Author’s note: Editor-in-chief Vincent has let me take over the site for the week. Today is the second of a four part exclusive look at “real life superhero” Phoenix Jones, The Guardian of Seattle. For part 1, click here.
We arrive in the Capitol Hill area and Purple and Phoenix both say they like the cops here. This is the art gallery and gay-friendly section of Seattle and the police here are actually given a personality test, unlike most other areas. They want to make sure the police aren’t going to discriminate and overall they are much more friendly towards the Rain City Superheroes. Why do they tend to patrol the two areas of Belltown and Capitol Hill? Not only do they have a lot of street crime, but also, they share a lot of the same municipal codes. It makes it easier for the superheroes to memorize the law there.
When we get to the club, the superhero couple explains to me that it’s a private club where only members are allowed. It has no sign and the entrance is an unmarked door down an alley. To get in, you need to be invited by an existing member and meet the dress code. And this throws a wrench in the works. I’m wearing jeans which is definitely not part of the club code. Phoenix has a solution immediately. “Are my pants okay?” he asks the bouncer. Given the affirmative, he begins unbuckling his belt and turns to me. “Looks like you’re wearing my pants tonight!”
I put the pants on while listening to several minutes of club rules. It’s a lot to absorb and I only catch snippets including “no touching on the dance floor unless asked,” “wait 45 minutes between drinks, not 4 to 5, forty-five,” and most disturbingly “put all bodily fluids in the toilet only.” I thank myself for losing 40 pounds the past few months, agree to the rules, and enter. It’s honestly pretty subdued. There is a full dance floor and DJ with booming speakers but there’s also plenty of tables, chairs, benches and booths. Phoenix takes me to a quieter room to chat, after Purple very kindly buys me a drink. Phoenix sticks to ice water and Skittles. It’s a goth atmosphere where Phoenix says he is glad to be treated as anonymous and that he’s not the weirdest guy in the room for a change.
I ask Phoenix about the videos he takes when he patrols these days. It turns out that a tv network really wanted to do a reality show about him but he ultimately turned it down. “Is that why Rainn Wilson was appearing in some of your videos a few months back?” Phoenix nods and continues. “I was tempted. It was a lot of money, but I don’t know what I’d do with it. And then they wanted to recreate any confrontations I had on my patrols instead of using the real footage. It was a liability issue.” Turns out Phoenix just wasn’t comfortable faking it. He didn’t feel it sent out the right message. He admits that Hollywood does knock at his door. He was offered a large amount of money, which he asked me to not specify, for a one year option on the rights to his life story. The money could have done a lot of good, but the deal would not give him any veto power. Hollywood would be free to portray him any way they wanted and he would have no say. He grudgingly passed. I try to console him by reminding him that Robert Kirkman held out for years to adapt The Walking Dead, including passing on a bizarre idea by NBC to make the show without zombies. If at all possible, Phoenix perks up even more once comic books work their way into the conversation. He admits to being a big fan of The Walking Dead, and that he hosts a screening of the show at a local movie theater each week. His enthusiasm continues as he tells me of a show that wants to use his superhero likeness, though he requests we keep it quiet for now.
The TV and comics discussion leads to a lawsuit Phoenix is engaged in. Marvel and DC have come after him saying he can’t call himself a superhero, as they are the co-owners of that trademarked word. When Phoenix was arrested back in October of 2011 (“A real low point” he admits) the court named him as a “real life superhero.” Phoenix is arguing that that’s what he is and he is legally allowed to call himself, citing precedent. He turns his losses into victories. When I asked if there was any continuing fallout from that event, in which the city dropped charges but his unmasking cost him his day job working with autistic children, Phoenix shakes his head. You can’t fire someone for being a superhero and he got his job back. I get the sense that Phoenix’ legal battles would form just as interesting a story as his evening patrols. I insist that he needs to make an autobiographical comic of some sort and he agrees that it will happen.
I move on to the heart of the Phoenix Jones enigma: why dress up in a superhero suit at all instead of simply joining the police department? The short answer is he has no faith in the Seattle police. Purple Reign backs him up saying it was recently ranked the third worst in the U.S. I’ve made a mental note to follow-up and ask where that comes from, but what matters is that’s what they believe. Phoenix says he can do more good and set an example helping people one-on-one the way he does now. That being said, there are some police that are friendly to the Rain City Superheroes and do good work for their community. He just thinks he’s able to do more good his way, and obviously takes pride in what he’s created.
Phoenix decides to go for more Skittles and asks me to walk with him. On the streets, he has a way of engaging in conversation while scanning the club crowds. Any time some people are pushing or getting a bit loud, we stop and he observes, waiting to discern if it is just friends goofing around or something more serious. Some of the altercations are difficult to intuit and he asks me to have 911 ready, but nothing warrants Phoenix getting involved. Not knowing the street names very well, I breathe a quiet sigh of relief.
Phoenix points out a parking lot that he says never has any crime but a lot of times ends up being where a criminal runs to hide. He explains it’s one of the first places that he and his team tend to look when someone runs from them. He explains his methodology where the team splits into smaller groups about a block apart and walk in circles so that they cover more ground. If someone sees something, the rest know right away and aren’t far away. Many of the people in his Rain City Superhero movement dress in plain clothes so that they don’t draw attention when scanning the crowds. Some of them are EMTs so they can help in a medical emergency. Phoenix insists that all members of the Rain City Superheroes come from either a military or MMA background, trademark their look, buy a bulletproof shield, and take a month-long course on the local laws. Phoenix himself goes a step further, taking de-escalation courses offered by the police to defuse tense situations.
Along the way, we pass a food vendor who thanks Phoenix. Another person he says he saved from a stabbing. At the grocery store, Phoenix chats with an older homeless man who admits he has not eaten that day. Inside, Phoenix explains that the homeless man is a great informant and tells him about stuff going on in the area whenever he knows something. We pass two security guards and Phoenix begins chatting with them about the best way to apply pressure to the carotid artery, using me as an example. I instantly get dizzy. I ask Phoenix if he knew those guys and he says he’s never seen them before. I tell him he’s very outgoing and friendly. He admits it’s intentional. He wants people to remember him and to be willing to talk to him if they hear about any crime in the area.
After watching a suspicious man with an odd gait – “I can’t tell if he’s wearing a leg brace or an ankle holster” – we get to the checkout. After all the stories Phoenix has told me and videos we’ve watched, I ask if he sees a day when he will retire from this. “Eventually I’ll be too old. Or I’ll get killed,” he says morbidly. When I ask if he’s serious, he says he’s been shot at about 35 times this past year and figures his odds can’t hold out forever. I’m shocked that he’s okay with taking these risks considering he has a wife and kids. Phoenix gets more Skittles and I pick up the sandwich. I figure it’s the least I can do and Phoenix tends to inspire you to want to be a good person. He’s incredibly upbeat despite mentioning all the violence he encounters.
On the way back to the club, I ask what his goals as a superhero are. He lays out some talking points about helping the community, but I feel like I’m missing details. Do you LIKE the city, I ask. “I like Seattle. It’s a great city in the day. It needs work at night,” Phoenix explains. Before I can press the issue, we watch some people in a shoving match that doesn’t amount to anything but I lose my train of thought. Instead, we jump back in time to his origins.
Phoenix grew up in foster care in Texas. He says the only comics he got to read back then were Batman, when he was about 11, but he thought Batman was a douche. “He was so miserable but he got to drive a Porsche. What’s he got to complain about?” Instead, he likes Nightwing and has every comic featuring Batman’s former protege. In Seattle, he had his car broken into and despite many people witnessing it, nobody helped. A man threw a rock in a ski mask throw his car window and his son was cut on the glass. Phoenix offered the ski mask to the police but they explained DNA testing would cost a lot more than if the police department bought him a new car window. Cut to several weeks later. Phoenix was at a club when one of his friends appeared in the crowd cut from forehead to chin. Somebody had attacked him. Phoenix ran to his car to get his cell phone and call the police. He hit the glovebox and inside was the ski mask, lit up by the glovebox light. Phoenix says it was then he decided he was going to do something “stupid.” He put the mask on and a fedora he had in the backseat, ran back, and beat up the attacker. It inspired Phoenix to create his first superhero suit – black pants and turtleneck, ski mask, fedora and a white woman’s belt. Phoenix shows me a photo of it on his phone and he can’t help but laugh at it.
We get back to the private club, find Purple, and head out to grab a hot dog as the night winds down. I ask Phoenix my last question of the night: what is the advantage of actually dressing up in his supersuit? Phoenix gives this one some thought. He usually has his answer ready, but he talks this one through, finding his way. “It protects your identity, your family.” He adds that it allows him to wear more protective gear than he would have in plain clothes. Earlier he explained that Seattle has an open carry law which means people can walk around with guns and knives very easily. He says he even carries something like a taser or pepper spray when he isn’t wearing his suit because you never know what other people have. Phoenix inserts himself into situations whether he is in his suit or not, and I definitely get the sense he prefers wearing the suit.
Phoenix heads next door to get a certain sauce he likes and I ask Purple if it’s ever tiring being around someone who generates so much attention. She admits it can be that way, but she supports what he does. I congratulate her on her recent award. The University of Washington recently honored Purple Reign with their annual award for helping women. Purple Reign raised money in a campaign that benefitted Northwest Family Life. Phoenix focuses on street level crime but Purple Reign’s project is raising awareness and resources for abused women. She admits that the superhero costume helps get attention to the cause.
My night out with Phoenix Jones draws to an end and he says he really wants me to go along on a patrol. He’s accomplished a lot as a superhero. Feeding the homeless, bringing down the police response time, and engendering good will throughout individuals in the city. He admits a lot of it came from experience, and learning from early mistakes. He used to play fast and loose with his approach. Phoenix witnessed a man bringing groups of women into a house but they didn’t come out. He guessed it was a sex traffic operation and called 911 but the police said they didn’t have probable cause. Phoenix kicked in the door and reported burglary. He got arrested for it, but he was right about the sex trafficking so the police let him go. If Phoenix has a superpower, it might be that he is usually right.
Tomorrow: Patrolling with Phoenix Jones with lots of photos and video! If you’d like to help Phoenix, you can learn more here.