I Spent a Night Patrolling with LightStep, Montreal's Real-Life Superhero
For the past two years, Montreal's streets have been patrolled by a short, slim, vegan, queer radical feminist crusader named LightStep.
This post originally appeared on VICE Canada
For the past two years, Montreal's has had its very own superhero. Our superhero isn't part of the urban clan of crime fighters called the New York Initiative or the slick looking Real Life Super Hero Project. Our super hero is short, slim, vegan, identifies as a queer radical feminist, and prefers to be referred to using the pronoun "they." So, in short, they are not what you'd expect of a super hero.
LightStep is one of a burgeoning community of so-called Real-Life Superheroes (RLSH)—ordinary people from Argentina to the UK who have decided to patrol their local streets in costume doing good deeds. These deeds can range from something as simple as helping to change a tire in Brampton, handing out socks and mitts to the homeless in Windsor, or to straight-up vigilantism that led one Washington-based RLSH to being arrested for assault. But LightStep believes de-escalation and harm reduction training are much more important than a uniform, a sidekick, or pepper-spraying a bunch of people you suspect are in a street brawl (like the RLSH in Washington did)."People identify instantly with the idea of a superhero, someone who's anonymous, but public, doing good deeds, for whatever reason," LightStep tells me. "But that's not what I'm doing... For me, LightStep is a philosophy of being at the right place at the right time."
LightStep's ensemble has a post-apocalyptic look, with a black, custom, hooded morphsuit layered under a kevlar shirt,topped off with a motocross protective jacket, knee and shin guards, and a GoPro camera to document their patrol. "It's stab-proof and bulletproof," they tell me. "It's not a thrown-together costume." LightStep agreed to let me tag along for a patrol around Montreal's busy St. Laurent Street this past Halloween. I was told to dress up: "If you're not in costume, it'll be sad." I put on a blue wig, some face paint, and some comfortable shoes—we would be walking all night.
As we start walking, most passersby are curious about the bright yellow and blue mask. LightStep tells me the mask is a way to protect not only their identity but also the selflessness of their actions. "The only possibility of justice in giving a gift is for one of the parties to be anonymous," they say. "Otherwise, there's always a reflection on the person who did the giving, and then their generosity is undermined by a self-serving attitude."
As we get closer to the bar-filled zone of lower St. Laurent, more groups of people stop us, asking for photos with LightStep. The level of general inebriation in the streets is overwhelming, especially given it's not even midnight.
We stop to buy crack pipes—to be given away free to users as a method of harm reduction—and LightStep puts them in a backpack along with the first aid kit, needle collection containers, latex gloves, condoms, socks, gloves and hats.
"Hey, do you need a pipe?" LightStep asks a guy in a raggedy coat in his early twenties.
"Nah, man, but do you know where I can find some dope?" No, LightStep doesn't know where to get dope.
We continue our trek south, towards Berri-UQAM square, which at this hour is populated by drug dealers and junkies. "I've had junkies throw needles at me... jokingly, but I still had to dodge them," LightStep says. It was also in Berri Square that I learn about LightStep's origin story.
It was the middle of August 2012 and the person who would become LightStep had recently come to Montreal to start a new life with a partner. Seeking a sense of community, and a desire to understand the city, they began walking the streets and meeting the people who inhabit them at night. In Jeanne Mance park, at the foot of Mount Royal, they approached a man going through a backpack they suspected wasn't his; after securing the backpack and its contents, LightStep tracked down its real owner, who was surprised to get his MacBook Pro back.
"He said, 'Why would you return it?' and I said that it was the right thing to do. He asked me if I did this all the time, and I was thinking to myself, Not really."
But the idea had been planted.
The next day, LightStep wondered if it was possible to try and be at the right place at the right time to help someone. "My friends said, 'No, you're just going to put yourself in danger, you're just looking for trouble.'—And that was the night I first went into the streets," says LightStep.
"That's the night I met Hawk." On August 16, 2012, LightStep went out in the streets in plainclothes, looking like everyone else on a Thursday evening. The night was mostly easy—guiding some lost tourists and breaking up mild street fights—and it had been a success. But on the way home, LightStep spotted a man in cargo camo pants, a dusted leather jacket, and a bowling shirt carrying a large bag and limping. With a scarred face and milky, bloodshot eyes, he was a scary figure. LightStep asked him his name. The man was Hawk.
"When I asked him questions he just grimaced or sneered. I said, 'What are you up to tonight?' and he just growled. Then he said, 'I'm looking for a tavern,' and I'm like, 'A tavern? What planet did you come from?'"
But then Hawk said, "I'm gonna kill someone tonight" and lifted his shirt to show a pistol tucked into his pants. Hawk started repeating the phrase in sing-song: "I'm gonna kill someone tonight, I'm gonna kill someone tonight."
At this point, LightStep knew they had to stick around. "If he was gonna kill me, he would have killed me already, and that's what made me stay there," they say. "I understood that I was granted a kind of privilege that night that I had to flex in some way."
The two kept walking west and ran into a group leaving a bar. Hawk said, "Oh, but not these brothers! I won't kill these brothers, they're my brothers." He high-fived them, chatted, and bummed a cigarette.
With Hawk distracted, LightStep decided it was safe to call 9-1-1. Not a full minute later a cop car came around. "The cop does this motion [phone gesture], and points at me, then points at Hawk, and I nod, he gives me a thumbs up, and that's it. Four cars come in, lights up, they have him against a fence, they grab him, and his gun goes flying. It's like a flash and it's over. He's down, he's on the ground."
This was one of only three instances LightStep's ever called the police in two years. "I think it's really fucked up to call the police on people with mental health issues, but in this case, this guy had intention to use his gun to harm someone, and that was enough."
LightStep went home thinking that Hawk had been the sign from the universe that called them out to the streets. "I thought that if I could handle that, I could handle anything."
We watch small crowds in costume dissipate into the bars and clubs of the Montreal's Gay Village and check in on a girl who we think is crying on a stoop. She smiles an energetic smile back at us and keeps talking on her cellphone.
We loop around and start heading west towards downtown. I stop in a Tim Hortons to get a coffee and warm up, and from the line I watch LightStep chat up a stranger. "That guy recognized me from my plainclothes patrol," LightStep tells me later. "He's a sex worker around here, we've met many times." There seems to be a special place in this masked stranger's heart for people who also roam the streets at night, who share this space with them. There was a connection there, something that was broken the moment I walked into the conversation. "See ya around," the sex worker says.
At the corner of St. Denis and Ontario, a crowd gathers near an ambulance. We get a closer look and LightStep wants to make sure the person on the ground will be taken care of properly.
LightStep is very skeptical of the police, and that is one of their motivations to go on patrol, in the hopes that the project will turn into something bigger. "The police state is encroaching, there's an increasing militarization of the police, an increasing crackdown of our rights and freedoms, especially in the wake of all this terrorist jingoism," Lightstep says indignantly. "Two dead soldiers from terrorist attacks, and 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women and [they say] it's not sociological?"
We continue our hike north on St. Denis and turn west on Sherbrooke towards where we started. We cut into St. Louis Square through a shiny new condo with a colorful flowerbed mostly dead from the frost.
"The question is, what are the ways that we can form a more resilient community? For example, imagine a world where there is no police," LightStep says. "What does that look like? Could you imagine a number other than 9-1-1 to call? Who would answer that phone?"
I can't help but wonder who would keep those people in check. Early police forces were nothing more than volunteers, and this sounds like power just changing hands. LightStep doesn't agree.
"Everything that's led up to where we are now, this entire arch of history—we understand that's not totally working. So we have to throw something different in the mix... I'm talking about acting ahistorically. Not to forget history, but to move with a kind of freedom and lightness that will allow us to act differently, to connect, to love differently, to learn, to share." Through the metal mesh on the mask, I see a sparkle in LightStep's eyes. "Could you please wipe my eyes one more time? It's fogging up again."
On the corner of St. Laurent and Prince Arthur, a loud crowd forms in front of the late-night greasy spoon La Belle Province. LightStep runs toward it, followed by multiple police officers. People are cheering and enticing two young men to fight, but one of them is being held by two others. Within seconds, the officers are dispersing the crowd and I'm as confused as ever. I lose LS for a second.
A moment later I find them. "Look, I'm not here to replace the police," they tell me. "I'm not interested in chasing bank robbers carrying sacks of coins, or chasing people who are stealing to survive, or doing things in the streets like selling drugs, or prostituting themselves, or however the city has made their lives illegal. I'm not interested in those kind of petty crimes." They tell me the real criminals are the ones with desk jobs, keeping the poor poor, and that's not what LightStep is fighting either. LightStep is about community, about standing up for each other.
We continue up St Laurent. It's about closing time for the bars and the street is flooded with people in bad Day of the Dead makeup and cat ears. There are lots of cops everywhere. We stop on the corner of Roy, and I count eight cops and three cars, plus an ambulance. There's a man in a white hoodie lying by a storefront, and we try chatting with him. He's very intoxicated, his hands covered in blue body paint. We find out his name is Matt and try to get him to get up and into a cab, but instead he pukes on the ground and lies down. We wait around a little bit longer, since LightStep wants to make sure Matt gets to a hospital.
I get the feeling that this is what LightStep does most—stepping into situations where something could go wrong, and just talking to people and observing.
"Looking for crime to fight—and that's what other Real Lifers are always talking about—that is to misunderstand crime, to misunderstand poverty and desperation and all these other things that cause violence in the first place." LightStep tells me we can't celebrate yet, that people are hungry, that there is no place to sleep for some folks. "We need to find a way to inspire ourselves to participate in our community," they say.
It's around four in the morning when Matt finally gets into an ambulance, and by then it was time for LightStep and I to part ways.
By the end of the evening I realize that LightStep isn't so much the person under the mask—the slender, vegan feminist queer—but rather a persona that exists with the help of this vegan feminist queer. LightStep could be anyone who is capable of getting up and taking direct action.
Riding my bike north on St. Dominique I heard a girl scream "Why don't you just shut the fuck up and leave me alone?" I turn around, dismount, and approach the group of young women, who must have been around 19. There was a tall, large man walking behind them. "Is everything OK here?" I ask. A girl with a loud voice tells me they can't remember where they parked their car. Within four seconds of my arrival, the man goes away. Just like that. With a few simple deductions, I take the group to the probable spot of their car. The girl with the loud voice squeals and hugs me, "You saved us," she says.
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