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.
Jones and others are Real Life Superheroes (RLSH), the international confederation of purportedly average civilians who don costumes to fight crime and perform good deeds. Sorvari friended Jones on Facebook, who put him in touch with Nyck Knight in Antioch, one of about a dozen local heroes who were patrolling downtown San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. They dole out food to the homeless, host toy drives, and pick up dirty syringes. One in Hayward drives a glowing purple "Mutinous Mobile" with a rifle in the backseat.
At midnight on a Saturday this summer, Sorvari was in the Antioch Safeway when he says some 60 people — again, black — rushed in and started opening food and eating it without paying. Other shoppers kept their heads down, but Sorvari tried in vain to obstruct the wrongdoers with his shopping cart. (A Safeway rep says that 30 or 40 young people came from a house party and ransacked the store for liquor and food. The store had to shut down for the night.)
From his bedroom bookshelf Sorvari pulls far-right Mormon political theorist Cleon Skousen's The 5,000 Year Leap, a 1981 book recently hitting bestseller lists after fierce evangelization by Glenn Beck. Sorvari quotes passages about personal liberty and property rights, which he felt were violated in the Safeway raid. "I just felt like helping, intervening, doing something. That they can walk right in and do whatever they please and get away with it doesn't comply with the principles of freedom."
Inspired by the RLSH, Sorvari went to work: He molded plastic "stab-proof" armor glowing with LED lights to strap over his all-black supersuit. He rigged up a 6-foot ninja staff with Tasers mounted on either end. When that proved too heavy for street patrols, he attached magnets to the back of his suit to instead hold a homemade Taser sword.
After a few patrols, Sorvari met Motor Mouth, an aptly named special education teacher and former security guard and Eagle Scout who refuses to give his civilian name to reporters. Two years ago, Motor founded the Nor-Cal Protectorate — just four members strong after losing one to boot camp and multiple defections — the local affiliate of the RLSH's Pacific Protectorate.
The Nor-Cal Protectorate voted to let Sorvari join on a probationary basis, taking him out on patrols and homeless handouts in low-crime areas in San Francisco and Oakland. Motor Mouth suggested Sorvari drop his "Nightshock" alias in favor of "The Ray," explaining, "I see in Roy the potential to be a ray of light and hope in an uncaring world."
Sorvari continued his solo work in Antioch. He hung signs around town bearing a pine tree over crossbones, the RLSH Pacific Protectorate seal; they read like edicts from the Old South: "A neighborhood watch has found reason for concern for the city of Antioch. There have been sightings and reports of African-Americans comiting robberys and muggings in large group of 60 or more through out Antioch" [sic].
The signs suggested people call the authorities or Sorvari's cell phone. Most were ripped down.
News of The Ray's arrest at Occupy Oakland buzzed through the superhero network. Motor Mouth saw The Ray's shield on KRON news among the items confiscated by cops in the riot and cursed himself for not being there, too. It was Motor who first took The Ray to Occupy, to drop off food and medical supplies at the San Francisco and Oakland camps. Occupy security saw the guys in their armored costumes (they'd planned to patrol downtown Oakland afterward) and asked them to pull shifts at the self-policing camp.
The Ray latched onto some Occupy principles — freedom of assembly, freedom of speech against disconnected politicians — and returned in costume to volunteer during the week of the general strike.
Within the superhero ranks, costumes are a point of contention: For meek comic geeks, it lends spandex courage. For others, it's a new identity: "I'm speaking to you as Do-Luck," one told SF Weekly over the phone. For a sensitive few, it's kind of embarrassing.
The California Initiative, a superhero collective whose founders recently broke off from Motor Mouth's Nor-Cal Protectorate, also pulled security shifts at the Oakland encampment, but they wore black civilian clothes. The nine-member group uses superhero names, yet reserves costumes for do-gooder events, like volunteering at soup kitchens.
"I think you look like a troublemaker," Rock N. Roll, one of CAI's founding members, says of costumes. Her superhero credentials: Desert Storm vet, self-defense instructor, former head of security at the End-Up. "A bunch of people in weird masks tend to look like they're trying to remain anonymous, and not for the right reasons."
But Motor Mouth has argued on Facebook that "RLSHs wear body armor to protect themselves as well as to protect others, not to look fancy."
Rock N. Roll knew The Ray was marching in the Nov. 2 general strike, and warned him via text message that she had spotted dozens of cop cars heading to Oakland from Alameda. "His reasoning was really noble, like, 'I'm going to protest with these people, and if they need my protection, I'm willing to hurt myself,'" she says. "I was thinking, dude, you're tiny.... You're going to be a martyr. That will be your name: Martyr Guy."
The Alameda County district attorney charges Sorvari with yet another identity: felon. At Sorvari's first hearing in November, a judge read that he'd be answering to a felony charge of obstructing an executive officer, punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and/or up to a year in jail. She said that the district attorney accused Sorvari of kicking and pushing his shield into a cop, and that the police taped a confession. (The Ray later responded on Facebook: "I never use the shield to hit anyone.") The Ray's attorney, Jeffrey Kaloustian, a volunteer with the National Lawyer's Guild, countered that Sorvari had tried to protect protesters and been beaten unconscious, emerging with two black eyes and three stitches in his eyebrow.
Sorvari became a mini cause célèbre. Occupy Oakland's general assembly voted to donate his $1,500 bail from $20,000 that Occupy Wall Street had sent to help with legal costs. A host at progressive radio station KPFA called him "a courageous young man," praised his "Boy Scout ethic" on the air, and asked if Sorvari considered Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi role models. Sorvari responded that his idols were more like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.
If The Ray's supporters had asked him about his mission in Antioch, they might have been less ecstatic.
"I'm not trying to be racist or anything, but in Antioch you have to be aware of certain colors, unfortunately," Sorvari says.
The suburban city was 3 percent black in 1990, and 17 percent in the 2010 census. Sorvari is not the only longtime resident unnerved by the change. Neighborhood watches have proliferated, city councilmembers have railed against crime, and the city just settled a discrimination lawsuit with black Section 8 residents who claim police targeted them for enforcement actions. Brad Seligman, the attorney who represented the case along with the ACLU, says several of the plaintiffs moved out after the unwelcome treatment. "It seems most of that had died down, so it's unfortunate there's a new person out there perpetuating this," he says.
Sorvari says he's just calling it like he sees it — yet his terminology can veer into straight Jim Crow. About Phoenix Jones getting headlines, he says, "If you look for superheroes, there's a lot of white people, so having a figure who's colored is really cool because it shows we're not a Nazi group." Speaking of the skate park rumble, he says, "There were so many black people there they turned day into night."
Antioch Police Capt. Leonard Orman says Sorvari's focus on race is unsettling. "We have people who perpetuate crimes from all walks of life. If anything, that is an indication of his narrow view of society and crime."
Orman's department had firsthand experience with The Ray in August, when police were dispatched to the skate park to check out a guy in a black ninja gear. As Sorvari tells it, the cop started pulling at his armor and asked to see how his Taser worked. In the ensuing struggle, the cop Tased himself on Sorvari's weapon. Sorvari was arrested for resisting arrest and possession of an illegal weapon, the expandable baton in his sheath.
"He told me I was under arrest, and I said 'Why?'" Sorvari says on a recent afternoon, acting out the struggle beside the kitchen table where Lynn home-schools her younger children. "I'm not going to surrender for no reason."
Lynn pipes up: "No, I think you have to, don't you?"
"But there has to be a reason," Sorvari answers. "He didn't give me any rights or anything."
Sorvari was booked into a Richmond jail, but the district attorney didn't pursue the charges. Even after that, Captain Orman concedes that they see Sorvari as more or a potential victim than a threat. "He's out looking for troublemakers. Another way of saying that is he's looking for trouble and he's eventually going to find it."
A couple weeks after Occupy bailed him out of Santa Rita jail, The Ray strides into the Tenderloin on a misty Friday night with Motor Mouth and Mutinous Angel. With his supersuit booked into evidence, The Ray donned a white leather jacket from Goodwill, with LED lights on his pants, and a GPS device on a leather wrist-cuff. Mutinous' dark eyebrows peek out from a purple-and-black spandex suit complete with titanium gloves and a groin protector. Motor looks right out of South Park — a hunter's cap with earflaps pulled over an orange scarf that covered his face, a winter parka zipped over his rotund, 5-foot-4 frame.
Motor says he didn't go full-out on the gear in a compromise with Mutinous, who is self-conscious about "people seeing me as some sort of weirdo." In costume, Mutinous prefers to patrol in his Mutinous Mobile, a black Mitsubishi Eclipse with purple lights glowing underneath. This time he's indulging Motor.
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.
"The difference is spooky," Sorvari said, comparing the camp to the one he'd volunteered at a week earlier.
A skinny hipster approached in black nerd glasses, a black suit, and a red shirt. Finding out Sorvari was a superhero, he spoke at a clipped pace as he dragged on a cigarette. "There was a crew here of young black kids from around here mostly — apolitical. They were going around saying 'The cops are coming in 10 minutes, everyone get your shit together!' It's my firm belief they were then robbing tents because everyone was leaving." The hipster said another crew of kids did the same thing the night of the general strike.
"Are these kids that were mostly black, too?" Sorvari asked.
"Yeah, as reticent as I am to say it."
"I'm from Antioch," Sorvari said. "I know how you feel."
The hipster continued, now about a neo-Nazi skinhead spotted suiting up in black bloc gear the night of the general strike, and "built, military people" in plainclothes smashing windows. Back on the subject of thieves, he said, "There are professional rings of thieves in the camp living here, bro. I mean living here."
"Gosh, I wish the police didn't steal my costume," Sorvari mused.
He reflected as he climbed into the backseat of his parents' Taurus. "I like going out better as a superhero than like this. People seem to recognize me more." He laughed good-naturedly. "When I come here as a Real Life Superhero, I can dive in and help. But when I come here like this, I can't."
"Isn't that like Clark Kent?" asked his mom.
Just two hours later, a 25-year-old camper named Kayode Foster was beaten and shot dead on the sidewalk alongside the encampment. Oakland officials used the homicide as proof that the Frank Ogawa encampment had gotten out of hand, building momentum to evict it four days later.
Later, Roy explained how things might have gone if he'd have been there. He would have "jumped right in," he said. "If I saw the guy who did the shooting, I would tackle him to the ground and take away his gun."
He paused, thinking. "Maybe shoot him once in the leg, so he can't run away."