Real-Life 'Superheroes' Fight City Crime ... In Costume

From Spiderman to Wonder Woman, comic book superheroes have been symbols of cool for generations of Americans. Many have fantasized about being a superhero, or at least dressed the part in a Halloween costume. But members of a movement known as Real Life Superheroes actually take on personas and hit the streets - in costume - to fight real crime. Host Michel Martin speaks with two anonymous characters, who go by the names Phoenix Jones and DC's Guardian, about their efforts to help the police protect communities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary. But first, we just heard about the revival of the Black Panther comic book hero. Now we talk about an effort to bring superheroes to your neighborhood. They call themselves Real Life Superheroes. They are a group of people, adults, who aren't just fantasizing about being superheroes, they're actually taking on the personas. And you can see where this might sound a bit strange. So we wanted to know more about this. We've invited two so-called superheroes to talk about what they do and why they do it.

Phoenix Jones is from Seattle, Washington. He joins us from KUOW. And DC's Guardian is based in our nation's capital, as you might expect from the name. But he happens to be on the West Coast today, where we caught up with him. And he joined us from NPR West.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. PHOENIX JONES (Superhero): Well, thank you, ma'am. It's a pleasure to be with you today.

DC'S GUARDIAN (Superhero): Yes, I agree.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that each of you doesn't like to talk about your other lives very much. You don't like to put the focus on your individual identities. But I do think people would like to know how this got started.

So, Phoenix, why don't you start? How did you get started on this?

Mr. JONES: I used to do a - like, a little bar patrol where I drop people off at the bar, and then since I was already going to have to wait for them, I decided to break up bar fights. After I'd been breaking up bar fights for a little bit, I stopped because people started recognizing me. My face was pretty out there, and I didn't feel very comfortable.

You know, a little time went by, and I had a son. And we were at Wild Waves, and we were playing in the water. And we leave and we were running back to my car, and he falls in this glass right by my car because someone had broken in my car and broke the window. And his knee is cut open, and he's bleeding really badly. And I'm trying to stop the bleeding, and I see a guy run across the street with a camera phone. And I'm, like, perfect. He'll call, you know, call the cops.

So I said, call 9-1-1. I need help. And he said, I can't. And I said why? He said, it'll ruin my YouTube clip. And it wasn't till I was able to get help another way that we were able to get help, and it really disturbed me.

MARTIN: But, wait, how did you go from that story, which a lot of people, I think, can relate to - which is a terrible story, by the way, and I'm sorry that happened to you - to wearing a costume and deciding you were going to actually do patrols?

Mr. JONES: You know, I know that sounds like a large leap, but what happened is I'm cleaning my car up from the glass, and I found a rock inside a mask that they had used to smash my window. And I left the mask in my glove box. And a couple weeks later, I'm at a bar doing what I normally do, driving people to the bar, dropping them off and waiting for them. And a friend of mine gets assaulted outside the bar.

And there's about 70 people watching, and the guy who did it had a whole lot of friends there. And I didn't want to just walk up and be, like, hey, you shouldn't do that, because I knew people would see my face. So I opened up my glove box to call 9-1-1 to get my phone out and saw the mask, put on the mask and kind of made a commotion and chased the person a little bit. And the police showed up, and they were able to arrest him. And that's kind of how Phoenix Jones was born right there, but it was originally from the break-in, is where I got the mask.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. How about DC, what about you? How did this get started for you?

DC's GUARDIAN: There was a show several years ago called "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" And I was asked to try out for it, because I was a comic book geek, if you couldn't tell. And that led to the creation of Skiffytown League of Heroes. But my role with the RLSH, or the Real Life Super Heroes, began when my name started to get out. I was associated with the RLSH, and I decided that if I'm going to be associated, I was going to take an active role in it. So...

MARTIN: And so what do you do? Do you patrol? What do you do?

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, actually, in Washington, D.C., I would patrol around the National Mall, behind the Capitol area. There's a lot of very bad crime areas in Washington, D.C. And what I noticed was everybody wanted somebody else to do it. They were waiting for the police to do it. They were waiting for somebody else to come in. And like Phoenix Jones, I saw apathy.

And so I teamed up with a gentleman who was already there, called Captain Prospect, and we would do patrols. We would hand out flyers for missing persons. We would look at the drug scene. We got involved. We didn't do anything more than 30 years ago what a normal citizen would've done, but it took to dress up in costume to get people's attention to the problems at hand.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, tell me about the costume in your case. I mean, Phoenix was telling his story, but why do you wear a costume?

DC's GUARDIAN: Well...

MARTIN: And I can hear that, by the way, that for people who are wondering what that sound is, you're both in costume now right?

DC's GUARDIAN: Yes ma'am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So that's kind of what we're hearing, just for people who are wondering what that sound is that we're hearing. Their costumes is probably a little bulky. I think one of you, at least, perhaps wears a bulletproof vest. Do I have that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DC's GUARDIAN: Yes ma'am.

MARTIN: Okay.

DC's GUARDIAN: And. Yeah...

MARTIN: Makes sense. So DC, tell me, tell me your story.

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, my I collared a uniform, my military background. But my uniform is designed so that nobody can see my skin, because as an American, it shouldn't matter what color I am. I am simply an American. And when I help people, they don't know if it's two days later and somebody else needs help. It could be me that they're helping. What I'm trying to do is create somebody who doesn't want the recognition, but can be anybody if they walk across - or going down the street.

MARTIN: Well, to that point though, we understand that the police in your respective jurisdictions are not always enamored of this idea...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...of - they think do I have that right? I mean am I being kind of...

DC's GUARDIAN: Oh, yes ma'am. And...

Mr. JONES: It's like more than (unintelligible).

MARTIN: DC...

DC's GUARDIAN: Phoenix has a lot more confrontations. I don't want to say that in a bad light, but he runs across them a lot more than I do. But we both work with the police as best we can. And I put my best foot forward, because if I'm doing things that are illegal, I'm almost self-defeating.

MARTIN: Well, Phoenix, tell me you story about this. You laughed when I said the police aren't actually in love with this idea. In fact, there's a clip of you patrolling in one area where you are trying to restrain a person who you believe has been drinking to excess to keep him from getting into his car - not physically restrain him, but keep him from getting into his car. And when the police arrive on the scene, they are not pleased. And so I've seen this on, sort of, YouTube. So talk to me about that, your relationship with law enforcement.

Mr. JONES: Originally, you know, I did a lot of patrols at night, and I was pretty much undiscovered. And I broke up a night fight underneath a bridge here in Seattle and ended up getting hurt in the process. So when the police came and I had one person subdued and I had called the police, they immediately needed to know, you know, who I am, what I'm doing. And when I told them, I pulled out the newspaper the next day, and it said, you know, masked crime fighter attacks Seattle in costume nerdery(ph). And from there it was pretty much, you know, everywhere. It traveled pretty quickly at that point.

MARTIN: But do you have any martial arts training or have any self-defense training, Phoenix?

Mr. JONES: Yeah. I have two different black belts. In my regular life I'm a professional fighter with a lot of wins.

MARTIN: What, like mixed martial arts?

Mr. JONES: Yes ma'am. Uh-huh.

Mr. JONES: So...

MARTIN: And DC, what about you? You're a veteran and presumably, self-defense training. Do you also have martial arts training?

DC's GUARDIAN: Yes ma'am. I've actually have about 20 to 25 years-plus of martial arts and a lot of military training. And I think for Phoenix and I, it's not necessarily the ability to beat somebody up, anybody can do that, but it's to defuse the situation so that nobody's getting hurt.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking with two gentlemen who have actually taken on the persona of superheroes. They actually patrol in their communities, try to intervene in situations and fight crime. And they're not alone. We just happen to be talking to two of them. They go by the names of Phoenix Jones and DC's Guardian. And Phoenix is in Seattle and DC's Guardian happens to be on the West Coast today, but he mainly works in the Washington, D.C. area.

But to that point, I mentioned as earlier that you're not the only people who are doing the right now. But there are some who would argue - and you kind of all know each other and you seem to have a loose confederation called the Real Live Superheroes - but some people would say why not just going into law enforcement where you can get paid to do this and get insurance...

DC's GUARDIAN: If I could address this.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DC's GUARDIAN: If I could address this first, Phoenix. People go into the first responders, the police, the fire, the EMT and that's a wonderful career to do, but not everybody has to do that to step in and make a difference. And what we do is try to show people it's okay to protect your neighborhood.

MARTIN: Okay, Phoenix, what about you? Why not just go in to law enforcement?

Mr. JONES: You know, I 100 percent agree with what DC said to start with. The other part I would elaborate, and this is more of a personal note, is that I'm an African-American man, and being that, a lot of other African-American people have I would say a strange relationship with how they view police. And I think if I became one I would be less effective. And a good story of that is a man found my Facebook and texted me and said, I have warrants and I wanted to be turned in. I assaulted the cop and I ran away. And knowing cops, I'm very nervous about turning myself in because I don't want to be assaulted. Is there any way that you would turn me in? And I thought it was a setup, but I met him and I actually turned him in. And he wanted me to do it because he knew that I was like him. That's what he said. He said you're one of us. It gives a different angle for people.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you though, and I hope I can ask this without being perceived as being disrespectful because I don't intend to be. But the thing for a lot of people thing for a lot of people it is the costume. A lot of people just think why are grownups dressing up in costumes?

Mr. JONES: I actually started off with no costumes and that's why I love this question. Originally, I just had like I said, the ski mask from the robbery that happened in to car and I would just be wearing jeans and I would take whatever shirt I was wearing and just, you know, if I saw a crime walk around the building, take the shirt off, throw the ski mask on, stop crime. And the cops would roll up and pull guns on me and force me on the floor every time.

MARTIN: And you're shocked by this because?

Mr. JONES: Well, I'm not. I look like a robber. But now I'm Phoenix Jones and I'm a symbol. When cops pull up to a situation I'm in, they may not like me but they start off every conversation with: okay Phoenix, what's happening now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. JONES: There's not a gun pulled. It is nothing like that. They know who I am.

MARTIN: DC, what about you? People will say what's up with the costume? You're too grown for that.

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, you know, and we're not saying everybody needs to wear a costume. But take your own life, for example. Down your street can you really tell what the street looks like day-to-day? You pass things every day and after a certain point you tend to disregard it. And so the costume, when I walk down the street, the whole street is looking at me. It brings a spotlight to a situation. When I help homeless, doing it without a costume is absolutely wonderful but other people never seem to notice that anymore. It becomes just another image on the side of the road. When you see me walking down the street helping a homeless, you're looking to see what I am and what I'm doing, but then the bigger picture is the homeless on the street.

And the same thing for crime. Walking down the street and just behind the Capitol, two drug dealers - they're doing it in broad daylight. But I come walking down the street, everybody stops. And when I'm talking to them the whole neighborhood is watching what's going on. You know, evil doesn't like light and that's what the costume helped bring. It brings a light into the situation.

MARTIN: What would you like us to learn from your experience. And DC, you want to start and then Phoenix, you can pick up?

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, we all bring something different to the table, but every table is different. My fight in Washington, D.C. is different than Phoenix's. And so people think that we're polar opposites, but we're not really. We're fighting the same war. We just have different battles to win the war.

MARTIN: Well, why do you say that people think you're polar opposites?

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, because I am a little more noticeable and a little more above board because, in Washington, D.C. we have what, Secret Service, FBI, local law enforcement. My fights have to be a little more recognizable. Phoenix, who has a lot different drug situations, gang situations, he's a little more in the shadows, but we're still fighting the same war. It's just different battlegrounds.

MARTIN: And, but can I forgive me, I just feel like I have to ask, there are people who just think you're crazy. That you're just going to subject yourself...

DC's GUARDIAN: And that's fine. No, and that's fine.

MARTIN: You're going to subject yourself to being hurt.

DC's GUARDIAN: But...

MARTIN: I'm guessing law enforcement, that's one of the reasons they sometimes encourage people not to get involved because...

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, but...

MARTIN: ...they're afraid you're going to get hurt and it's going to add another situation. They just think you're crazy.

DC's GUARDIAN: If we don't do it, who is going to?

Mr. JONES: DC?

DC's GUARDIAN: You know, at what point do you stand up, draw the line in the sand and say not this time?

Mr. JONES: Yes.

DC's GUARDIAN: And if we don't step up, what are our kids learning? If we cannot stand up and protect our community, who will?

Mr. JONES: I agree.

MARTIN: Phoenix, what about you? Your final thought?

Mr. JONES: On patrol now, I've been stabbed once, I've had my nose broken. I recently got punched with a key. I've been hit with a baseball bat. I've been held at gunpoint. And you know what happened during all those incidences? The citizen who didn't come out there wearing a bulletproof vest and wearing armor didn't get hurt. So if I have to take a little bit of punishment to make sure that my citizens don't get hurt, I guess I have to.

DC's GUARDIAN: Well, and having said that, there are a lot of RSH's who do a lot of charity work and they don't do anything but charity work. Everybody brings something to the table and it's time that people started bringing their gifts to the table and stand up and do their part.

MARTIN: Phoenix Jones and DC's Guardian are the names that these two men use who are a part of the Real Life Superheroes movement.

Phoenix Jones joined us from Seattle's KUOW. DC's Guardian joined us from NPR West. If you'd like to see pictures of them in uniform, log on to Npr.org, click on the Programs page and then on TELL ME MORE.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

DC GUARDIAN: Thanks you very much and I hope to be back in D.C. as soon as I can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Thank you again for having me on. Phoenix out.

(Soundbite of music)

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