When I was seven, I told my teacher that when I grew up, I wanted to be a comedian like Johnny Carson. What I didn’t tell her was that I also planned on putting on a mask and fighting crime. Of course, like everyone else, my childhood dreams were shoved through the meat grinder of reality, and I hung up my cape along with my fantasy.
I’d forgotten all about it when, twenty years on, I saw a documentary on HBO entitled Superheroes. It followed grown-ass adults, calling themselves “Real-Life Superheroes” (or RLSH), who dress up in spandex and go out “on patrol.” They even have forums hidden in the backwoods of the internet, where they can trade training tips, war stories, and sweet pics of their sweet costumes.
But one of the groups featured in Superheroes wasn’t like the others. They called themselves the New York Initiative. They were trained in martial arts and parkour, and lived in no-frills apartments filled with exercise equipment. They didn’t wear bright superhero costumes or pose for photos with tourists. They seemed like the real thing, and I was immediately assaulted with concerns about fascism and due process. The idea of actual superheroes in real life, imposing their ideas of “justice” upon the masses was terrifying (see: Watchmen).
But after doing some research, I was relieved to find that instead of talking about “punishment,” or “vengeance,” they were actually more concerned with ideas of community service and safety. Pretty admirable, if you ask me.
After conducting the following interview with two leading members, Zero and Dark Guardian, I have to say that I was impressed with their level of maturity concerning as strange a subject as superheroing.
Oh. But they don’t like the term “superhero.” They prefer X-Alts (for Extreme Altruism).
The Initiative have been setting up branches all over the US. A documentary about them is planned to start filming this year.
Isla: What are the goals of the Initiative?
Dark Guardian: The goal of the Initiative is to create a safer, stronger, and more empowered community. We do that through actively fighting and deterring crime, offering free self defense seminars and information to the public, helping the needy, and by creating and participating in various projects to help our local communities.
Zero: Our goals are really simple: Make stronger, more aware human beings. We want to empower everyone and eliminate victims from society. I think our current goals and missions reflect that. Otherwise, It’s just what it has always been; Roam around looking for ways to protect people and change things for the better, wherever we need to go. It’s fluid like that.
Why do you feel that we need something like the Initiative?
DG: We feel we need regular citizens to get involved in their communities. Through community involvement and policing we can and will improve our areas.
Z: I feel like we need empowerment, and it needs to be organized under a banner that says, and really MEANS “Justice For All”… Right now it feels like it’s only justice for SOME. Our current activities are centered around making emergency/empowerment resources for everyone. It’s why we are striving to make all of this free. People shouldn’t have to sacrifice safety and peace of mind because they didn’t have enough in the paycheck this week. We’re also proving that there are good people out there who will use their considerable skills to make a better world, not just make a buck. It’s a win-win for everyone.
You’ve been lumped in with the RLSH movement. What makes your group different?
Z: Our standards. The RLSH is less a movement than a loose online community of people. A few are okay people, but through 6-7 years of communicating with them it seems like the majority just doesn’t have standards enough to attract the mindset necessary to really be productive and deal with real-world problems in real-world ways.
Add to that the rampant disinformation floating in those circles about “the street,” mishandling of tense situations (resulting in arrests of RLSH), use of force, vengeance, ego tripping… I felt like I got into this to stop the madness, not perpetuate it. So I did the logical thing and made a group that does just that.
I’ve noticed the masks are gone. Why for?
Z: A mask makes it extremely difficult to de-escalate a violent situation. We never used them in the field, just in the media. The projects we’re doing now feel more powerful without a gimmick. Basically, the masks got the attention and now it’s time to up the ante with the work and leave what is unnecessary in the dust.
I’ve seen you described as “vigilantes.” Do you agree with that label?
DG: We are not vigilantes. We follow the law in all that we do. It is our job to aid law enforcement in carrying out the law.
Z: We work within the law. New York Penal Code Article 35.15 states that we are permitted to protect ourselves or a third party from harm within the proper levels of force. We are extremely aware of levels of force and actually focus on verbal de-escalation as a first line of defense anyway. Often it takes a lot less than people think to calm a situation down, although we’re ready to physically defend if need be. And none of that is illegal vigilantism.
The Initiative is expanding quickly, and I see that you’re accepting applications. What kind of people are you looking for?
DG: The Initiative has been expanding. We have gotten more interest as of late, but our expansion has been slow and steady. We are looking for people who want to make a change in their communities, have a cool head, and a sharp mind.
Z: I always like to say, “TASK and TEMPERAMENT.”
“Task,” asks, “Do you have what it takes to get the job done?” which extends to can you get the training, can you manage your time, can you complete the tasks?
“Temperament,” asks, “Are you in the right place mentally?” which extends to are you able to see without the filter of anger, can you mediate and de-escalate, can you act without making situations worse?
All of this is what is needed to change the world. You cannot contribute to the problems of the world and expect it to change. We need Peaceful Warriors. Those who can mentally connect and physically protect.
How do you weed out the crazies?
DG: We usually weed out the crazies pretty quickly. We are a realistic team that takes real action and that usually deters the crazies. The team leaders have a keen eye for reading people. We also have a training program for potential members to go through before becoming a team member. So that has not been a big issue.
Z: After 12 years of doing this, and DG’s 10+, we see people who won’t be able to cope and have anger issues pretty quickly. We give them a chance and try to relate these ideas, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. C’est la vie.
Tell me about the Initiative Academy.
DG: The Initiative Academy is going to be the first superhero school. It will be a community center type facility that teaches self-defense, parkour, personal security, first aid, heroic ideas and values, and more. We will be offering tons of free seminars to the local NYC area, using it for homeless outreach, charity collection, training neighborhood watches and citizen patrol groups, holding charity art auctions, and whatever else we can do to improve NYC.
Z: I think DG covered it pretty well, there. We’re opening an empowerment school, basically. We are looking into options now, and trying to figure out if we can get some kind of free scholarship programs for low-income families with kids who have nothing better to do than get into trouble (like most of us did at that age). We have some sick trainers who are super positive, non-judgmental, and were forces of good long before they met us.
We just want to do this, always do this, and never do anything else. It’s a productive passion.
How do my readers apply, and do you have room for out-of-shape occultist writers?
Z: Or if you find that you hate us, start your own thing. Check out the Guardian Angels, start a neighborhood watch, organize a community food drive. Get creative. But don’t just read this and say, “Oh good. Someone is doing something. I can relax.”
The world is a painting of who we are as a society. The revolution has got to start within. Change us, change the world.