The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Guardian Angels:
An Organization of the Population, or a New Police?

Jan 31, 1982

Street crime is one of the biggest concerns today of the population in the big cities. And

for good reason. Over the last several years, there has been a marked degeneration of life in the cities, accompanied by an increase in certain kinds of crime, especially those kinds that victimize ordinary people.

In recognizing the inroads that crime has made on their daily lives, people have also come to realize that something more than the police is necessary. In a number of cities across the country, neighborhood patrols have been begun by people in an attempt to set up some kind of protection for themselves.

One of the most important of these attempts has been that of the Guardian Angels. The Angels are mostly young people from the inner city and from some suburban neighborhoods, willing to take a certain responsibility to fight against crime. They were first organized as a subway patrol in New York City in 1979.

Curtis Sliwa is the founder and national spokesman. In 1977, he reportedly organized a brigade of high-schoolers to keep a Bronx neighborhood clean. They were a mixture of black, Hispanic, Chinese, and white members, recruited in the South Bronx. The first patrol reportedly came out of this organizing. According to media accounts, the patrol met each evening at the McDonald’s in the Bronx where Sliwa was the manager. From there they took a train to Brooklyn known as the “Mugger’s Express” because of its high rate of hold-ups. This kind of patrol has by now become a familiar sight to New York subway riders.

In the 3 years since, the Angels claim to have involved several thousand people in their patrols, in 33 cities around the country. Almost everywhere they have gone, they received a favorable reaction from the people in the subways or neighborhoods where they patrol, especially from older people glad to have some protection on the streets. Young people responding to the Angels seem happy to find an organized way to react to the problem of crime – a way to be able to defend themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods.

It seems that the Angels have struck a responsive chord in the population. They have shown that it is possible, at least in a small way, to organize people on this issue. And not just in New York, where Sliwa was perhaps well known with a base of support, but around the country in many different kinds of cities and neighborhoods.

Obviously, we have often seen a favorable response in the population to other people who proposed to do something about crime, and yet often what they proposed was of a very reactionary nature. So we know that the fact that a group like the Angels calls forth a lot of approval is not in and of itself an indication of what the group could represent. We have to examine what they propose and what they have done in order to see what the potential of this experiment is.

A Paramilitary Group

The first thing that is obvious is that they act like a police force. The Angels’ selection and training of cadre correspond to that appropriate for a paramilitary patrol. To qualify to be an Angel, a person is supposed to be in school or employed, and get 3 recommendations from business or community “leaders.” The Angels say that they do not accept anyone with a police record, at least for the first 50 members in each city.

The strenuous training period of 3 months covers martial arts, CPR, and some law. Usually, they make members undergo hazing to prepare them for harassment out on the street.

They seem to demand a fairly strict military type of discipline, in keeping with how they carry out their work. It demands that members have confidence in the leader of the patrol and agree to follow orders.

All of these things serve to make a kind of selection among the people who come to them, just as is the fact that members must show up regularly to patrol and take risks that patrol implies.

The Angels on patrol either make citizens’ arrests or hold the person until the police arrive. They seem to agree that it is up to the state to enforce and mete out justice. Over the 3 years, they have accounted for several hundred arrests.

All these different characteristics point to the same conclusion: they are organized and they act like a police force.

Competitors or Adjunct?

Of course, this isn’t to say that the police or the politicians have welcomed the Angels with open arms. In fact, more often than not, they have been hostile to the Angels.

In New York, the Angels were arrested one time on the trains. And Sliwa says he was abducted and threatened by the transit police in New York and beaten up by the police in

Washington, D.C. Mayor Koch of New York, Mayor Byrne of Chicago, and Mayor Young of Detroit have called them “vigilantes.” And the police chief of Detroit threatened to arrest them if they appear on the street.

The idea of people taking into their own hands the fight against crime, even in a very limited way, must be an upsetting thought to the political representatives of the bourgeoisie. They are hostile to any independent organization of the population. They want a police which they control, and not something like the Guardian Angels, over whom their control is not so sure.

For the police there is also the problem that the Angels could provide a kind of competition. As Sliwa said, “There’s a stigma attached to the police in the communities that we come from.” No doubt the police feel this too and feel less pleased to imagine the Angels with a better reception than their own.

It must be threatening for racist white cops to have an integrated paramilitary group, with all this group could imply, competing with them on the streets in a black or Hispanic neighborhood. It’s likely this is the explanation of the shooting death of Guardian Angel Frank Melvin in Newark, New Jersey at the end of December.

Nonetheless, this hostility toward the Angels could change, and already we see some signs of that. The Lieutenant Governor of New York, the City Comptroller, and the Bronx District Attorney have all praised them. The Angels were welcomed by city officials in New Orleans and Baltimore. The Mayor of Trenton said, “I believe not only that they can be helpful here, but that there should be no problem at all in coordinating whatever effort they would like to make with our ongoing effort to control and prevent crime.” The Mayor of Highland Park in Michigan also pointed out another advantage of the Angels – they are free and Highland Park is short of cash to pay for more police.

To the extent that more city officials extend a certain kind of recognition toward them, to that extent we can expect to see the Angels become no more than just another police, or an adjunct to the police. The hope of getting recognition already puts a pressure on them to act in a way which would not contradict this role. And we see signs that they want to reassure the authorities. As an organizer for the Angels in Trenton said, “We want to help the police do their job, and not get in their way.”

In New York City, they have taken a step which leads them in the direction of becoming an auxiliary police. They have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Transit Authority and the police. The Angels are now to be given some legal training by the city, as well as identity cards, free rides on the subway, and the official sanction to act as an auxiliary of the New York City transit police.

And yet Sliwa still claims, “We will remain independent. City officials should know where we are, when we are patrolling, and who we are. They do not have the right to tell us when and where to do it.”

Independent – but for How Long?

In fact, there is no such thing as remaining independent for a group like the Angels. A group like this, which proposes to act like a military force, sooner or later will be controlled by someone. And the more they grow, the more this is true. A sizable force like this cannot have an independent existence; it is simply a tool – of someone. The problem is to know whom it will answer to. Either it will answer to, that is be controlled by, the population, or it will be controlled by the police. In order to stay independent of the police, a group like the Angels must depend on the population.

A group like the Angels is a paramilitary group. But that does not make it, by its nature, opposed to community control. Such a group can exist under the democratic regulation of an organized neighborhood, active under its discipline, as an anti-crime patrol. And a group such as the Angels must seek in every way to establish the ties with the community, and, moreover, the means by which the community decides the right that Sliwa ceded to the New York City authorities, “where we are, when we are patrolling, and who we are.” And also the rights which Sliwa held in reserve from the police – the community should also decide for its patrols, “when and where” to patrol. And much more.

There is a more important aspect of the question: to be really effective in fighting crime requires more than just an exemplary patrol like the Angels now provide. Certainly, even that kind of patrol can have a certain impact. What Sliwa claimed for the Angels is undoubtedly true: “Our main weapon is our presence ... just being around puts the muggers off.” But after the Angels’ presence is gone, the muggers can return. Much more is necessary – and possible.

Take, for example, the recent child murders in the city of Atlanta. The best chance to protect the children would have been the involvement, active participation, and vigilance of the whole population in those black neighborhoods where the children were being murdered.

It is not a question of everyone in the neighborhood putting on a red beret. It is a question of an entire neighborhood mobilized to use its many eyes and ears to protect it from trouble. It has many mouths and arms, if they are utilized, to be raised against any potential attack or threat. And just the idea of being able to depend on each other and to fight together can help a neighborhood to discourage those who would prey on it or attack. Such a mobilization gives a role to everyone, and each person’s contribution potentially could have saved a child’s life. And such a mobilization is the thing which gives to a paramilitary force like the Angels the possibility to be really effective.

This is true not only for the case of Atlanta. The mobilization and active participation by people themselves is the only effective and efficient way for people to be able to change their lives. To do this they must learn to have confidence in and depend on themselves.

Where Will the Guardian Angels Go?

The future of the Guardian Angels is not a closed book. They still have the option of going in the direction of helping the population mobilize to protect itself against crime; they still have the possibility to develop sufficient links between themselves and an organized community, links which would allow them to be a police for the community, under the control of the community. And on some level, they seem to understand the necessity for people to be mobilized. Repeatedly, it is the advice they give, for Sliwa says, “People must get involved to defeat the rising tide of crime in the cities.”

But there is also the possibility they will go in the direction of complementing the police, of becoming an auxiliary to them. And this is probably the more likely evolution, if they don’t consciously choose as their goal the mobilization of the population.

If the Angels were to go in the first direction, if they were to organize the population, to help it mobilize on the issue of crime, they would very quickly end up in a real opposition to the state apparatus, both the police and the government. Maybe today the politicians are wiling to tolerate an elite type of group like the Angels, and even this they do only reluctantly. But they cannot and will not accept a real mobilization of the population, even if it is simply around an issue like crime and even if those who organize it claim not to be political, not to have views on the nature of this society. They will not accept even an attempt to mobilize the population. The proof of this lies in the response of those politicians who believe the Angels are trying to mobilize people. It is these politicians who today attack the Angels.

Even if the people organizing don’t themselves understand the import of what they are doing, the police and the government understand where such a movement is going. Once people organize to defend themselves and to fight against crime, what is to stop them from organizing to fight the other evils of this society?

It is difficult for people to create an organization to defend themselves. To do it, they have to oppose the state, the police, all the authorities. To do it, they have to be ready to withstand the opposition they will get from the state apparatus. And the preparation to withstand that opposition is above all a political preparation. It is easier for people who see clearly the role of the police, who understand that the police’s task is to enforce the exploitation of the population.

Today the Angels say they are not a political organization. If they stay that way, their

likely evolution will be, even if they don’t consciously choose it, to put themselves at the service of the political apparatus of the state and to arrive at some kind of compromise with the police. This compromise in fact will mean they will come under the control of the police and can be used by the police, even finally against the population which today the Angels try to defend.