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Walking the Tenderloin, Motor Mouth keeps up nonstop commentary. "See my fingers?" he asks, as he passes some hollowed-out junkies. "That's how many crack pipes we just walked by." (Or, "I guarantee you a fourth to a half of the people out here are buying or selling, or at least running.") The Ray makes naive exclamations like "That's the biggest Burger King I've ever seen!" He names the green street restrooms "Space toilets."
Mutinous mostly walks in silence. Six years ago, his Muslim girlfriend's family "kidnapped her" and made her marry within the faith. Mutinous, a 29-year-old Mexican-born American and devout Christian, explains, "I don't want to be with anybody else. Men who are single on their own really want to do something extreme, I guess."
It's legal to carry a licensed firearm in a locked case — like the one in NRA-member Mutinous' back seat — or a Taser, or pepper spray. But actually using the weapons plunges the superheroes into a legal gray area in which they would have to prove that use had been in self-defense. Motor explains the superheroes' code: First, they attempt to stop crime simply by being there — dudes in spandex are often enough to make troublemakers split. Second, they use verbal commands. Only if the first two methods fail will they get physical.
Apart from The Ray's recent actions at Occupy, none of them have had to yet.
Still, there is no superhero academy, and no badge to vouch for their judgment. They are self-appointed. Do-Luck, the superhero based in San Jose, tells me about stopping a fight. "The guy yelled, 'Who the hell do you think you are to do this?' I said, 'I'm nobody. I'm just going to Tase you and arrest you.'"
With so much latitude for judgment calls, people must trust their leader, and Motor Mouth is certainly controversial. He weaves animated tales of telling a 6-foot-7 man to "Move the fuck back!" in Berkeley (it worked). Or of saving businesses during the Oscar Grant riots by sparking his stun-gun blast knuckles at the mob. His teammate Cheshire Cat says Motor has a "gift" for de-escalating situations, and after the Oscar Grant riots, Motor says he received a leadership award in the mail from a Superheroes Anonymous meet-up.
Yet Motor has also spawned two splinter groups. "Motor Mouth tends to rush in where I would hold back," says Rock N. Roll. She and her husband, Night Bug, broke off to start the rival California Initiative in July. While Motor Mouth is a "firm believer that anyone can do this," with no fighting skills or superhero physique required, the Initiative's members train in first aid and martial arts, and are seeking nonprofit status.
Likewise, Do-Luck broke away from Motor Mouth this fall after Motor yelled at him for not fighting back when a man punched Do-Luck while out on patrol: "That was red flag." Motor says he just wanted Do-Luck to make a citizen's arrest, and kicked him off the team. Do-Luck's tactic might better fit a hero named Mr. Passive Aggressive: he left rough edges on his steel body armor so anyone who hits him will tear up their own hand. "It's not me; It's them hurting themselves." In August, Do-Luck and his crime-fighting partner, Sarge, broke off and started the San Jose-based Citizen Constables League. Do-Luck says Motor Mouth responded by blocking him on Facebook.
Back on the Tenderloin patrol, Motor got his chance to charge in. The group watched a Latino man accuse an older black man brandishing a cane of selling him bad drugs. Mutinous strode out in front of the buyer, while Motor took the seller. The superheroes spoke to them in low tones, with Motor holding his hands up in a "stand back" gesture. The two arguing men didn't know what to make of the intervention, but seem worried about the SF Weekly photographer on the sidewalk: "Don't take pictures of me, bro!" After a few tense seconds, the Latino man entered his car and slowly drove away.
"It was either gonna happen or not happen," Motor says of the potential brawl. "And we made it not happen."
For now, The Ray and Motor Mouth are done with Occupy. Motor had an ideological falling-out with the movement over its temporarily occupying an Oakland building. Sorvari's attorney, Jeffrey Kaloustian, suggested The Ray stay away, too, at least at night. But after Sorvari's arraignment, in which he pleaded not guilty to an obstructing an officer charge, Sorvari returned to the Oakland encampment to search for the duffel bag of gear he had stowed in a planter the night of his arrest.
"You may be a little bit of a superhero down there," Kaloustian joked.
"I'll sign a few autographs," Sorvari said.
Instead, as Sorvari, still sporting two black eyes, entered the camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, it was more like a wounded war hero returning from the front lines to base camp only to find everyone too battle-weary to care. Roy introduced himself: "I come here as Ray, a Real Life Superhero, do you know that?" No one did.