By Dana Dübbers and Laura Hornberger
The appearance of Chris Pollak is reminiscent of the colourful but shady figures of superheroes in comic books. As his alias Dark Guardian, he patrols Staten Island at night to keep the neighbourhood safe. Is this a cry for attention or a necessary support for safety in the community?
Pollak stands at a crossroad opposite Tompkinsville Park in Staten Island. It is nine pm on a Friday night during New York’s icy winter. Two police cars are parkes in a side street. Screams can be heard from a bus stop. “You lied. You lied”, yells the strong voice of a man. Pollak’s look faces the scene behind the corner. Behind a black Toyota he spots three black figures – right next to them a man keeps hammering at a tree with a two feet long knife. “You lied”, he screams.
The Dark Guardian steps into the light of the street lamps and moves until he has full sight of the scene. Leaning with one foot against a house wall, he keeps scrolling on his smartphone. His other hand clings to a red flashlight that protrudes out of his trouser pocket. After observing for a while, the man with the knife crosses the street. As he gets closer, the dark figure transforms into a 6-foot tall man and his glassy eyes become visible. It’s clear: he’s on heroin.
The man shakes hands with us all. His confused thoughts revolve around death. “Killing isn’t fun. You know, the colours you see when you are about to die – purple and yellow”, the junkie says, while carrying his knife visible on his belt. Pollak nods but avoids building up a conversation. Every time we take a step back, the man comes even closer.
One of the other figures passing by steals his attention. “I’ll fuck her and she will kill me”, he screams. The woman laughs. We take the chance and change street sides: “Man, we need to keep going.” „You are a good one“, the junkie shouts after him.
In 2018, general crimes decreased in New York while drug addiction increased. Chris Pollak alias The Dark Guardian goes on patrols in Staten Island – where drug addiction is among the highest in the City. Small crimes are on the agenda on a daily, even if the police is present. Why does it need a superhero to prevent them?
Being a good one is what Pollak wanted to be since he was a kid. “I loved superheroes and what they stood for. I think I was looking for doing something positive in my life. And I just wondered why someone hasn’t gone out like a superhero, trying to make a difference and help people. After searching online for a little bit, I found a blogpost discussing the idea and someone had just started going out and doing it.”
Since he was 18 years old, Pollak patrols New York’s neighborhoods as Dark Guardian. His costume: Leather jacket and trousers, that remind of motorcycle equipment – if there weren’t the red letters “DG” on his chest – like on most superhero’s outfits. His cap makes the 35-year-old mechanic look much younger. The worn out leather of his superhero costume shows the traces of 17 years of patrolling.
“I think you need to stand out a little bit and represent something. If I would walk around in T-shirt and jeans people wouldn’t pay attention. And that’s a big part of my job: To create awareness. If you stop someone’s drug business for a while, that’s fine. I do what I can, I’m one guy”, he says.
Two to three times a week he goes on patrol in Manhattan, the Bronx or Staten Island, where he lives. “We moved here when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Brooklyn. At those times murders were pretty regular. The mother of my friend got robbed and murdered, so we moved.”
“I didn’t have any classical role models in my life. Maybe that’s why I do it.”
Most of his night shifts are calmer. Sometimes he’s handing out socks to homeless people; sometimes he’s on safety patrol. Mostly it’s about witnessing drug abuse, like in this night.
According to New York City Police Department, crime in New York City decreased again in 2018. Overall, serious crimes were down 1,4 percent to 95,509 and marked a historic low, although rapes increased 22 percent to 1,788 compared to 2017.
“A lot of the little stuff gets ignored – they let it go. They only care about shootings and stabbings. They try to keep the numbers down, so they don’t arrest drug abusers. They only put up boxes for the needles which no one’s gonna use”, Pollak says.
The New York City Department of health announced that in 2016 drug overdose deaths have reached a record high with 1,374 victims and are increasing citywide. This marks the sixth consecutive year that overdose deaths have increased in the city. In 2016, the rate of overdose deaths involving any substance was highest among Staten Island residents (31,8 per 100,000), increasing 66 percent from 2015.
According to Chris Pollak, Staten Island isn’t too bad. He thinks the Bronx is worse. South Bronx residents had the highest rate of drug overdose (37,1 per 100,000 New Yorkers). “But Staten Island has it’s trouble spots like here of course”, he says while he walks towards Tompkinsville Park.“There are a lot of drug dealers around here. That’s why I call it a spot. They use heroin and everybody knows that”, Pollak says.
“This spot has become pretty popular since Eric Garner died here”, he says pointing on a street close to the park. The homicide of Garner by a police officer in 2014 caused nationwide demonstrations specifically for this case and against general police brutality. Garner died after a police officer put him in a headlock while arresting him on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.
“There were a lot of dangerous moments. People threatened to kill me, people levelled a gun at me, broke a bottle to use it as a weapon and aimed at me. It can get very intense but most of the times we are a group of three. Sometimes I’m with other superheros. Then somebody records everything on camera. Normally that prevents things from happening.”
At the beginning his family was afraid something could happen to him but now they support him. Sometimes he goes on patrol with his girlfriend. “I just do what I can. I don’t have any specific priorities. Just try to be present in the areas that might be
unsafe. And if they are safer that night, I did some good. Sometimes you need someone to make some noise for the police and for the government”
One street further down Pollak calls the NYPD: “He is dark skinned and probably around 50 years old, he is wearing a hoodie and black jeans… No, I couldn’t see if he is wearing sneakers … He has a two feet long knife in a stick on his belt. He is obviously high“. A woman’s voice at the end of the line prompts him to repeat the description. During the second time a police siren can be heard in the background, during the third time the first police car arrives. Five minutes later the blue and red lights of four patrol cars illuminate the dark.
The junkie stands hands behind his head surrounded by police officers. Shortly after, he disappears in one of the cars. Passing by, Pollak walks past the woman from before. She looks at the police cars, then at him and starts to laugh. “I probably shouldn’t show my face here for a while”, says Pollak.
Shortly after, he records a video for his social media channel to capture this successful night.