Born in the crucible of seedy 1970s New York, does Curtis Silwa’s red-bereted band of citizen crime busters have a place in post-Giuliani, post-Bloomberg NYC?
It’s Friday night in the West Village, the second night of Fashion Week. I’m wearing a red beret and a white T-shirt with red lettering that spells out “Guardian Angels.” At least I match. Walking the Christopher Street patrol at ten o’clock, this is the first occasion in my life when model types have gawked at me.
“It’s a good feeling putting that uniform on,” Benjamin “EQ” Garcia, a Guardian Angel vet and current patrol director, says.
He must be used to it. I’m just anxious, very uncertain about what’s to come tonight.
We walk a few blocks and it doesn’t take long for a tall guy in his late twenties to call us “heroes.” He might be a little drunk, but even though I’ve only been an honorary Angel for ten minutes, it’s nice to hear.
EQ, whose police scanner revealed earlier that a bystander had been stabbed a few blocks away, tells us to “post up.” We form a line, our backs up against a building, looking toward the street.
The Angel next to me is on his first-ever patrol, having just completed his required training. I initially thought he was codenamed “Momo,” then “Mambo,” but would later discover he was in fact dubbed “Mumbles.”
Mumbles is instructing me: “As people walk by, look at their hands and sides for weapons. Look into cars, especially ones with a lot of people in them. Try to remember the type of car it is. And look up at the fire escapes across the street. You never know, someone could throw something down at you.”
Though the gentrified West Village is not the cradle of crime it once was, bad things still happen. My thoughts drift to the shooting death of Mark Carson, an anti-gay hate crime that occurred on West Eighth Street this past May.
In formation, the group marches to the piers, a local hangout spot. Save for a few patches of people sitting on grassy knolls, enjoying the view of New Jersey’s nighttime skyline, it’s quiet—what EQ calls “the best kind of patrol.”
* * *
Curtis Sliwa was a night manager at a South Bronx McDonald’s in 1979 when he founded “The Rock Brigade,” the first incarnation of the group that would soon become The Guardian Angels. Sliwa and I recently spoke in The Bombay Room—a glorious name for a small corner meeting space with an unmemorable view, a tiny TV, and a large table topped with half-foot-high stacks of newspapers and magazines—at Hotel Pennsylvania in Midtown Manhattan, across the street from Madison Square Garden. At fifty-nine, Sliwa maintains his trademark swagger along with a verbose speaking style that nevertheless stops short of his outlandish media persona. He admitted that he can be very “theatrical” when on the radio or television, joking that he’s won a Tony Award. However, he swiftly justified his act with: “One must convey their point with emotion and passion.”
That passion has not waned since the gritty days of the ’70s and ’80s, when street crime too often went unpunished.
“It was anarchy, lawlessness that existed,” he said.
To make up for a scarcity of police patrols, Sliwa began enlisting members, including some of his McDonald’s employees, into the Guardian Angels to help “fill the void” in crime fighting. They took to the streets as red-bereted enforcers, closing up crack dens and stopping subway purse-snatchers on the number 4 line, then known as “The Muggers Express.” He was also promptly fired from McDonald’s without warning. Sliwa said the company did not want to be associated with his mission, which “smacked of vigilantism and Bronson in ‘Death Wish.’”
When on patrol, the Guardian Angels were unarmed, but trained in self-defense and the martial arts. In ideal situations, the crew simply occupied a street corner, or the stoop of a crack house, and acted as a deterrent to illegal activity. Sometimes they would take drug paraphernalia out of the hands of abusers, smash the vials on the sidewalks and shoo away dealers. Other instances proved more challenging. Milton Oliver, forty-five, who has been with the Angels since the early ’80s, recalls one night when eleven Angels took down thirty or forty bat- and chain-toting thugs, likely organized and vengefully dispatched by an incensed local drug dealer. “We handled ourselves as best we could,” he says, saying that some Angels were hurt. But they’d won the battle, as all of those instigators were arrested.
“We would go out Fridays after work and patrol the entire weekend,” says Oliver, a sensei, or “master teacher” of the martial arts, who runs his own dojo and trains Guardian Angels in Shotokan Traditional Karate-Do. “Some diehards would even stay out through Monday mornings before work.”
The conspicuous do-gooders found ways to make plenty of enemies on both sides of the law. Most police officers either perceived the Guardian Angels as yet another gang of New York or felt that the Angels were upstaging them.
“Transit cops especially didn’t like us because we would take pictures of them sleeping on the trains and then send the photos to their sergeants in their precincts,” Oliver says. “Meanwhile, while they’re asleep, someone’s getting mugged on the platform.”
According to Oliver and Sliwa, as the crack epidemic of the ’80s carried on, crime was so overwhelming that the force had to turn a blind eye to many drug-related infractions. “We would call the precincts to report drug dealers and the cops would just ask, ‘Is someone being murdered?’” Oliver recalls.
More than one critic has painted the notoriously feisty Sliwa as more interested in self-promotion than fighting crime. One of the lowest moments for the Angels came in 1992, when Sliwa was forced to admit they had staged rescues in an attempt to gain favorable coverage—a choice he now openly regrets. Critical of media outlets he says were quick to report unfavorable items about the Angels and overlook the good they were doing, Sliwa admitted he opted for “taking advantage of journalists on deadlines.” While he called the tactic regrettable, he still defended it as a decision made “in the heat of the battle,” and one he had to take, or else “the concept [of the Guardian Angels] would have been destroyed.”
Nevertheless, Guardian Angels recruitment soared, topping a thousand in New York City in the late ’80s. Their appeal was attributed, at least partially, to their uniforms and what Sliwa called their “paramilitary approach.” Sliwa said their rigid practices evolved organically, making it easier for initiates to adjust into the disciplined clan, with the signature red berets being donned because “baseball caps don’t convey seriousness. You put the beret on and people look at you differently.” Soon, the organization began to plant seeds cross-country, founding chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Boston, Washington D.C. and elsewhere.
The Guardian Angels currently boast activity in seventeen countries and 130 cities. Sliwa estimates that the total membership of the alliance is 5,000. He says nowadays the Angels work closely with police and freely establish rendezvous spots at precinct houses, “something that would have never happened” when the organization was in its infancy. Sensei Oliver even assists local police in cases involving drug dealers.
“Supply and demand” has dictated that many Angels leave New York, according to Sliwa, oftentimes to found chapters elsewhere. With violent crime in the city at its lowest rate since the Eisenhower presidency, many Angels have moved to more needy locales or simply retired from active duty in the group. About a hundred remain in the group’s home city. The role of these seraphic volunteers has thus shifted. Many are beyond their physical prime, with working class jobs that make all-night policing difficult. But the modern day Angels are more than a cartoonish remnant of an old violent, dangerous New York.
* * *
Five Guardian Angels are posted in front of the stained glass windows of the elevated Broadway/Junction train intersection in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s five p.m. on a Wednesday. On the itinerary: a candlelight vigil two hours from now for Antiq Hennis, a one-year-old Brownsville boy who was shot in the head the previous Sunday. Until the time we move out, the uniformed Angels are easily attracting some inquisitive stares, respectful nods, looks of awe, and some less-impressed reactions. “Psh, I didn’t even know they still existed,” says a girl loudly to her friend as they head down the escalator.
“We are here to let the community know that we are around and here to protect them,” EQ, fifty, informs me at the subway stop. Their presence alone, he says, is helpful in stopping crime.
Though much of the Angels’ patrol activity occurs on the subways, several transit police officers interviewed said that they never interact with the group and had nothing to say about their usefulness. Claudia Mera, a community affairs officer in the 40th Precinct, which is located blocks away from Sensei Oliver’s dojo, says that she has dealt with the Angels just a couple of times in her eight years there, but adds: “They don’t cause us any grief. They are a positive group and are welcome to collaborate with us any time.”
Another police officer who requested anonymity has been on a Brooklyn beat for a year and a half and has seen them around a handful of times. “I respect them,” he says. “They know what we go through and understand the things we do. But they don’t really seem to make a big difference in crime in the community.”
Another eight-year veteran Brooklyn cop was surprised to see them on patrol recently, the first time in his career. “They were walking around at about four in the afternoon, which I don’t think can be too impactful,” he says. “If they want to walk around these neighborhoods without bulletproof vests on, then God bless them because that’s not really the safest thing to do. People today just shoot and run and hope they hit their target, like in the case of that baby that was shot.” (The Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, which handles the NYPD’s press inquiries, did not return a request for comment on the police’s relationship with the Angels.)
George Espinal, president of a community council in Washington Heights’ 34th precinct, says that the Guardian Angels “have been a great asset to the community, being extra eyes and ears out there.” When a spate of rapes were reported in the neighborhood, Espinal says the Angels were there, “patrolling the streets and standing in the parks, being a visual deterrent.” The rapist was soon apprehended. But oftentimes, Espinal’s interaction with the Angels is not directly related to crime fighting—like a backpack giveaway in September at Fort Tryon Park, when EQ and his men handed out free school supplies to neighborhood kids.
“Everyone in the community has to work together to make this city a beautiful place,” EQ said as he looked upon a gaggle of excited kids in line for their bags.
Dennis “Superstretch” Torres, who started patrolling with Sliwa when he was fourteen years old, oversees operations of the donation-funded Guardian Angels Community Service Center on St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights. For the last eleven years, he and other Angel volunteers, as part of the Junior Guardian Angels program, have taught free martial arts courses, offered tutoring services and provided food for about 500 children a week during after-school hours. Most of the kids are poor and black or Hispanic, ripe for gang recruitment—precisely what the Angels hope to steer them away from.
In Sensei Oliver’s South Bronx dojo, his students, many of them in their teens and early twenties, are prospective Guardian Angels. Nancy “Sparrow” Romero, nineteen, a South Bronx resident, says she can’t wait to finish her training and go on patrol with the Angels. “A lot of Guardian Angels come in here and they’re so nice,” says Romero. “They told me what they do. I thought it was pretty cool.”
Sliwa feels that the alliance’s current reputation, credibility and level of respect allows its members to impact the people of the city on a new level, producing citizens who are “contributors, not takers.” They teach “self-help” in schools, their centers, and at various community gatherings, enabling people to take action and deal with whatever ails them “without relying on government, which is a key principle of The Guardian Angels.”
* * *
Back at Broadway/Junction, EQ makes eye contact with a teenage boy and hands over a flyer reading: “Join The Guardian Angels: Free Martial Arts; Free Self-Defense,” with an illustration of a buff, bereted Angel straight out of G.I. Joe.
EQ, who lifted his nickname from the ‘80s television detective drama The Equalizer, has been a member of the Guardian Angels since 1986. A bulky man of Puerto Rican descent, he speaks quietly and slowly, remembering his younger days living in East Harlem’s Carver Houses. There, his father, a minister, was once beaten and robbed while holding a bible in his hand.
“The gangs were trying to recruit me,” EQ says. “If it wasn’t for the Guardian Angels, I would have gone down the wrong path. But once I joined, I told the homeboys that I don’t know them anymore.”
Before we make our way to the vigil for Hennis, the one-year-old boy who had been killed, four Angels, their arms wide open, are patted down by EQ himself. Then one of the others steps up and searches him as well. “I’ve never caught an Angel trying to go out on patrol with a weapon because they all know this will happen,” EQ says.
On the subway platform, the Angels spread out, covering as much ground as they can; on board they patrol separate train cars, without being too far away from the group in case they are needed.
During the trip into Brownsville, Jose “Raven” Mejias, thirty-one, puts his arm around a boy who walked between two cars while the train was in motion, pointing out the danger. Other than that, it’s quiet, and EQ explains what the Angels can and cannot do while on the streets.
Should they witness a crime, are suspicious of a crime, or are informed that a crime was committed, they immediately call the police. “If we actually see a guy snatch some woman’s purse and run away, then we can restrain him while we wait for the cops,” he says. If someone tells a Guardian Angel that they have been victimized, the Angel will stand by that person until police arrive. They rarely make arrests.
“It wouldn’t be right for an Angel to arrest someone without knowing for sure that they did something wrong,” he says. “An Angel could get in trouble if they did, and they should.”
Raven, leader of the Angels’ Brownsville chapter, has assisted in two arrests in fourteen years of service, once handing a police officer a pair of handcuffs as the cop restrained a perp. and also helping out a Macy’s security guard deal with a suspected thief.
Raven was essentially adopted by the Guardian Angels, a group he always wanted to be a part of, when he was eighteen-years old and homeless, after running into a few of them at the Times Square Virgin Megastore.
Raven’s older sister was murdered when he was thirteen, he lost his grandmother shortly thereafter, and then his estranged father died in Puerto Rico. He began to hang with “the wrong crowd” and clashed with his mother, whom he felt was being overprotective. He dwelled in shelters and abused drugs. “The Guardian Angels were a blessing,” he said. “Who else would take in a little Latino like me?”
For a time, Raven lived at the Angels’ then-headquarters, “Fort Apache” on 46th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, taking part in a three-month boot camp in self-defense, rudimentary law and conflict resolution. These days, Raven lives with Sliwa’s mother, Frances, or “Mama Angel,” at the Angels’ new home base in Canarsie, Brooklyn. When he isn’t coordinating patrols or tending to Mama Angel, he works a few nights a week at a tattoo parlor, handing out fliers, cleaning up the premises and carrying out odd jobs. He hopes to go back to school and get his GED.
He chose his codename after being inspired by the film The Crow. “Ravens are like crows,” he says, “except bigger and they watch over people.”
* * *
We’ve reached our stop, and the Angels, left arms at ninety-degree angles, left hands in fists, watch the train rumble off in salute—a tribute to Guardian Angels who have been hurt and killed on the subways. Five Guardian Angels have died while trying to help others locally and another perished in Los Angeles.
“Guardian Angels, all right!” a man says exuberantly as they walk by him, down the steps of the train station, in formation: two in the front, one in the middle and a couple in the back. At street corners, the rear two will turn around to watch what is happening behind the troop while they wait for the stop signal to switch. Someone in the front will then shout, “Let’s go,” cuing the back couple to turn and continue on in formation.
Though EQ outranks Raven in the organization, Brownsville is Raven’s neighborhood. He grew up here and as the local Guardian Angel chapter leader feels the neighborhood’s safety is his responsibility. The Harris candlelight vigil takes place in the Marcus Garvey Village houses, an area so dilapidated that a former official at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development recently told The New York Times that it makes the local projects “look good.” Raven is having a hard time keeping it together.
“You guys should’ve been there,” one resident, referencing the shooting, says wishfully to the group of Angels in attendance.
Raven leads the Angels over to the dead one-year-old’s grandmother, offering his condolences. Later, he will make his way through a large crowd to comfort Harris’s young mother, then order known gang members who brought food to the makeshift urban wake to turn around and go back home. “This isn’t a gang party.”
* * *
EQ says that on any given night he organizes between five and ten patrols of various sizes, depending on who is available and when, watching over neighborhoods in all five boroughs. They usually have between three and twelve volunteers working together, never patrolling alone. They’re “just a bunch of regular people,” notes thirty-year Angel vet Tony “Dangerous Grounds” Rivera, a sometime security guard and nightclub manager.
“People want to complain about the way things are,” Raven says. “But instead, they should join in, give their time, set an example, and be a part of the solution.”
“That’s what we’ve done,” EQ finishes. “We’ve stepped up. Just like Curtis did.”
“They’re not a bunch of Bruce Lees with black belts who can throw spinning hook kicks that can knock you out as if it was a mixed martial arts, UFC bout,” Sliwa observes. “Some can. Most can’t. These are real people making real decisions that really affect people’s lives. I believe they have the capacity to do that.”
* * *
I first became interested in profiling the Guardian Angels earlier this year, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. The case had put a new spotlight on volunteer civilian patrols around the country, and I wondered what the Angels were up to these days. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the group goes out of their way to eliminate a potential Zimmerman-like presence in their ranks—the pre-patrol pat-downs, the patrolling in groups, the training, the videotaping of patrols, and an actual vetting process. EQ was open and welcoming, even offering me the chance to go on a patrol with them—a request I’d planned on making when the time was right—just a few minutes into our first meeting at the Broadway/Junction platform. Maybe they wanted good press—especially after what happened down south—which wouldn’t have been the first time. But I saw tears at the Hennis vigil, smiles at the backpack giveaway, and standing at attention in some of the roughest neighborhoods in New York City. It was their sincerity that gave me a sense of responsibility upon donning that red beret in the West Village.
When my hourlong patrol ended, the group retreated into a back room of the St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street. In the adjacent bathroom, I took off my Guardian Angels garb and put on my citizen’s clothes. I reentered the meeting room and EQ stuck his hand out, silently, smilingly requesting the return of the beret. I was hoping to keep it, not as a token of my one night as a crime-fighter—for I certainly was nothing of the sort—but as more of a souvenir, like something you buy at a Times Square gift shop. Except way cooler.
Nothing happened that night or any of the other times I tagged along with them that caused any real alarm for the patrol. But if it had, I’m not sure if my steps would have been moving forwards or backwards. And even though the Guardian Angels of today might not be called upon as often as they once were, and many of them might not be as fleet of foot as they used to be, I’m sure they would have flown right into danger and done whatever they could have to help someone in need.
* * *
Michael Stahl is a writer, freelance journalist, and Narratively’s social media manager. Born, raised, and living in Queens, N.Y., his writing has appeared in several online and print publications. He barely tweets anymore @MichaelRStahl.
Kyria Abrahams is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of “I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales From a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing.”