Superheroes swoop in to fight crime

By Molly Sanchez – Special to [X]Press

The sights and sounds of a riot filled the streets on a chilly night in Oakland when suddenly, strange figures emerged from an alley. Covered in glass and grime and with only their eyes visible, they glowed in the mad light of the city.

In the middle stood a man clad in a Kevlar vest, combat boots, and a mask covering the lower half of his face, with Taser knuckles glowing on his right fist.

“Who are you?” someone shouted.

The voice behind the mask looked at them and calmly replied, “We are real-life superheroes.”

This is not a story from the pages of a comic book, but one of real people all over the country who dress up and fight for their community. These self-described superheroes have found a variety of different ways to help their neighborhoods, from organizing blood drives to feeding the homeless. They use their costumes as a way to draw attention to the cause.

Peter Tangen, a Hollywood photographer and the de facto spokesman as well as expert on Real Life Superheroes, calls the people who participate in the movement “a perfect cross section of America.”

Like many denizens of the comic book pages, Motor Mouth, 30, of Oakland, who declined to give his “civilian” name, started out as just an average citizen. Then “fan boy” read a comic that changed his life.

That comic was “Kick-Ass” by Mark Millar, which tells the story of a boy who chooses to dress up and fight crime in his neighborhood. Motor Mouth was instantly attracted to the “poor man’s Batman” aspect of the comic and intrigued by the notion of people in the real world using superhero identities to better their community.

Motor Mouth then did what any comic book lover would do and turned to the Internet. There he found the world of RLSH and knew that he wanted to be a part of it.

The idea of concealed identities and community crusaders is not a new idea, but activity often spikes when the country in times of upheaval, and according to the RLSH website, there are currently several thousand such activists in the country.

The presence of superheroes, real or fictional, is something that Tangen sees as a reflection of the national mood.

“It can be seen even as far back as World War II,” Tangen said. “People need a hero. There is a need to see someone who stands for something right and good. The world around them is losing some of their priorities.”

Motor Mouth attributes his desire to help his community to childhood experiences.

Born to medical worker parents, the need to help others was ingrained in him from a very early age. In his youth, he would often stop school bullies from intimidating other students.

“I think too many people in this world nowadays allow for too much gray area,” Motor Mouth said. “When the reality is, bad is bad and good is good.”

Tangen agreed with that statement.

“Apathy exists, but these people are people who reject that idea,” Tangen said.

Motor Mouth, along with members of a larger group called “The Pacific Protectorate” often take it upon themselves to go on missions in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods at night to facilitate activities ranging from calling police to report drug deals, to breaking up bar fights, or as was the case in January 2009, participate in inhibiting the madness that was the Oakland riots.

Over the course of that night, Motor Mouth and his team stopped teenagers from using a battering ram on a building (with the help of Motor Mouth’s non-lethal Taser knuckles) and saved a woman from an exploding building.

When asked if he was afraid at any point during this night, Motor Mouth laughed.

“In order to be a real life superhero you have to take the fear that may be inside of you and manifest it into something that’s useful,” Motor Mouth said.

Officer Holly Joshi of the Oakland Police Department said these groups have been useful to the community and said that she appreciates their efforts.

“They’re on the right track,” Joshi said. “Citizens have a responsibility to protect their community, it’s not just a police issue.”