Not on Their Watch

Posted on 18. Apr, 2011 by in Features

The Guardian Angels are watching. Illustration by Tom Stokes

We walk in a sharp diamond formation. Rocky reminds me repeatedly to stay on his inside, away from the street, where action is most likely to break out. To patrol tonight, we’ve driven to the Crown Street nightclub district, an area close to Yale that I know well, but still Rocky has built the formation of hulking men in red jackets around me—I’m small, I’m a girl, and it is my first patrol.

As we approach corners, Rocky holds up a fist to tell us to “post up”—we snap to attention and stiffen our bodies against a brick wall or a fence while Rocky peers around the corner ahead. Once he has determined that the coast is clear, he motions to us to move along. At the corner outside the Chinese takeout restaurant my roommates frequent, he invites me to look around with him—after he’s done the preliminary check, of course. He points to a stoop under a yellow restaurant awning about thirty feet away.

“We’d look in places like that,” he says. To Rocky’s trained eye, any activity in side alleys, in slightly hidden stoops, or behind dumpsters is an immediate red flag. He tells me he simply strolls up to the suspicious person and suggests they move out. If a drug dealer or a prostitute or an addict has been spotted, he or she is likely to want to move on willingly, he explains.

I look hard into the shrouded corners of each alleyway we pass, willing my eyes to see what Rocky sees, but I’m getting nothing. I stick to watching Rocky’s massive shoulders lumber in front of me.

Rocky and Taxi split up the group, sending Ninja, Tank, and Cisco one block ahead of us while we follow. Splitting the formation, they explain, will ensure that if the other three patrollers’ presence stirs up any activity or nervous responses, our half of the patrol can follow up in their rear. But on a quiet night like this one, Ninja, Tank, and Cisco seem to be strolling casually ahead of us, leaving me to chat with Rocky and Taxi. As we walk, Rocky makes eye contact with almost everyone we pass—especially the occasional homeless person slouched against a building. Eye contact is part of the mission. Rocky wants the patrollers’ red jackets to become a familiar, comforting presence. Rocky says patrols like this—with a lot of walking and very little action—are part of the job. Too often he’s seen young men who join expecting a fight every night grow disappointed when they discover the job is usually quiet. Still, he reminds me to stay on the inside of the group.

“If something happens, you need to be able to get back so we can protect you,” he says.

Rocky, like all the Guardian Angels, goes by a nickname. The true identities of the Angels must remain private, he tells me, because of the work they do. They are the eyes and ears and arms of neighborhoods all over the world—and drug dealers and gang members can never be allowed to know their real names. On the street and even at the headquarters, they all address one another by nicknames, and that is how I will refer to them here.

I spent four nights patrolling the New Haven streets with the city’s own Guardian Angels, an international nonprofit volunteer safety patrol that fights crime unarmed. The Guardian Angels’ red berets and jackets have been seen around the city since 2007, when they first set up a chapter in New Haven. It was the Hassidic Jewish population in the Edgewood community that called in the Angels. Violence had escalated to the point that community leaders had begun arming themselves, ready to take the situation into their own hands. When Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the original Guardian Angels chapter in New York, swept into town at the request of Edgewood rabbis, the New Haven chapter was born. He appointed leaders from other Connecticut chapters to help develop the New Haven group and collaborate with the Jewish community for its protection. The results are clear. Rocky reports that the Edgewood neighborhood has seen a sixty percent reduction in crime since 2007.

Today the New Haven chapter of the Angels is one of 143 across fifteen countries. Originally founded in 1979 in New York, the Angels have gained an international reputation for walking the line between superhero and vigilante.

Every week, the Angels gather in the apartment that acts as their headquarters to plan their route before heading out for patrol. The rooms are sparse and the building is old, but Rocky’s “office” has been arranged to look as official as possible. He speaks to me from behind a desk littered with flyers advertising the Angels. It’s important to self-publicize, Rocky tells me, because they’re still building up the chapter and he needs as many eyes on the streets with him as possible.

It has proven difficult for Rocky to find people willing to give up their nights on a weekly basis to roam around the city preventing crime. Most Angels members’ careers last only a few years, Rocky says, but lately the New Haven chapter has retained patrollers for longer periods of time. Still, the guys have their own jobs, Rocky tells me, and they want to spend their time off with their families, so doing more than one patrol a week can be difficult.

The evenings spent out on the cold street corners of New Haven are unpleasant at times, Rocky tells me, but they’re worth it. Rocky keeps in mind the famous Queens murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, which took place only blocks from where he once lived. Genovese was stabbed repeatedly in the middle of the street, and as she cried out, begging for help, no one came to her rescue. No one called the police until it was much too late. When witnesses were asked later why they did nothing, their response went down in history: “I didn’t want to get involved.”

Rocky reminded me of this incident on more than one occasion, shaking his head with disbelief each time. That won’t happen on his watch.

Modern psychologists know the Kitty Genovese story well, because it illustrates the “bystander effect”—the idea that the more people there are watching a crime, the less likely it is that someone will stop the events from unfolding, because it’s someone else’s problem. But to the Angels, everyone else’s problems are their problems.

“They love us here,” Rocky says. As he watches the streets, I can see his shoulders stiffen with pride. This fraternity of unarmed strangers has been welcomed, first into the Edgewood community, and slowly—block by block—into New Haven, spotting the streets with their red berets.

On my second patrol with the Angels, I meet them at the headquarters, only a fifteen-minute walk away. “It’s the X location,” Rocky says of this building, explaining to me that I must be careful not to reveal where we are. He laughs. I can’t tell how serious he’s being, so I smile and write it down obediently.

*** Street. X Location.

Rocky is willing to let me come to a “bad neighborhood,” but only if I make an effort to blend in. I know he’s referring to the bubblegum-pink notebook I tried to bring on our first patrol. He’d looked at it suspiciously and told me to find something less conspicuous. This time I’ve brought a slim black notebook that can fit in my pocket, and I’m wearing as bulky a jacket as I could find. I stuff my hair into a hat and zip up the jacket. And this time, Ninja suggests I dress to match them. Over my enormous down jacket, I put on one of the Angels’ bright red numbers, and I even get a beret. I know I look ridiculous. After a laugh, Ninja offers, “At least you’ll be warm.” I waddle obediently to take my place in the middle of the group. This time, Tank is tasked with walking with me and keeping me on the inside.

Tank’s son, Cisco, walks ahead of his father. He’s still the new recruit, so Ninja has to supervise him.

When we’re posted up at a corner, I try to talk to them both.

“So you’re the father-son team, huh?”

Nods.

“What made you want to join your dad, Cisco?” I flash him my best attempt at a charming smile. At twenty-something he’s easily the youngest of the group, and he looks me up and down with obvious discomfort while the other men have only kindly, paternally smiled.

“He saw a lot of what’s going on in the streets and he was sick of it,” Tank answers. “He’s good ’cause he knows the streets and stuff, he knows what’s happenin’ out there.”

“How do you know so much about it?” I direct my question to Cisco again.

“He’s seen it, he’s been there,” Tank responds.

I give up. As I walk with Tank, he is happy to chat with me. Unlike his son, he’s no sparse conversationalist. He praises Cisco, explaining to me that though his son stayed out of trouble, enough of his friends fell into gang culture that he knows the street calls of the major gangs and can spot telltale markers of gang activity that the others might overlook. Tank’s not the first Angel to brag to me about street smarts. As soon as I met Taxi, I asked him how he got his nickname.

“I used to be a bounty hunter,” he shrugged, a cocky grin spreading over his face. “I did my stakeouts out of a taxi cab.” Ninja, who got his name from his affinity for martial arts as a child growing up in public housing projects, also works as a part-time bounty hunter, hired out by local police forces in nearby Meriden. One night as we stood outside Dunkin’ Donuts on a brief patrol break, he mumbled that sometimes it’s hard to be unarmed—and to know that he can at most make a citizen’s arrest—when on patrol with the Angels.

“What would you do if someone you were trying to scare away just came at you with a knife or a gun?” I asked.

“I’d have to walk away,” he said, his features screwed up in a grimace. Ninja is a man who prefers to fight back.

Tank raises his chin in fraternal greeting to everyone we pass with a gruff “How you doin’, guy?” A few people stop him, and they exchange a handshake or a hello. Some of the people we pass respond with a nod or a “Glad to see you’re out here, man.”

Not everyone greets us warmly. We pass three teenagers gathered on a doorstep who avoid eye contact with Tank, only responding in grunts to his customary “How you doin’?” greeting.

“I always try to say hello and how you doin’,” Tank says. “Even if they’re not gonna respond. Those guys were gang members—but at least I got their respect.”

I peer cautiously back behind me, looking for some telltale brands or marks on the boys.

“How’d you know they’re gang members?” I ask.

“You could tell,” Tank grins knowingly at me. “They was definitely packin’.”

One tiny, elderly woman sees us moving in double formation (two vertical lines of three people each) and runs onto her porch. As she steps into her doorway, beckoning us over, a few people move shiftily out of the doorframe.

“Can you do something about this?” she begs, gesturing to the people coming and going. “They smokin’ the crack pipe in the house all the time, I got nenas and they little and the smoke’s comin’ under my door.”

Her English is rough and broken, and Tank, who is Puerto Rican, switches into Spanish. I join them on her doorstep and ask her in Spanish why the police haven’t helped her.

“I call them all the time, every day,” she tells me. “Nunca llegan, nunca llegarán.” They never come, and they’re never going to come.

Tank promises her that he’ll put in a call for her. As we walk away I ask him why he thinks he can get the cops to come if she’s been calling repeatedly. He looks at me importantly.

“Because the Guardian Angels know now.”

I turn, craning my neck around Tank’s broad shoulders and bulky frame, watching the woman retreat into her house.

Weeks later, when I inquired with Rocky about the woman’s status, he didn’t know if the police had responded. On this second night, I can see the real danger the Angels are looking out for. But I can also see how Tank’s chest puffs up with manly pride as he brags to me, the way he keeps straightening his uniform and adjusting his beret. Angels are eyes on the street, but they also want eyes on them.

At the end of that night’s patrol, as I’m waiting for a cab to come pick me up from the headquarters back in Edgewood, Cisco turns to me.

“Wives and sisters shouldn’t have to walk alone and be afraid, you know?” He stares at me from his wide dark eyes and fixes me with a penetrating look. “That ain’t right.”

It is the first time tonight that he makes eye contact with me. My cab pulls up. He thrusts a large palm at me to shake my hand before opening the cab door for me.

Rocky has served with the Angels since he was in his twenties, and this October marked his thirtieth year of patrolling community after community, spending nights out on cold streets all over the northeast.

Rocky ran away from his home in Brooklyn at 15 and spent the next few years of his life living with fellow runaways on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, where he was a member of an informal gang. The group of boys lived together and looked out for each other, occasionally getting into fights with other loosely organized gangs and painting graffiti around the city.

Gangs, he says, promise wayward youths like himself love. Gangs lure in stragglers off the street with beds to sleep in and friends to take care of them, and before they know it they are handed guns and asked to do someone a favor, to take care of something for them, to help do their duty for the neighborhood. Help protect the neighborhood, because no one else is watching out.

But the Angels make no such promises, and they attract members who, in Rocky’s words, are seeing things they’re sick of on the streets, things they want to stop. They’re just ordinary citizens, he says, looking to make a difference.

Though Rocky has been in the Angels’ service for thirty years, he has only been stationed in New Haven for five months. He spent the last several years moving from chapter to chapter around Connecticut and New Jersey, reviving chapters that had fallen by the wayside. The New Haven chapter is Rocky’s latest project, and he aims to train a squadron of committed and talented patrollers in two years. Despite Rocky’s years of commitment, he is still a volunteer, and so are all the other patrollers. Though a cabinet-maker by trade, Rocky has had trouble finding work in cabinetry, so now he’s working in construction.

Rocky’s scrapbook holds archives of thirty years of the organization’s history. I page through headlines calling the Angels heroes, proclaiming them saviors of neighborhoods and cities. Between pages of worn newsprint and pictures of muscled men clad in red, I find a large clipping of a beautiful woman with porcelain skin and billowing hair—Lisa Sliwa, Curtis’s ex-wife.

She was also an Angel. One snapshot showed her glaring from between two tough-looking Latino men, all three with arms folded. Her mouth turned up just the slightest bit at the corners in a nearly unnoticeable grin. I tried to imagine her on the streets with the Angels, and how it would feel to be at the front of the patrol.

The night of my last patrol with the Angels, we settle on the couches while Rocky reviews the training essentials that he’s gone over every night. Obey orders, community outreach, formations—by now, I know the patrols well enough to feel like I can zone out as Rocky says it all again. Crime’s down sixty percent since 2007, he reminds us. Tank and Cisco aren’t here tonight, to my dismay. Tonight’s plan is to do some recruiting in the downtown area after a quick sweep near the Edgewood headquarters. He adds that the recruiting seems to be going well thus far—and that next week, a woman will be coming to join the Angels on patrol after seeing their flyers in a laundromat. In the back corner of the room, a whiteboard looms large with words “GOAL: RECRUIT 30 MEMBERS BY AUGUST 12, 2011.”

Before letting me out of the Angels’ sight, Rocky wants me to have some self-defense techniques to use if something were to happen. I stand up obediently, leaving my recorder and notepad on the couch. He tells me to come at him. I grab him by the collar of his grey hoodie, waiting for him to show me some new ways to bust free. Startled, he looks up at me and glances around to the other Angels watching us in the middle of the room.

“Whoa—she’s kinda strong!”

They laugh.

The demonstration is quick—just a few quick tips on how to get out of various choke holds, many of which a five-foot, hundred-pound girl would not use effectively on a man Rocky’s size in real life. After I struggle free, I’m instructed to knee my attacker in the groin and run and scream.

“It’s basic stuff that any woman should know,” he tells me. “Or guy.”

The Angels nod somberly.

As I make the walk home that night, facing the streets on foot this time, without a taxi to carry me home safely, I practice a few of the moves again, imagining myself screaming in the face of an attacker and sprinting away. I can’t help but laugh at the picture. But Rocky’s right—staying safe is a serious matter, and even if these vigilantes sometimes talk bigger talk than I’d expect from a group of unarmed, beret-topped men, I feel somehow more protected knowing they’re keeping an eye on the streets.

I walk alone, but two blocks over, I know, the Guardian Angels are watching, making their weekly rounds.

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