Founded in 1979, the Guardian Angels began to make the streets of New York a safe place. But what does it mean to be a modern-day vigilante group?
The seventies in New York City was a time based around great darkness and fear. The streets were filled with chaotic scenes of violence that made residence live in terror. People were advised to hold on dearly to their possessions while hiding any valuable items away from the streets. People were even told not to trust anyone they encountered while out and about, it was such a time of suspicion that even hotel vaults and the subway systems were not to be trusted. These events painted New York in a cloud of nightmares, making the city sound like a place where hell existed on earth. So much so a pamphlet was handed out to people with the headline ‘Welcome to Fear City’. It advised visitors and residents on how to get out of New York while they still had time and how to stay alive on the streets. This fear of the streets engulfed the entire seventies in New York.
This is when Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, started the group to provide a safer environment for people on New York’s subways. Their goal from the beginning was to empower community relationships and work as a safety network, which they still believe today. From starting out as 12 guys in Brooklyn New York, to now having alliances with other Guardian Angel groups in 131 cities in 16 different countries.
They go out and patrol the streets of America in search of bad behaviour while giving community support. They don’t see themselves as crime fighters as such, but more as peace keepers of the streets. “We are not going out to fight crime but to assist or communities, we take things like honour, integrity and loyalty very seriously, these are ideals we are proud to represent.” Said David Lambert, leader of the Modesto California Guardian Angels.
But over time, as the violent acts of New York’s criminality died down, it became more of a safer environment to live in. According to statistics on the Disaster Centre website, in 1979 when the group began, there were 161,906 violent crimes committed for over 17 million people living in the city. This is compared to the 75,165 violent acts committed in 2015 for over 19 million that lived in the city at that time.
With the city becoming a better condition to live in, people started seeing The Guardian Angels as a heroic vigilante group. Even media organisations like the New York Post constantly write articles on the ‘vigilante group’, there latest headline read ‘Guardian Angels take up rat control as side gig’ for their online website, quoting them “as the vigilante group”. This makes the Guardian Angels seem as a vigilante group when they don’t see it themselves.
In fact, “we don’t dispense vigilante justice, we are peace keepers, help givers, we protect people and I do not agree that vigilantism is needed in our communities. We try to teach people that they are the ones who must be in the forefront of safeguarding their streets.” Said Mr Lambert.
All the Guardian Angels serve as volunteers and believe if ordinary people begin to show interest in creating safer neighbourhood’s, then criminals will go elsewhere. It’s all about community building rather than facing criminals.
What makes them so enabling is the fact that everything is led by volunteers. Most of their members consist of former gang members and addicts who have dedicated themselves to changing and helping individuals. Others include veterans, martial arts instructors and ordinary people, all of who want to better their community
For many groups like The Guardian angels, they do all this in the name of community building. For them, this happens away from the streets. They have youth programmes, self-defence training lessons, out-reach programmes with the homeless as well as recently introducing programmes to stop bullying in schools.
They also carry extra things like socks, bottled water, snakes and feminine hygiene items to give away to people when they go on patrols. Mr Lambert said: “we go out of our way to help those who need it, we represent people getting off their couches and taking responsibility for their own communities. We represent solidarity, empowerment and education.”
But from time to time, they do see criminal activity taking place. When this happens, they would never involve themselves, they will always call the police first. If they do encounter minor offences like anti-social behaviour, drunkenness, petty thefts and others. They would much rather talk individually to members to make them understand what they are doing is wrong. All taking place in a group environment, so individuals can feel safe and see there is a network of people trying to better the community.
In fact, the act of group work to protect and serve the community is often seen in the labelling of vigilante groups, even if it is not their intentions to be known as a vigilante group. Professor Colin Webster, a criminologist Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, said: “even though they don’t see themselves as vigilantes as such, they are responding there and then in the situation using the assets available to them.” Which makes the outside world see them as vigilantes, when in fact they are just a law-abiding group wanting to better their communities.
Admittingly, the seventies in New York was a difficult time to live in, but also a golden opportunity for groups like the Guardian Angels to help deliver a justice the city was craving. This tick off point was heightened when the police were not involved and there seemed to be an apparent miss trust in the justice system.
Because of this, individuals and groups seem to think they have no other reason but to take matters into their own hands. Studies like Professor Colin Webster’s on youth, crime and justice have found the same thing, he studied acts of vigilantism over a five-year period in 1995.
The study saw racists violence between two groups of people, one group were Asian males and the other group were white males. The white males constantly clashed with the Asian males and violence would break out. He discovered that the victims of these attacks first formed vigilante groups to protect their communities when they discovered the police were not helping them out.
He said: “these groups certainly moulded together because the police were ineffective to respond.” There were numerous instances where the police blamed the victims rather than the perpetrators, so the police turned out ineffective.
Consequently, due to this miss trust of the police, the group felt they had to protect themselves, so they started a vigilante group. “When people establish groups like these, crime rates and violence goes down,” said Professor Webster. This in fact turned out to be the case, when the group took matters into their own hands and started up territories where each group could go, the violence committed by both went down.
This miss trust of the police is the core root of why The Guardian Angels began in 1979. The seventies saw the most police corruption cases in New York like never before. In fact, a cop named Frank Serpico in the seventies described the New York Police Department as only “10 percent of the cops in New York City are absolutely corrupt, 10 percent are absolutely honest, and the other 80 percent wish they were honest.”
This included cases like, stealing money, protecting drug lords, racist behaviour towards people, beating up people and many corruption cases by supporting criminal behaviour. So, the seventies in New York was a lawless city.
But off course, over the years, the way the policing system handles crime and corruption has improved. The policing department are even aware of how to conduct themselves when they see vigilante behaviour.
Detective Chief Inspector Vanessa Smith of the West Yorkshire police department, says: “individuals can feel justified because the feel disempowered, so they see vigilantism as a visible justice plan.” She continued by saying: “vigilantes are not being trained and they undermine the police. I feel the police always investigates the crime and you have to trust the police prosecution system.”
The police prosecution system is what most people can’t wait for as it requires a set amount of time to fully carry out an investigation. This makes people feel like the police are not doing what they set out to do so this general miss trust begins to form.
Although the Guardian Angels are aware of police work and realise the system has changed over time, this same distrust attached to the police applies. Because of this the group feel they should go out and patrol the streets for themselves. They see themselves as kind of a buffer between the police and citizens when it comes to tackling crime.
This approach seems to be effective as this proves to be right, “simply our presence is often sufficient enough to keep mischief away from the area,” says Mr Lambert. At times the media and the police may resent them and groups similarly linked with vigilantism, but as community members get to know them, they become invariably well-received.
For all most all who are known for vigilante’s acts, this idea of community serving is what they see themselves doing. They aren’t flying around in a red cape claiming to have god like powers, to fight off criminals like you see in the movies. Modern day vigilantes, don’t even see themselves as vigilantes, but more as responding to a situation put before them.