Illustration by Sam Kennedy.
Around 11:30 p.m., The Ray stepped onto Broadway in downtown Oakland, certain of what he had to do. The peaceful general strike march of Nov. 2 had ended, and now rioters swarmed, smashing windows and stoking fires in trash cans. Cops formed a line across the street, battling back with gas grenades. Helicopters hovered. The sharp stink of tear gas pricked the The Ray's nose.
He'd first smelled it a week before, at the bombastic eviction of the Occupy Oakland encampment from Frank Ogawa Plaza on Oct. 25. That night he'd come dressed as a civilian, and filmed a man getting shot down by a rubber bullet.
But sizing up the melee on Nov. 2, The Ray knew that Oakland needed something more. A superhero.
The Ray strapped on protection — goggles, gas mask, knee and shin pads — and set out to calm the chaos. Only his eyes showed beneath the black of his supersuit. Stab-proof plastic armor protected his chest, and he gripped an orange aluminum Captain America shield, borrowed from his superhero teammate, Motor Mouth.
He had never witnessed anything like this back in Antioch, the East Bay's outermost patch of sprawl, where he'd grown up in one of the suburban homes that eat into the bluffs along the Sacramento delta. There, The Ray would bike to Safeway and climb up onto the roof to survey the parking lot for crime. He fought to stay awake after a day stocking Target shelves as 22-year-old Roy Sorvari: the home-schooled, Mormon, former Boy Scout. Roy: 5-foot-5, 120 pounds, with a forthright, courteous manner. Sometimes called Roy the Hot Dog Boy, ever since he started selling franks at the skate park off a grill rigged to his 10-speed.
In Antioch, his greatest feat had been stopping kids from breaking into a vending machine outside Wal-Mart. Another time, someone called the cops on him for carrying a sword on his back at the skate park (it was actually a Taser).
The Ray carried no weapons as he paced toward the Occupy tent city in front of City Hall. A riot squadron with bigger shields than his lined the plaza's perimeter, and rioters scrambled to erect their own barrier of upended tables parallel to the police. Suddenly, a phalanx of riot cops barged through from the City Hall side, setting off flash-bang grenades and tear gas, arresting anyone in their path. A siege.
The Ray spotted two protesters who'd fallen to the ground and curled into the fetal position. A cop rushed toward them. The Ray feared the worst. His code demands he first make a verbal attempt to end conflict, but to The Ray, "that point was definitely past." He says he couldn't imagine asking, "'Officer, would you please stop beating us?'''
Instead of talk, he took action. The Ray ran in with his shield between the cops and the prone occupiers. Hit, he fell backward, and rolled to spring back up. His face hit the ground.
Some time later, The Ray woke up. His hands were cinched behind him, and warm liquid coated his face. Blood. Someone lifted him to his feet, and pain shot through his leg. Cops would later tell him an occupier must have shot him with a paintball, but the bruise had no trace of paint; he thinks it was more likely a police-issue rubber bullet or bean bag.
The Ray felt as if he were floating through a dream. He remembers his gear getting cut off. An ambulance. His hands cuffed to a hospital bed. Stitches plunging through his eyebrow. An interrogation room.
His charges: battery on a peace officer and remaining at the scene of a riot.
It's not easy protecting the people's liberty.
It was just five months ago that Sorvari started stalking off in all black from his parent's ranch house in Antioch, the one with a tiny American flag in the rocks out front, a Jesus painting over the fireplace, and a garage dojo where Roy Sr. teaches martial arts. Before long, guys with names like Nyck Knight and Motor Mouth started showing up on the front step like awkward first dates, waiting to drive off on missions. Sorvari's mom, Lynn — a friendly, former Navy avionics mechanic with curly black hair — assumed Sorvari was videotaping crime in a costume. "I knew Roy had the desire to be a superhero. It just seemed liked a seamless, no-big-deal thing."
Sorvari had turned into The Ray, Taser-bearing protector of the streets, the Safeway, and the skate park. His enemy: what he sees as an invading army of thugs — the poor, usually black, residents who have moved into Antioch from San Francisco, Richmond, and Oakland. "I'm not a Nazi, an anarchist, or a racist," Sorvari says when asked about his new neighbors, many of whom have come for the plentiful, roomy houses available with Section 8 vouchers. "It's just, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason."
All superheroes have an origin story, and The Ray's started last spring when, as he tells it, he witnessed a group of 40 young black men show up at the skate park to fight his mixed-race group of skater friends. (The cops came before anything could happen.) Then he says that last summer he was hunting for squirrels at the skate park with his BB gun — he cooks the meat and sews fur bracelets out of their hide — when three black guys knocked him off his bike. Sorvari scrambled to his feet and returned a flying kick to one in his gut. ("I've always wanted to do that.")
While he was more into Star Trek than comic books, Sorvari had been sketching himself as a superhero from a DC Comics drawing book since he was a teen. This summer, a coworker mentioned Seattle superhero Phoenix Jones, who had not yet been arrested for pepper-spraying a group of club-goers in October. Sorvari Googled Jones, and was intrigued that someone was actually acting on the desire he'd had for years.