indentured servitude.
Over the next several years, a great debate ensued among various sorts of activists. Was this black bloc a threat to more law-abiding and less aggressive forms of demonstration? Was it an effective tactic for resisting the government’s targeting of certain types of political speech? Even if it was effective, was it ethical?
Eventually, this black bloc debate fizzled out in the U.S., in part because 09/11/01 took our political debates in a whole new direction. The black bloc tactic is still used at some mass demonstrations, but it’s much less prominent (and much less popular) than it used to be.
How does this relate back to Real Life Superheroes?
The black bloc controversy offers an important perspective on masked activism in our society. Many of the people who participated in (or supported) the black bloc tactic were genuinely motivated by an intense desire to do good in the world. They were unwilling to tolerate the actions of transnational organizations like the WTO that actively subvert the democratic process and cause tremendous harm at home and abroad. So they took matters into their own hands â€” they put on masks, smashed some windows, and set free some of the more passive protesters who had been captured by police.
Were they right? Were they wrong? To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. But what I do know is that they were REALLY not well-received by the mainstream media and the general public. Why? Because regardless of how eloquent and accurate their press releases were, all that most people saw was a bunch of black-clad mask-wearing youth who were at best misguided and at worst a menace to society.
Sound familiar, anyone?
On the one hand, crimefighting RLSHs have a much better chance of being accepted by mainstream society because they are usually fighting to uphold the law rather than challenge the power structure. Most Americans are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who stops their car from being stolen or chases away drug dealers on the corner, especially if they’re good at communicating their mission with some combination of symbolism and interviews.
But on the other hand, masks, body armor, weapons, and dark clothing on dark nights often make people uncomfortable. So if you’re going to be running around in a mask and body armor with weapons in hand, you’d better be prepared to receive intense oversight from the people around you. Your fellow costumed and uniformed activists will urge you to work closely with experienced crimefighters who they know and trust, and the people of your community may urge you to reveal your identity to the police or some other authority figure so that they feel safer about your presence in their community.
My advice? Even if you’re a crimefighting RLSH, start with the assumption that you shouldn’t wear a mask in public and shouldn’t carry any weapons. Then, think carefully about what your mission is, what your strategy for pursuing that mission is, and what tactics are most suited for fulfilling that strategy. If you ultimately decide to wear a mask, then fine, wear a mask. But think carefully about this decision, and talk with others who share your passion for crimefighting to ensure that you’re making the best choice for the right reasons. Some people really do seem to be able to pull off the whole masked crimefighter approach with the support of their local community, so I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t give it a try. But if it’s going to create needless problems, why even bother with it? You can do a costumed neighborhood watch without a mask â€” and some Real Life Superheroes do just that.
Since my focus is on ecological advocacy and community involvement rather than crimefighting, I won’t be surprised if some people take this message as a negative statement about Real Life Superheroes who fight crime. But that’s not my intention at all. Really, my intention here is to SUPPORT Real Life Superheroes who fight crime. Crime is a matter of life or death in many communities, and anyone who conducts a neighborhood watch or patrol may be protecting personal property or saving lives simply by being out on the streets. However, in order to achieve that good for the community, it must be done in a reasonable, responsible, and strategic manner. I would hate to see people getting hurt or getting in trouble simply because someone new to the Real Life Superhero movement didn’t think through the implications and consequences of their actions.
Many thanks to those of you who are doing the crimefighting and neighborhood watch work well. Hopefully those who are stumbling at it, or making a menace of themselves with their aggressive attitude and actions, will be able to learn from your good example. Many thanks also to the numerous Real Life Superheroes (including the crimefighters) who devote their time and energy to a wide variety of community service projects. Your steady, consistent, and fruitful volunteerism in these more widely accepted areas will help the world understand the good work that all of us are trying to do in our communities.