Phoenix Jones is Seattle's own superhero, and whether you think he's a hero or a crazy guy in a costume, he has a mission here in Seattle. Phoenix seeks to empower citizens to report crime and think about what's happening around them.
While Phoenix gets the most press by far, he actually works with a team of superheroes called the Rain City Superhero Movement. The lineup in mid-2012 includes Mist, Midnight Jack, Q, Ghost, Pitch Black, Grappler, Captain Karma, and Phoenix's real-life wife, Purple Reign. Unnamed shadow members also assist the team on the streets or working from home via computer. Everyone on the team comes from a military or trained fighter background. Together, they patrol the streets of Seattle and seek to raise awareness and report crime.
What is your mission or purpose in Seattle?
To raise awareness that crime is taking place, and to point out that you don't have to be a victim.
What issues are most important to you?
Overall, domestic violence and petty street crime. If you're a drug dealer and some guy shoots you for selling drugs and steals your drugs, I feel bad that you got shot, but there are a lot of choices that you made that put you in that position.
Petty street crime is the only crime that affects everybody regardless of age, race, sex, color, creed, religion. It affects everybody. There's no politics behind walking down the street and getting robbed for your wallet--it sucks for everyone.
What led to you to become a superhero?
There's a logic jump somewhere that I've never been able to explain. The part that everyone gets is that someone broke into my car and the glass was left on the ground. My son and I were running to my car. My son was injured on the way to my car by falling into the glass and it made me angry. I filed a police report. I tried my best to go that way, but there's just not much you can do for a crime like that; police don't really investigate those kind of crimes. They're very low priority. For me, it was extremely high priority because of my son. I decided I would investigate it myself. So through that investigation, I took on that persona of someone who goes out looking for crimes. When I finished that one, it was just a matter of time before I was doing investigations for everyone I knew, and then also for strangers.
How long have you fought and reported crime?
As Phoenix Jones, I'd say the first article came out in November 2010. Before that, I was actually underground crime fighting for close to a year. It took awhile to learn how to move in my suit. The incident with my son happened in February 2009.
Tell me about your costume.
Basically, when I decided to fight crime, I went out and started fighting crime the way I thought it should be done and failed pretty hardcore at it. That's when I had to figure out how to get bulletproofing, and get the proper licensing to carry the gear I wanted to carry. That, start to finish, was probably a year's worth of work. I needed lawyers to find out what was legal and what's not, had to build a relationship with the police. It took a while.
The first time I bought a costume, it was just blue spandex and a bulletproof vest. I got into an altercation with a guy with a knife and he stabbed me and the knife went right through the bulletproof vest. I learned there are different types of bulletproofing that do different things. Stopping a bullet can be easier than stopping a knife. So now my whole suit is Kevlar bi-weave that's been put on top of a fire-retardant flame suit. Now its knifeproof, bulletproof, and flameproof.
The costume is also a mobile wireless hotspot so I can check the Internet, and it live streams so people who are on my close friend group can login to a certain page and see what I'm seeing. From home, they can upload police reports and other things right to my current location. I have a really good camera system--a head cam and a reverse cam--that are running constantly when I'm out there. We've been able to help the police with several cases, including the May Day protest riots, by giving them all the footage we have. Whatever I look at, my suit records.
What kind of gear do you carry?
When I first started, I had some of the coolest gadgets of all time--a grappling hook, Taser shooters, tracking darts. I realized the best weapon you could possibly have is cardio and pepper spray. Pepper spray is the best weapon because the legality of it is so simple. If you pull a gun on someone, you have to say--I was in clear imminent danger of my life, I tried to retreat, I couldn't retreat, and I was forced to confront this person with a mortal weapon. That's hard to argue in court because I'm 6 feet tall, 210 pounds, trained mixed martial artist, with a bulletproof suit--it's extremely hard to sell that I was frightened for my life. With a knife, everything's the same, but you have to prove that you were facing reasonable bodily harm, not death. Again, hard to prove when I'm looking for criminals. To use pepper spray, I have to prove that I felt threatened and the person did not listen to my commands to leave. Or if they're in the middle of a crime, a felony, or a generally violent offense, I can pepper spray them legally. The one I use has dye in it so their faces are orange for a couple days. On top of that, if you aim a black light at it, it glows.
Do you work directly with the City of Seattle, the Seattle police, or other area community groups?
We didn't want a direct relationship with the police, and they didn't want one with us. Having one makes us responsible for their rules. If we botched things according to their rules, in a court, it could be thrown out. If the police ask me for a report, I give them one. I send them videos from all the crimes where we end up needing to call the police. But I don't answer to any police station.
For the police officers who are interested in working with us, we give them the best thing they could possibly have. They show up, I plug my camera into the computer in their car, they can watch the crime take place. I then show them that we have the suspect of the crime that took place, we already have police reports typed out so we just fill in the differences, we give them our current address of how to contact us through our attorneys, and we show up on time for court.
Standing up to criminals or breaking up crime scenes is dangerous. What qualifications do you have to do this or how do you manage to stay safe yourself?
Just to get into my squad, you have to have a military background or a provable mixed martial arts background, or a decorated straight martial arts background. It has to be provable. Military is the best one. And you can't have any felonies.
Did you take on the media savvy persona on purpose or was that by accident?
That was a total accident. I actually avoided the media successfully for over a year. What happened was that I broke up a car jacking and got caught on a traffic cam, so the police put up a bulletin looking for the guy who broke up this crime. Then they started saying maybe I was responsible for these other muggings by people in masks, so then I had to go to the police station and tell them I wasn't a mugger. From that, we built a reputation. A couple months later, a reporter got a hold of my name and number and it spiraled from there. I was able to control my secret identity for a year and a half or so after that, but then with the false arrest and false charges, that was pretty much the end of that.
What you're doing is more than simply being a superhero. You also say you're an activist--explain this.
What people don't realize is that the first part of activism is active. Many activists aren't active. They're vocal, which I think is very different. You can say things all day, and people will listen to you, but at a certain point they will say, "Yeah, but I have to go to work" or "Yeah, but I have to do whatever." But if you say--"I was on the streets last night at four in the morning and I was standing there when this person got shot," immediately the response is very different.
I think the key is to choose sides. That might sound weird, but I want people to be done talking to me and think--so if I see a crime, what am I going to do? Am I the guy who watches and does nothing? Or am I the guy who stands for something and goes and fights for what I believe in? I want people to think about it. Because of the flashy way I do things, you're almost forced to think--that guy is foolish and he's going to get hurt or die, or that guy is a hero. But no matter which side you pick, it reveals something about yourself and at least you're thinking about the issues.
What struggles do you face as a Seattle superhero?
People get that I'm kidding--sort of. They get that what I do is funny, and that there's a lot of humor and that I'm a funny guy, but what they don't get is that I really get hurt. I've been shot, I've been stabbed, I've been arrested (all charges dropped), I've had my identity released, I've been assaulted in street clothes. It's not like I just woke up one day and became a superhero. There were months of preparation and training. I don't think how much time I've put into this is common knowledge.
I think when all of this superhero thing is over, and I've retired or get killed or they find someone better, and people look back at it and they go--that guy was nuts or really dedicated. Doing this is an insane amount of work.
How long do you think you'll do this?
I always tell my crew that I'm going to keep doing this until I get killed or they find someone better.
If you could tell all the people of Seattle one thing, what would it be?
When you see crime happening and don't do anything, maybe it's not you this time, but it could be you next time. So the most important thing to do is just to stop it at the source. If you see someone who needs a witness for a crime, you see someone get rear-ended and the guy drives away, you see something where you can make a difference, start now.