Roman Mars [00:00:01] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. On the afternoon of June 18th, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Logan Street, people were going about their day, having brunch at trendy cafes, and perusing a local bookstore, when suddenly they saw something extraordinary.
David Weinberg [00:00:23] A battle between good and evil.
Roman Mars [00:00:26] That’s reporter and friend of the show, David Weinberg.
David Weinberg [00:00:29] Some of the people who saw the confrontation probably thought a movie or a commercial was being filmed. Why else would a guy in a superhero outfit attempt to move a car with his bare hands?
Roman Mars [00:00:41] It all started when a woman in a white jeep pulled up to the traffic light to make a right turn onto Sunset Boulevard. Now, it’s perfectly legal to make a right turn on red in California. What you’re not supposed to do is block the crosswalk while you wait your turn. And that’s exactly what happened here.
David Weinberg [00:00:58] It was at this precise moment that our hero emerged from the shadows to save the day. He was wearing a black and white striped cape and a mask. This caped crusader bravely approached the front of the car, placed his hands on the hood, and started pushing.
El Peatonito [00:01:14] My name is Peatonito. I’m the pedestrian, luchador vigilante of the streets fighting for pedestrian rights.
David Weinberg [00:01:22] El Peatonito. He’s a real-life superhero.
El Peatonito [00:01:27] Yeah. I don’t like too much the word “superhero.” I feel it sounds pretentious. I don’t know. But I like more a “vigilante.” Or in Spanish, the word “luchador.” That it’s a fighter. A fighter of the streets.
David Weinberg [00:01:41] El Peatonito models his look on Mexican wrestlers. But this hero does not wage his battles in the ring. He fights in the dangerous, smog-choked, traffic-clogged metropolises–wherever the humble pedestrian faces their most dangerous villain, the automobile.
Roman Mars [00:02:00] The people of Los Angeles are very much in need of a hero like El Peatonito because in many ways the city’s leaders have failed to protect them from automobiles. Every 30 hours, a person in Los Angeles is killed in a car-related incident.
El Peatonito [00:02:16] It’s the leading cause of death of children in California–car crashes–and all because we wanted to go fast in the streets. And the main job of the government is to protect our lives. The life is sacred.
David Weinberg [00:02:30] El Peatonito is not some lone crusader fighting for us mortals. There are real life superheroes all over the world, scouring the streets of their towns, doing their part to fill in the gaps where local authorities have failed.
Roman Mars [00:02:44] David recently made a whole podcast about real-life superheroes. It’s called The Superhero Complex.
David Weinberg [00:02:50] While working on it, I discovered a whole world of costumed vigilantes and do-gooders, some of whom were hellbent on catching criminals and getting into fights. But El Peatonito was part of a different subset of real-life superheroes, who were more focused on things like picking up trash and taking on civic issues. They take their inspiration from comic books–but in some ways, these real-life heroes have more ambitious goals than defeating a make-believe villain. They’re out to solve big societal problems. Wherever a city is plagued by traffic accidents or people are living on the streets, these heroes heed the call of service. When I first heard about real-life superheroes, I was skeptical of them. I thought surely they just wanted attention. Why else would they dress up in ridiculous costumes? But then I started to spend time with some of them. I tagged along on neighborhood patrols and saw firsthand the work they were doing. And I came away inspired by their dedication to helping people in need. And I felt guilty about judging them for the way they dressed. And to be totally honest, I’m not a superhero guy. I never connected with the comics or the shows as a kid. But now I actually think real life superheroes–like El Peatonito–are way cooler than any Marvel or DC character. And there are a lot of civic do-gooders who came before him. Take, for example, Jim Phillips, a Chicago middle school teacher from the 1960s who called himself The Fox.
Reporter [00:04:22] The Fox says he took his name from the Fox River, which runs through northern Illinois, west of Chicago. He’s managed to avoid police and private detectives, who’ve tried to track him down. The Fox agreed to his first television interview…
David Weinberg [00:04:34] The Fox defended his community against the heartless corporations that were dumping toxic waste into local rivers. His calling card was a note signed with a fox face in place of the letter “O.”
Roman Mars [00:04:47] Legend has it The Fox would canoe down the river to put caps on drainage pipes that were releasing pollutants into the water. Once he even dumped 50 pounds of sewage from Lake Michigan into the office of the company responsible for it.
David Weinberg [00:05:01] In the early 1980s, another hero joined this tradition–a man named Willie Perry, who became known as the Birmingham Batman.
Roman Mars [00:05:10] Willie Perry drove around Birmingham, Alabama, in a souped-up 1971 Ford Thunderbird with a Batman license plate and the words “Rescue Ship” painted on the hood. Mostly, he focused on helping stranded motorists.
Stranded Motorist [00:05:22] My car had a flat tire. I didn’t have a spare. And I was stranded. I was on the highway–me and my kids. No one stopped to help us. And along came this strange car.
David Weinberg [00:05:35] Today, there are actually dozens of Good Samaritan heroes doing important civic work all around the world. For example, a woman in Nagoya, Japan, who goes by the moniker Clean Panther.
Clean Panther [00:05:47] I guess there are about 40 heroes in Japan.
David Weinberg [00:05:51] Clean Panther wears a blue, red, and black kimono with a futuristic yellow panther mask that covers her whole head. Many of the superheroes in Japan focus on picking up litter.
Clean Panther [00:06:03] My main activity is clean up town. So named “Clean,” and also combined with “Panther.” I love Black Panther, the Marvel superhero.
Roman Mars [00:06:16] Clean Panther and her superhero crew would go on litter patrols, picking up trash in Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city.
David Weinberg [00:06:23] These heroes were important inspirations to modern do-gooders, like El Peatonito. But the person who really inspired him–the most successful hero of them all–was Super Civico.
Roman Mars [00:06:36] In the mid 1990s, Super Civico roamed the streets of Bogota, Colombia. He wore yellow spandex, red underpants, and a cape with a letter “C” across his chest. His name literally translates to “Super Citizen.”
David Weinberg [00:06:50] Super Civico’s real name is Antanas Mockus. He’s a mathematician and philosopher with thick glasses and a sandy beard. In 1993, Mockus was the chancellor of the National University of Colombia. At that time, the South American nation was in turmoil. The government was notoriously corrupt. Kidnaping, assassinations, and extortion were common as drug cartels and rebel groups like the FARC clashed with the government. The gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else seemed to be widening as slums grew across the city. The local government of Bogota wasn’t capable of meeting the basic needs of its citizens. And this unrest spilled out into every aspect of life, especially at the National University in Bogota. The students were fed up. Many of them were sympathetic to the FARC, a Marxist rebel group. Others identified as anarchists. And together they did seem to agree on one thing at least–they were not going to allow for peaceful discussions. This was war.
Roman Mars [00:07:57] At one campus event, students threw smoke bombs on the stage. Another time, they threw feces at the political candidates on stage for a debate. Mockus was attacked while giving a speech one day. But the next time he was confronted by the rowdy students, he did something that would shock the nation.
David Weinberg [00:08:13] On October 28, 1993, Mockus walked to the edge of the stage, turned his back to the crowd, pulled down his pants, and mooned them.
Roman Mars [00:08:25] Mockus’ mooning sent a pretty clear message to the protesters, and it became national news.
David Weinberg [00:08:31] Now, typically, showing your butthole to thousands of students would be a career-ending move. And in one way it was. He didn’t work at the university after that. But it also made him a star. Many Colombians found the whole thing refreshing. This is a clip from a short film called Cities on Speed: Bogota Change.
Stranded Motorist [00:08:52] The mooning incident becomes a national scandal, and Mockus is forced to resign his position. But among the general public, he becomes a symbol of honesty. Mockus’ sudden popularity inspires him to run for mayor. Against all tradition, he runs as an independent without support from any political party.
Roman Mars [00:09:17] Antanas Mockus won the election in a landslide and became the first independent candidate to become mayor of Bogota. And once he took office, he made it clear that he was unlike any politician Bogota had ever seen.
David Weinberg [00:09:31] He would bring props to interviews, like a giant stuffed carrot, which is the word used in Colombia to call someone a nerd. At one point, he got 45,000 citizens to gather in the streets and inflate balloons. They were painted with the image of someone who had persecuted them in some way. The citizens popped the balloons in a form of citywide performance therapy. Mockus’ methods were unusual.
Roman Mars [00:09:57] But nothing prepared people for Mockus’ greatest stunt of all. He began patrolling the streets as Super Civico.
David Weinberg [00:10:05] As far as I can tell, Mockus was the first political leader to create a superhero identity–complete with a costume–and then walk the streets as a superhero. Here is a news clip of Super Civico in action. A news reporter walks alongside Mockus, who’s wearing skin tight yellow spandex. As they walk, Super Civico tears down old, crumbling posters from a wall and collects trash that he takes to a dumpster. He says to the reporter, “We want to have a beautiful city.” The reporter narrates the video as Super Civico jumps onto a concrete wall and starts running–his red cape flowing behind him–as the reporter says, “Using his super legs, he climbs to protest against visual pollution.”
Roman Mars [00:11:00] One time, Super Civico turned up on TV naked and took a shower while promoting increased water conservation. And it worked. After his stunt, water use in the city dropped by roughly 14%.
David Weinberg [00:11:13] As mayor of Bogotá, Mockus embraced the idea of street theater, sometimes in ways that baffled even his supporters. For example, he fired all of the notoriously corrupt traffic police, and he told them if they wanted to be rehired, they would first have to be trained as professional mimes. Yes, you heard that right. Mimes. Most of the traffic police scoffed, but about 400 did return to the force. And so, across Bogota, the people saw something extraordinary.
Roman Mars [00:11:47] Over 400 mimes with white painted faces and fluorescent dungarees fanned out across the city. They would hand out soccer-style red cards and mock drivers who flaunted the rules.
David Weinberg [00:11:58] It sounds absurd, but this actually makes sense to me. I think it’s far too easy for us to be reactionary–to respond with anger when we’re told we are wrong. But by using humor and street theater, it changes the whole equation. It’s a lot harder to get mad at a mime or a guy in a cape because you look ridiculous. The mind patrol brings down the temperature. And ultimately, the best argument for Mockus’ methods were the results he achieved. There was a 50% drop in traffic fatalities under Mockus. This superhero mayor, Super Civico, also brought down homicide rates by 70%.
Roman Mars [00:12:40] Mockus served one term as mayor, which is the maximum there because of term limits. After leaving office, Mockus ran for president of Columbia in 1998. He lost. But in 2001, he came back to Bogota and won a second term as mayor before stepping down in 2003.
David Weinberg [00:12:57] Super Civico is no longer doing good deeds on the streets of Bogota. But his street theater revolution has inspired another generation of heroes, including a young political science student named Jorge.
El Peatonito [00:13:10] A.K.A. El Peatonito.
David Weinberg [00:13:12] A.K.A. The Crosswalk Crusader. A.K.A. He Who Can Stop a Jeep with His Bare Hands on the Streets of Los Angeles. Jorge grew up in Mexico City where, as a kid, he was afraid to walk the streets.
El Peatonito [00:13:26] There were chaotic cars everywhere. It was very dangerous. Noise. Pollution. So yeah, it was hostile and stressful to walk. So, I always told my mother that I don’t like to walk the streets. It’s terrible.
David Weinberg [00:13:41] He became passionate about road safety. But he had a hard time getting others to share his excitement. One night in February of 2012, Jorge and his best friend went to catch a lucha libre wrestling match. It was something they did all the time. But that night was different. Jorge watched the masked luchador fighters throw each other around the ring in their gleaming costumes, and a crazy idea popped into his head. The theatrics of the lucha libre made him think of Antanas Mockus. What if he followed in Mockus’ footsteps and used the iconic Mexican luchador as a vehicle to spread the word about better urban planning?
El Peatonito [00:14:20] You know, people love to see theater and spectacles in the streets, and that’s a great way to send a message in a peaceful way. We need to do something fun. Why not after the match, we buy a cape and a mask and go out to the streets to fight for the rights of pedestrians?
David Weinberg [00:14:41] And just like that, a new hero was born: El Peatonito. That’s Spanish for “The Pedestrian.”
Roman Mars [00:14:50] For his first few outings, El Peatonito wore a $3 cape. Then he got an upgrade.
El Peatonito [00:14:56] I told my grandmother to help me design my cape. And my cape has white and black stripes, just like a pedestrian crosswalk.
David Weinberg [00:15:08] With his new suit, El Peatonito set out to brave the onslaught of rush hour in Mexico City. He wove through road raging drivers and toxic exhaust fumes with his black and white crosswalk cape streaming out behind him.
El Peatonito [00:15:22] I push back cars that are obstructing the crosswalk, I paint the sidewalks, and I paint the crosswalks and bikeways without any permits.
David Weinberg [00:15:33] Did anyone try to fight you when you would go out?
El Peatonito [00:15:35] A few times–yes. Yes, especially when I walk on the top of cars.
David Weinberg [00:15:40] This is El Peatonito’s most controversial tactic. He walks on the top of cars to really make the driver feel shame for their bad behavior.
El Peatonito [00:15:50] The owners get mad, and they start to be aggressive. But then I’m very friendly. You know, I do my best to never escalate conflict.
David Weinberg [00:16:02] Peatonito doesn’t think of his luchador persona as a character he’s playing. It’s just him–a mild-mannered academic in a costume that is meant to draw attention to a very serious problem in an engaging way.
El Peatonito [00:16:15] It’s a challenge because we have normalized chaotic streets. We have normalized that if somebody dies in the streets, it was an accident. Advocates–we hate the word “accident” because there are no accidents. Somebody designed the street. Somebody was a reckless driver.
Roman Mars [00:16:36] After graduating from high school, Jorge moved to Los Angeles to study urban planning at UCLA. After that, he stayed in L.A. to work on infrastructure issues. He made a capstone project called The Pedestrian Battle of Los Angeles, named for the Rage Against the Machine album. His work is based on a global campaign called Vision Zero, which is pushing for communities around the world to reach the goal of zero traffic fatalities and severe injuries. But his work isn’t just academic. Every so often, he still pulls out the cape and mask.
David Weinberg [00:17:09] On a recent Saturday afternoon last summer, El Peatonito was fully clad in his luchador mask and cape, prowling the streets of Los Angeles on the lookout for anyone who might be putting pedestrians in danger. And it didn’t take long for him to encounter his first villain. A guy parked his car in a crosswalk and then walked inside a restaurant, where he stood in line, waiting to pick up food. So Peatonito went up to the window of the restaurant and tried to get the guy’s attention. But the crosswalk menace was unfazed by the man in the luchador mask and cape calling him out. He pretended like he didn’t see Peatonito.
El Peatonito [00:17:48] He’s ignoring me, you know? Like, you’re parked in the crosswalk. You know, I’m not going to be violent, like, that’s not my style. But at least he knows that he’s doing something illegal and he shouldn’t be parked on the crosswalk. Yeah.
David Weinberg [00:18:09] Peatonito’s goal is to get people’s attention. He wants everyone to look at the folks who are putting pedestrians in danger. He wants them to feel shame and to change their naughty ways. The absurdity of facing down a superhero forces drivers to think differently about car culture in a city where five or six pedestrians die every week from car-related incidents.
El Peatonito [00:18:31] You know, don’t take me wrong–the car is a great invention. And yeah, there’s something of freedom about cars. But if we analyze the numbers of crashes, pollution, space taken by cars, we have failed this experiment.
David Weinberg [00:18:48] For all his theatrics, El Peatonito’s work on the streets can only accomplish so much. For bigger changes to happen, we need activism on a broader scale. That’s why Peatonito works alongside other pedestrian activists at a grassroots organization called Sunset for All. They put together a proposal to improve the city’s bike lane infrastructure and to improve sidewalks, build more shade structures and bus stops, and expand access to public parks.
Roman Mars [00:19:18] In September, Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell issued a formal motion to support their project. It was a small but important victory for the people fighting in the pedestrian battle of Los Angeles.
David Weinberg [00:19:31] I love El Peatonito and the fun and absurdity that he brings to everyday life. But for real change to happen, we also need different kinds of heroes. Bold thinking community members who become leaders for the right reason–to serve the people. Leaders who will actually bring meaningful change to our neighborhoods.
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David Weinberg [00:25:25] Hey, Roman. How’s it going?
Roman Mars [00:25:26] I’m really good. Thank you for that story. It was so much fun. You recently made a whole show about real-life superheroes called Superhero Complex. And, you know, for our show, we talked about some of the more civic-minded, friendly real-life superheroes. But on your show, you do some research and talk about a kind of more sinister vigilante flip side.
David Weinberg [00:25:48] Yeah, it’s true. But these are not people that I’ve spent time with. I was looking back through history at people who’ve maybe set a precedent for the real-life superhero movement–folks who’ve taken the law into their own hands. And in the U.S., vigilantes have looked like a lot of things–sometimes really ugly, like the Klan or insurrectionists. And one group that I read up on, who actually have similarities to real life superheroes, is a group called The Bald Knobbers.
Tea Krulos [00:26:14] The Bald Knobbers were an example of the sort of group that wore masks. And they executed vigilante justice in the Wild West.
David Weinberg [00:26:26] So this is Tea Krulos. He’s the author of a book called Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real Life Superhero Movement. And he writes about the Bald Knobbers. They were active in Missouri from 1885 to 1889, and they looked pretty terrifying. They wore, like, suit coats backwards, and they donned these homemade masks that had devil horns protruding from the top and this red and white stitching around their eyes and mouth. I imagine it would have been terrifying to see these guys, like, galloping across the plains on horseback. They had whips in their hands, and they’re basically looking to kill suspected horse thieves.
Tea Krulos [00:27:01] So they started out by, you know, hanging people that were cattle thieves or stuff like that. But as their reign sort of went on, they became a little bit more petty, I think. Like you could be visited by the Bald Knobbers and whipped if you were accused of being ornery.
David Weinberg [00:27:21] Yeah, and it wasn’t just people with an irritable disposition that the Knobbers went after. Back then, a lot of the poorer couples in the community–they couldn’t afford to pay their marriage license fees. So, they were technically not married, but they lived together as a family. And the Bald Knobbers believed that these unwed couples were living in sin. And so, they basically went around just beating these people.
Tea Krulos [00:27:43] It’s kind of an example of vigilantism that spun out of control.
David Weinberg [00:27:48] As time goes on, you get other groups that I would say are similar to that. You have groups like the Minutemen who patrol the border–they’re also armed. You have groups like the Guardian Angels–who are not armed, but are also, you know, in a sort of uniform/costume–that patrol the streets, looking for crimes.
Roman Mars [00:28:07] Do you find that a group like this–like the Bald Knobbers–has some DNA with the real-life superhero movement? Or is this a totally different thing?
David Weinberg [00:28:18] You know, I think one thing that all the real-life superheroes had in common with the Bald Knobbers is that they all believed in their hearts that they were out to do good. And the difference, I think, is that a lot of the real-life superheroes are actually doing good and their intentions are good. But with the Bald Knobbers, I would say a lot of their intentions were not good and things got out of hand quickly. And another key distinction is that the Bald Knobbers had weapons. There were shootouts and whips. And every single real-life superhero that I talked to was vehemently opposed to any sort of weapon or gun. That was sort of, like, against their ethos.
Roman Mars [00:28:53] How does the existence of this darker element impact how you think about real-life superheroes? The impulse towards, you know, vigilantism could be civic-minded, but also it could be, you know, really bad. So, having seen all sides of this, what do you think of this desire people have to take the law into their own hands?
David Weinberg [00:29:10] Well, I think the desire to do good in your community is a good one. And I will say that all the real-life superheroes that I spent time with for the show had good intentions. And I would say I largely agree with their intentions and the things they were trying to do. Where it gets complicated is a lot of times, you know, in my reporting, I found situations where the real-life superhero stepped into a situation and, I think, sometimes it got worse. And part of that, I think, is that if you’re going to be the type of person that’s going to take the law into your own hands or just go into these situations that can get very dangerous very quickly, there has to be some level of training. And we all have to agree as a society how we want people to handle law. Ideally, it would be to de-escalate these situations. And when you have real-life superheroes, you know, we don’t have that oversight over them. They’re just operating on their own. And so that’s where I think it gets kind of messy, even when their intentions are good.
Roman Mars [00:30:05] Yeah. Yeah. Well, this is a really fascinating subculture. And I hope people check out The Superhero Complex because it’s such a good series. And I really appreciate you making it.
David Weinberg [00:30:14] Oh. Thank you so much. That’s really lovely to hear.
Roman Mars [00:30:16] Thanks for sharing part of the story with us, David.
David Weinberg [00:30:18] Yeah. Anytime.
Roman Mars [00:30:27] 99% Invisible was produced this week by David Weinberg, edited by Chris Berube. Original Music by Swan Real. Sound Mix by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. Rest of the team includes Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, intern Olivia Green, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to David Waters, Caroline Thornham, and Amalie Sortland. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and now TikTok, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.
Batman [00:31:27] I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.
Eddie [00:31:42] What are you?
Roman Mars [00:31:43] I’m Stitcher. My favorite one–he goes, “I swear to God.” “Swear to me!”