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It's a little past 11 on a balmy June night. Jack Zero stands in a patch of yellow light on the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue, wearing a Kevlar vest and cradling a skateboard modified with forearm straps for use as a riot shield.
When he spots two more people in Kevlar outside the subway station—a martial arts instructor and a young woman packing a foot-long flashlight—he quickly crosses the street, prepared for the night's crime watch.
Ever since 32-year-old Mark Carson was shot in the face after leaving a gay bar on May 18, the citizen crime-prevention squad New York Initiative (NYI) has been patrolling the West Village. It wasn't just Carson's murder that caused concern. The city has seen a sharp uptick in anti-gay hate crimes, with five reports in May alone.
In the past, NYI has spent nights breaking up fights in Harlem and keeping watch over a Canarsie neighborhood plagued by rape. The martial arts instructor, who goes by the name Dark Guardian, worked three years chasing coke dealers out of Washington Square Park. The group also served as night security during Occupy Wall Street's Zuccotti Park protests.
The group used to dress as superheroes, but that changed when they felt the press characterized them as silly thrill-seekers. "We put on the mask to tell the story, to get people engaged," Zero says. "But we saw that the superhero thing was doing us more damage than good." NYI is now composed of security specialists and defense enthusiasts, though the superhero nicknames remain intact.
Fifteen minutes into the night's patrol, Zero finds a man wiped out outside Monster Bar, the back of his skull revealing a sticky stamp of blood. Zero applies pressure as the fallen man's friend, Shaun Keappock, kneels beside him.
"You hit your head, honey," Keappock tells his dazed friend. "There's somebody taking care of you right now. There's a professional guy here."
"I want to sing," the man with the bleeding head mumbles. "I'll sing with you," Zero says. Together they keen a slurred rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All."
Zero, who works club security in the meatpacking district, has been doing this sort of thing for roughly a decade. So has Dark Guardian. Meredith, a 23-year-old horse-trainer who carries herself like the girl most likely to foul you during an intramural soccer match, took self-defense lessons for two years before joining NYI.
The team routinely responds to incidents requiring first aid; Zero says he once plugged a bullet wound in Bed-Stuy. But the primary goal is to prevent crime before it happens using de-escalation training, the stuff they teach you in the Peace Corps. When the Village was experiencing a string of muggings between Stonewall Inn and the PATH train two years ago, NYI watched drunk singles make their way to the station. If any large groups started following a vulnerable-looking guy, Zero and a man named Shortcut say they would crouch low on their skateboards and pop up by the target at the last second. The would-be muggers turned around.
Back on Grove Street, the man who fell has been inspected by medics. Keappock is touched. He feels the new fear encroaching on the city. "There have been times when I go home late and I hear some nasty things," he says. "And when I walk from here to the 6 [train], people try to lure you in. They try to hit on you if you're a staggering gay. A friend of mine has been mugged twice this year alone because of the whole staggering-gay thing."
NYI plans to hold free self-defense classes for residents in July.
"That was exactly what I was thinking when I first heard all this violence was happening," says Mitch Ferrino, Monster Bar's night manager. He's been called a fag a couple of times in Chelsea by "idiots on vacation with their drinking buddies," but believes the area is generally safe.
"I want to take a self-defense class. I go to the gym all the time, but this is for show," Ferrino laughs, shrugging his toned shoulders.
As NYI continues down Christopher Street, three cops from the Sixth Precinct stationed outside the Village Smoke Shop perk up. When one, Officer Sullivan, asks what the Initiative is doing, he quickly nods his head. "Just have a safe night," he says.
At one point, both Dark Guardian and Zero wanted to be on the force. Dark Guardian even took the test. But after they learned of the NYPD's enforcement quotas, both decided the police department wasn't for them.
"A lot of people don't want to deal with police," Dark Guardian says. "We don't believe all police are bad, but we believe the police need to work a little differently with the community.
Once, after he helped police chase down a suspect, he says he saw a cop kick the man in the face. He filed a report, but the suspect decided not to press charges.
NYI emphasizes maintaining calm and de-escalating confrontation. "Are we somehow intelligent enough to stop the madness instead of making it worse?" Zero asks. "I feel like a lot of other groups run in and escalate the damage."