by Ian Fortey
Remember the movie Robin Hood? About 3 come out every year, so pick whichever one you like. It's a popular story, based on English folklore going back hundreds of years, almost none of it having to do with Kevin Costner's awkward English accent. But the idea of Robin Hood is what's appealing to people: a noble bandit, dispensing a kind of vigilante justice against a corrupt system for the benefit of the oppressed. That stuff's gold. It's so moving, in fact, people have been doing it one way or another in real life for ages.
The Botanist Who Crushed China's Monopoly On Tea
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the global tea trade? Probably not, because these days you can sit and sip your delicious Monk's Blend or Chai or Rooibos or other words I swear I'm not making up, all in the comfort of your own home with no fuss or river pirates involved. But that wasn't always the case. For many years, China had a monopoly on the tea trade, and the secrets of cultivation were kept under wraps like a mildly flavored, scalding hot mummy.
Understandably, keeping tea from the British must have infuriated them and caused more than one wig to completely shed its powder back in the day. But the British are a stalwart people who really, really love tea, so the East India Company had to come up with a scheme to get their hands on that sweet, but-not-unless-you-add-sugar, brew. That's where Robert Fortune comes in.
That is clearly a made-up name.
Fortune was a botanist from Scotland who had spent years in China, studying and learning about tea back in the mid 1840s when that kind of thing was considered fun. He was so passionate about tea that he wrote a book about it. After reading about how he handled pirates on some Chinese rivers, the East India Company got an idea. If they could learn the ways of growing tea and get their hands on some primo seeds, surely Britain could make its own. So they co-opted Fortune to be their tea spy and tea bandit.
Fortune, offered 5 times his yearly salary to get samples from China, was happy to do so, but not because he was a thief for hire. As a botanist, he believed people didn't have a right to own plants, per se. They belonged to nature, to the world and everyone in it. He was liberating tea for all, even if it happened to give the East India Company one hell of a financial boost and crush China's monopoly in the process.
Fortune managed to snag thousands of samples, both plants and seeds, and also recruit tea growers to head back to India and start the British tea trade. It devastated the Chinese market for years, which only started growing again in the 1950s, but at least he became a hero to grandmas everywhere.
The Minister Who Committed Fraud In Order To Send 18,000 Kids To College
You may have never heard of Dr. Ozel Clifford Brazil, but he had a pretty dramatic impact on thousands of young people from Los Angeles' inner city neighborhoods. Brazil helped 18,000 students get to college and university over 15 years and claimed that 98% of them ended up getting degrees.
The tiny, sorta, kinda downside of Brazil's help is that in 2003, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for financial aid fraud. See, Brazil was arguably a really good man (he was even a minister), but he wanted to help these young people get to college so badly that he did it by fudging the numbers.
He could also look at you like you stole something from him.
Brazil had students sever all legal ties with a parent if that would put them in a better financial position. Some applications would be filled out only listing the lower income earner of two parents, completely ignoring the other.
He was a bit of a hard-ass in his methods, too. For instance, he refused to allow students to apply to less prestigious colleges. If he was putting his neck on the line for people, and he clearly was, they were going to make the most of it.
None of what Brazil did ever benefited him personally. Still, he ended up having to pay restitution of nearly three quarters of a million dollars on top of his prison sentence. The more impressive feat, though, is that he never rolled over on anyone. He never sold a student down the river and never even testified at his own trial. The judge even acknowledged that, Robin Hood or not, he still had to be held accountable.
The School Teacher Who Spent Over 30 Years Sabotaging Companies With Shady Practices
I'd argue that to fulfill the spirit of a Robin Hood, you don't have to steal money from the rich and give it to the poor. You have to sabotage the powerful for the benefit of those not in power. And in that way, "The Fox" definitely qualifies as a Robin Hood. Plus, he has a coolass nickname.
The Fox was actually Jim Phillips, an environmental superhero who got his start in the late 1960s and kept going strong until 2001. He was the kind of guy who would probably overrun a fracking site with angry weasels if he knew they'd come out unscathed.
A one-time school teacher, The Fox was just a normal man who was disgusted by what he was seeing companies do to the world around him. After discovering some dead ducks and globs of greasy, chemical slime in the Fox River, he covertly gained access to the Dial Soap Factory (one of the polluting companies) and filled a manhole with trash he had collected in order to block their drainpipe. That was his first brush with shady justice.
And that hat was his first brush with true awesomeness.
He would later work with groups to vandalize bars of Dial soap in stores with stickers proclaiming how they poisoned rivers, an effort that led to an eventual lawsuit by the state against Dial for violating pollution laws. He posted signs about US Steel destroying the environment, blocked drains, capped smokestacks and made a nuisance of himself wherever pollution reared its ugly head.
Elsewhere, The Fox pulled off some seriously messed up but oddly hilarious acts of sticking it to The Man, including dumping the bodies of dead skunks (all roadkill, of course) on the front steps of the company's owners. He once fished 50lbs of sewage out of Lake Michigan and then dumped it in the lobby of the company that put it there.
Like any good hero, no one actually knew who the Fox was. He would sign things "The Fox" at the scene with a little drawing of a fox face, but his identity only came to light after his death in 2001.
The Mayor Who Robbed His Own Town's Grocery Stores To Feed The Poor
Marinaleda is a very small town in Spain with a population of about 2,700 and is a social-democratic cooperative society ... what some people might call "communist" even though Spain has no communist party. To understand the present Marinaleda, it helps to know a little of its past:
After the Spanish Civil War, nearly the entire town was impoverished. Most residents worked as farmers for nearby estates, plucking olives and never once mentioning how awful olives are. When Spain became a democracy, Marinaleda began to grow, and citizens rose up against the idea of working land they didn’t own and getting basically nothing in return. It took years, but the workers eventually managed to get land for themselves and the irrigation to keep it prosperous. They worked together to ensure everyone had what they needed. Sounds warm and fuzzy.
In fact, they worked so well together that present day Marinaleda has no need for police. That's something mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who's served for 30 years, is proud of as it saves $350,000 a year. The town polices itself and handles justice its own way. For instance, during the 2008 global financial crisis, the mayor himself lead a posse to a grocery store to rob the place and then distribute the food to the poor. It probably didn't hurt that, as an elected official in Spain, Gordillo is immune from prosecution for such a crime.
"Come at me, bro!"
In Andalusia, the region of Spain where Marinaleda exists, poverty was running rampant and hundreds of thousands of homes had been foreclosed on. But thanks to Mayor Gordillo, Marinaleda doesn't have that problem. If you want a house there, you can have one for free ... you just need to build it. Workers and materials are provided by the town, and you pay $19 a month rent from then on. The catch is you can't sell it for private gain if you want to leave.
While the rest of Andalusia was dealing with nearly 40% unemployment, Marinaleda has almost everyone working and making about $1600 a month. For a small farming town that had almost nothing, they're not doing too bad, mostly thanks to one guy who just wants everyone to have a house and some food to eat, even if that means occasionally raiding the Piggly Wiggly.
The Hacker Who Hacks Hackers
Phineas Fisher is the kind of name you're only going to find in one of three places: a whimsical detective novel, a cartoon, or someone's online code name. It's the last one, by the way. Sorry about the lack of spoiler warnings.
Phineas is a self-described ethical hacker, one of those white hats out there cyber-criming up the web for the good of us all. He gained some fame back in 2015 for hacking into Hacking Team's servers, a company that was notorious for selling spy tools to shady places and governments. He then published their corporate files online, going so far as to post it through their own hacked Twitter. He did the same thing to Gamma Group, another company that supplied spyware for government surveillance operations.
"Ooooohhh, suck it, GOVERNMENT!"
In 2016, Fisher donated 25 Bitcoin (which at the time was worth about $11,000) to a crowd-funding effort focused on fighting ISIS in Syrian farmlands. The fund helped farmers get back to work amid the turmoil. Naturally, because Fisher is the kind of person who tries to mete out justice in a virtual world, the Bitcoin wasn't necessarily his to begin with. He claims he robbed it from a bank.
Fisher also hacked the Turkish government in 2016, dumping about 100GB of info that was published by Wikileaks, including stolen emails about shady government dealings and that sort of thing ... which is how people try to screw folks who do bad things these days.
In 2017, Fisher told Vice that he was retiring the name for now but would likely go on doing what he was doing. The name Phineas Fisher was getting too popular, and he preferred being anonymous -- just out there trying to screw people who screwed other people. That may not be the most noble phrasing, but it's the thought that counts.