They were known as the Magnificent 13 when they started patrolling. There were, after all, 13 of them. It was February 1979; in the South Bronx a McDonald’s night manager named Curtis Sliwa had had enough of his crime-ridden neighborhood. He decided it was time to clean it up and make it safe from muggers, drug dealers and other unsavory degenerates. He enlisted the help of a dozen guys to patrol the area, including Arnaldo Salinas, the only other member of the original gang still working with the organization, now know as the Guardian Angels.
Twenty-five years later it’s hard to get Sliwa to return a phone call and Salinas is so busy traveling the country, and the world, on Guardian Angels business, he sometimes brings his kids along on mundane errands in New York just to have family time.
By 1980 the Magnificent 13 were known as the Guardian Angels, building its ranks, riding late night trains and drawing quite a bit of media attention. Who were these red bereted crime fighters? Citizens who “Dare to Care” or a bunch of wing nut vigilantes getting in the way of police work? “People thought we were one hamburger short of happy meal,” says Salinas. Things were different back then. Swarms of hipsters didn’t ride the subways into the wee hours proving that there is safety in numbers. Getting on a train at two in the morning was a crap shoot – you may or may not get mugged. You may or may not get worse. On an afternoon in 1984 subway-rider Bernhard Goetz shot four black teenagers, paralyzing one, while they tried to rob him. The incident touched off a national controversy. There were cries of racially motivated vigilante justice; others reasoned Goetz was just protecting himself.
Vigilantism was never the premise of the Guardian Angels. According to Salinas, the group organized and operated on the basic principle of a citizen’s arrest. The Angels have never carried weapons, not even mace. Instead, they travel in numbers, no less than six in a patrol, and there is an emphasis on professionalism and acting within the bounds of the law.
Along Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, quick-paced New Yorkers weave expertly through tourists and beat cops. A man with a two-pocket apron hands out small flyers, to only men, for the peep show directly beneath the Guardian Angels’ headquarters. A floor above the street, the loft’s scruffy wood floors are worn and unpolished; there are no Ikea desks or sleek 10-line phone consoles. The front desk sits in a crossroads between the training gym on the right and the meeting room on the left. The bathroom is clearly frequented by men.
It’s a Friday night and the evening’s patrollers are gathered in the main room. Salinas is standing in front of us in his uniform. His army boots are polished to a gleaming shine; his black pants are crisp and his white t-shirt is emblazoned with the Guardian Angels’ logo. Salinas’ red beret is so loaded down with various pins I think it adds five pounds to his medium frame. He wears a personalized red satin Guardian Angels jacket. On the left side “13” is embroidered in white. Everyone has a Guardian Angel codename. Headquarters is Fort Apache. Sliwa is Rock. Mine is Star.
I’m the only girl sitting in the room as the pre-patrol lecture begins. The guys range from middle-teens to middle-age. They make sure I have a seat and some soda. There are two mammoth grey couches crouching against two walls. Old stained office chairs are around a huge table holding up snacks for the cadre. Salinas opens the lecture with a history of the Guardian Angels. Back in February 1979 when folks questioned their sanity, the Guardian Angels were quickly recruiting new members. By August of that year, he tells us, there was up to 600 Angels patrolling the subways. They then took the operation above ground. Salinas does not speak fondly of South Bronx in the old days. It was a “cesspool,” he says, “an armpit.” Soon after the Angels began patrolling the Bronx, people were constantly asking the Angels to come into their neighborhoods and help out. “The phone was ringing and ringing off the hook,” he says. Others were not so sure about the Guardian Angels’ credibility. They were accused of being media whores with a secret agenda.
What is indisputable is the media attention that the group did get. In October 1980 Sliwa claimed he was kidnapped by three men identifying themselves as transit cops. According to the yarn reported in The New York Times, the cops’ motivation in kidnapping Sliwa was to tell him to shut down all Guardian Angel patrols because “they were taking away jobs from transit officers.” Turns out, the kidnapping never happened. According to The New York Times, who originally reported the incident, Sliwa fabricated the entire thing. At the time Sliwa reported his supposed kidnapping, the police union was receiving grievances that accused the Guardian Angels of being “more of a hindrance than a help.”
Regardless of the cops’ feelings toward their organization, the Guardian Angels expanded their patrols to areas where help was needed. At the request of the Restaurant Row Association in the late 80s, the Angels moved their headquarters to 46th Street to defuse the culture of hookers and drug dealers that had taken over the neighborhood. They stayed for seven years until their building was rehabbed for low-income housing. By the end of their run, the Angels were credited by many of the restaurant owners with sweeping away crime and allowing their businesses to prosper.
Since they have been on Eighth Avenue, the Guardian Angels continue to expand, but have no plans to leave Fort Apache. They have opened a new outpost in Corona, Queens after being invited by Jackson Height’s Assemblyman Jose Peralta. The objective in Queens is to fight growing gang activity. At the same time, a chapter is becoming active on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University.
“It’s high time,” says Stella Sigalus, a 20-year-old Rutgers senior. “The president [of the university] got mugged. There’s a rape every other day, and they still haven’t caught the guy.” Sigalus says she doesn’t think there is enough police presence on campus. “My friend actually got mugged outside the computer lab at knife point.”
Rutgers police would rather students become “community service officers” than Guardian Angels. Rutgers Police Captain Laura Kull says, “At this point, I can’t say they actually have established a chapter.” But, she says, “We would obviously meet with them.”
Sergeant Richard Rowe of the New Brunswick Police Department echoed the same sentiment. “We’re not throwing a giant party because they’re coming to town, but we are happy to work with them. We encourage any citizen to join a local crime watch group,” which is how the NBPD sees the Guardian Angels. Though Rowe has never had any personal experience with the Guardian Angels, he remembers that “over the years some [people] looked at them as vigilantes.”
Preparing to go on my first Guardian Angel patrol, I get a red beret and a red satin jacket. It’s the kind of jacket the serious skaters wore at roller rinks in the 80s. As I light up a cigarette outside HQ, I’m told I have to take my beret and jacket off — no smoking allowed while in uniform.
I get into the Guardian Angels van, a big, blue, church van of thing, and head south to the Empire State Building with Salinas, Gunny, and senior Angel Al Bonilla. The regular patrol is headed there on foot, everyone connected by walkie talkies. Bonilla, a police officer who teaches homeland security for the NYPD, joined the Guardian Angels in 1994. Adhering to the no weapon rule, Bonilla does not carry his gun when patrolling with the Angels. Like Bonilla, Gunny (regional director Frank Lee) is a former military man. Bonilla was in the Army; Gunny was a Marine.
Now 26, Gunny has been in the Guardian Angels 11 years. Originally from Georgia, he came to New York at 16 to attend Roosevelt High School. During his tenor in the Angels, Gunny spent 6 years in the Marines, leaving with the rank as gunnery sergeant. Though Gunny has a policy of no fraternization between his charges (he is in charge of the New York City, Rochester, Savannah and Green Bay chapters) his wife is a former Guardian Angel. Couples and siblings are not allowed on patrols together. “We’re all considered family here,” but he says putting couples together could endanger their professionalism. Because Gunny was a supervisor, he never patrolled with his wife. Gunny says when he leaves the organization he can write a bestseller about romantic entanglements and the like. Still, he says, “There is a lot of solidarity here in this organization.” He says he is a relaxed chapter leader, but his team knows he can be stern. He has an open door policy but doesn’t “allow drama.” No matter what, says Gunny, “When you have the game face on, it’s crunch time.”
Across the street from the Empire State Building, Gunny pulls the van into an illegal spot and puts it into park. Someone is at Fort Apache with a radio ready to call 911 if anything goes down. We regroup and Salinas tells us what it is we are looking for — anything suspicious, like abandoned briefcases or out of place boxes. We canvas the entire perimeter of the building making sure no terrorist has planted an incendiary device meant to bring down the Empire State Building. Had we found anything “out of place” (the catch phrase of anti-terror patrolling) the chain of command would be activated: The patrol leader will radio to HQ, go radio silent and then communicate by land line. The desk person at Fort Apache will get all of the information about the situation, then call Salinas or Bonilla who will then make an executive decision about what to do. If there is real danger, a 911 call will be made.
Recently on a counterterrorism patrol, Gunny spotted two large bags on top of a mailbox. He says it sent up red flags for him. He radioed HQ with the message, “Two white burlap bags have been left unattended at my location.” The dispatch called a non-emergency police number and within five minutes NYPD officers were on the scene. It turns out the bags were mailbags. Gunny apologized. “It just didn’t look right. I would still absolutely do the same thing.” He doesn’t regret the call; even though he’s been in New York for 10 years, he’d never seen anything like that in Georgia. “You’ve got to take precautions.”
As our anti-terror patrol slowly walked around the Empire State Building, Salinas declared each sector we inspected safe with the “Guardian Angels stamp of approval,” after checking out some boxes and an unattended hotdog cart (the proprietor had to use the bathroom). Groups of tourists out for an evening walk waved, cheered and took pictures of the lot of us as we worked; shouting words of support like, “You guys are doing a great job!”
After the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, Salinas began working on a program, in conjunction with the office of Homeland security, to offer anti-terrorism training to anyone interested in taking it. After a year of planning, the program came to fruition on October 1, 2003; the Guardian Angels Academy officially opened at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. Salinas says it took persistence and hard work to partner up with CUNY, but Hostos President Dolores Fernandez was very open to his ideas. It was a coincidence that Hostos was beginning the process to become licensed to teach a security program. Since the Angels already had the license, the two organizations joined forces. “It’s a win for students,” says Salinas.
“Nobody was planning on 9-11. Now, everyone is taking prosecutions.” Salinas wants to prepare security guards for another occurrence, stressing that it is all about caution not paranoia. Guards need to learn how to “size up a situation and [know] how to handle it instead of just going in head first. A lot of security guards will take action above their means.” Eventually he wants every citizen in America to know how to protect themselves and their neighbors from terrorism.
Another Friday night with the Guardian Angels. Tonight Rebecca, director of the Junior Guardian Angels, is manning the front desk while the rest of us train in the gym. The room looks like a small locker room. There are a dozen white bikes and red helmets hanging from the white wall. The white wash stops at a red stripe before turning black down to the floor. An old-school weight bench is pushed into a corner near a punching bag.
Griffin, the training instructor, is standing in front of us in a traditional gee, with the Guardian Angels emblem on the back, tied by a black and red belt. The martial art training is a mix of Akido, Jujitzu and Muay Thai. The Guardian Angels have their own ranking system. I-Supports (Angels in training) must train regularly for 3 months before they are given the safety test. They start as a white belt, go to a yellow belt and then they become a full-fledged Guardian Angel.
Griffin has been an Angel since 1998. He apprenticed under Crazy Jay, director of training, and senior members Choco, Blaze and Silence. Once a Guardian Angel makes his/her safety, they can continue training to become an instructor.
We warm up doing laps around the “gym” and calisthenics. Again, I’m the only girl and the oldest I-Support in the place in is 21. I’m warned before I get to training that the workout won’t be modified for me. Men and women are equals at the Guardian Angels. I do well, holding my own with the young recruits. Griffin pairs us up to practice the bicep roll and nose clamp. I learn how to block a punch and drop my attacker to the ground. The teenager I am practicing with is clearly afraid of me; this is probably the closest he’s been to girl who doesn’t share his blood line. Enter Gunny. He keeps telling the guys not to be afraid of hurting me. He steps in to show them how it is done. I throw a punch; he has me on the ground, arm behind my head. My turn. I’m a bit nervous. Gunny outweighs me by at least 50 pounds. And, I don’t want to look like a punk in front of the guys. He throws a punch; I block it; now he’s on the ground, with a thud.
After practice there are role plays that set up scenes the Guardian Angels might encounter on patrol. Knockout, Griffin, Crazy Jay and Gunny set the scene — two are drug addicts, two are patrollers. A fake confrontation ensues. They yell at each other with foul language. I almost believe they are really out on the streets of some crime-ridden, left-for-dead neighborhood. Occasionally Gunny and Crazy Jay stop to make a point for the Angels-in-training to remember, for instance, how to block a certain type of attack or to remind the young ones that they always want to look professional when the P.D. arrives.
Training is over for the night. The guys who are assigned to patrol are going after a serial rapist in the Bronx who has not been caught yet. The other patrol prepares to go downtown to Christopher and Bleecker Streets. Crazy Jay is sitting this one out — tomorrow he is taking a group of Junior Guardian Angels rock climbing upstate.
Since they began in 1979, the Guardian Angels have seen peaks and valleys in their membership. At one point, they reported membership in the thousands. Now the make up of the Guardian Angels in New York City numbers less than one hundred and about 40% are I-Supports. Now that the Queens outpost is ready to take on gang violence, perhaps those numbers will climb once again. Across the U.S., the Angels estimate their total membership in the thousands. During the sniper rampage in Washington D.C., Angels pumped gas for citizens too afraid to get out of their cars. Veena Hammers, a resident of the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area appreciated the Angels’ presence at gas stations, saying, “The Guardian Angels are awesome.” Internationally, red berets can be seen from London to Tokyo. They have also taken to new frontiers. In 1995 they introduced the Cyber Angels to protect kids roaming the net. They even received 1998 Points of Light Presidential Service Award for helping in the effort to put child pornographers behind bars.
Looking back, the Guardian Angels have seen as much as they’ve been seen. They burie d six Angels, moved in and out of a half dozen offices and almost lost their leader Curtis Sliwa to a John Gotti-ordered hit in 1992. Who knew his codename Rock would be so fitting? After being kidnapped in a taxi on the morning of June 19th, Sliwa was pumped full of bullet holes, but managed to escape the vehicle. He radioed on his walkie talkie to Fort Apache, “Code Red. Code Red.” He was found by his then -wife Lisa, and taken to the hospital where he eventually recovered. More than 10years later, Sliwa has a morning talk show and still travels the country laying the groundwork for new chapters and lecturing on fighting crime. At 50, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. At 25, neither do the Guardian Angels.