WORDS || Cameron Colwell
What makes someone decide to don a secret identity in order to promote street safety and dedicate countless amounts of time, money, and energy into patrolling the streets of Western Sydney? I met The Black Rat (TBR) at St. Peters Station, and because of his strict code of secrecy, I can only describe him as Caucasian, mid-thirties, and bearded.
TBR is a real-life superhero, donning knife-proof armour, armed with only with his phone, with which he reports crime to the local police. It becomes quite clear just how seriously TBR takes his position as ‘street safety activist.’ TBR takes martial-arts classes five nights a week, has spent round $5000 on armour, and countless nights patrolling the streets of Sydney. He cites the breakdown of community-based Neighbourhood Watch programs and people’s smartphone-based lack of awareness as reasons why the area is becoming less safe through time.
It’s not long ‘til he’s telling me what functions as his superhero origin story: A trauamatic, violent upbringing invested him in making his surroundings safer. But he decided to take matters into his own hands (or, “working within the law,” as he calls it) when he was assaulted on a street he points out as we pass by. A man wielding a broken bottle had harrassed him and, while TBR managed to get away, he had a bottle directly hurled at him, missing his head by centimetres. TBR had been considering doing something to compensate for the police’s inactivity around the area, but it wasn’t ‘til then that he became serious about becoming what he describes as a ‘street safety activist’.
Unlike other Real Life Superheroes (such as Phoenix Jones) who dress up in costumes and roam about the streets in order to embarrass the police into action, TBR doesn’t seek to directly intervene in violent crime. His method is simple, but effective: he patrols the streets of Western Sydney three times a week, and reports any violent crimes he witnesses. While on most nights, he doesn’t see anything, he is directly responsible for no less than eight criminal convictions.
While TBR only dons his superhero suit for PR purposes, he is careful about not letting journalists work out his true identity. However, his friends know: before he had his gear sorted out, he walked into a supermarket and discovered that he’d made the front page of the newspaper. However, other than his friends, who recognised him immediately, TBR is very secretive about his life out of the super-suit.
I ask him about his body armour. It’s knife-proof (because bulletproof is illegal) and is made from non-Newtonian material in order to keep TBR safe, but agile. He tells me that he had a brief period of experimentation, the highlight of which was a metal, medieval-style breastplate hidden beneath his clothes. It becomes extremely obvious how well Sydney’s superhero has thought things through: This is not a man projecting his childish fantasies onto the real world, but a dedicated professional.
However, TBR was heavily influenced by comic-book characters, but only the ones without powers. He aligns himself mostly with Batman, because of his narrative of turning mental illness into a way of helping other people. TBR has PTSD, one of the symptoms of which, being hyper-vigilant, means that he is always acutely aware of his surroundings. “If I could turn it on and off, it’d be a superpower,” he says. His superhero identity, as with the rest of his operation, has been keenly thought through: TBR thinks rats are a misunderstood animal.
Not all of TBR’s missions have dealt with violent crime. We’re walking past Campbell Street in St. Peters when he points, and begins to explain that, at one time, all of the streetlights on it had broken, leaving it as “dark as a cave,” to the point where women would walk in the middle of the road because it made them feel safer.
This is not a man projecting his childish fantasies onto the real world, but a dedicated professional.
While on his patrols, TBR notes down broken lights, and notifies The City of Sydney or energy companies of the defect. “They make it intentionally hard for it to find out who to contact, though,” he adds. Additionally, TBR intervened when a nearby school crossing had been worn down by years of school children’s feet. His efforts resulted in a new visible crossing that is safe for all.
TBR has plenty to say about street safety. When I bring up the Sydney lock-out laws, and if they’ve made the surrounding suburbs more dangerous, he’s derisive about the matter: “It’s not alcohol that fuels violence, it’s ego. People taking out their issues on other people.”
A safety tip he offers, when I ask what individuals can do to keep themselves safe: There’s a small amount of gold in every Australian $2 coin, keeping $20 worth of them in a wallet makes for a sneakily efficient weapon, with enough force to break an attacker’s nose when swung. In Australia, an individual cannot arm themselves against street violence, with mace spray or personal tasers. That’s why it’s important to be cautious and aware at all times.
Back at the station, he sends me off pretty hurriedly: He’s got a martial arts class.