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Looking for a Few Good Men
By David King
Photos By John Whipple

The Guardian Angels are back in the Capital Region, but will they get enough recruits and community support to successfully fulfill their mission to help deter crime in the streets?

 

It’s 8 PM on a Thursday in June on the corner of Lark Street and Clinton Avenue in Albany. Three men dressed in bright red berets, red jackets, black army cargo pants and combat boots stand at attention with their arms to their backs like bright red sentries in front of R&J Deli and Grocery. These men aren’t from Albany; they are from Schenectady and New York City. They are in Albany tonight to get attention, to draw in recruits for what they hope to be a new Albany chapter of the Guardian Angels.

Residents of the community sit on their porches with beers in hand watching as the Guardian Angels prepare to patrol the streets of Arbor Hill. Girls in pink tops and cartoon-character pants giggle and hide inside the doorway of the bodega. The men behind the counter crane their necks to see past the collage of beer and cigarette advertisements that cover their windows to get a glimpse. “You better watch out when you go outside!” one girl teases the other, “They gonna get you!”

Theresa Chapman crosses Lark Street with her toddler running by her side. Looking back and forth between the men in red berets, the news trucks parked scattershot around the neighborhood, the changing traffic lights and her hyperactive toddler, she says, “I think it’s good. It’s a little weird, them being out-of-towners and all, but it’s good to see more people getting involved.”

An older gentleman sits on his porch on the corner of Clinton Avenue. He watches while his fingers nervously intertwine and then release. “I’ve lived in some pretty bad neighborhoods in the city. It ain’t too bad up here, but there’s still some troubles,” he remarks. “You see this stuff every election year. We’ll see if they are here the day after the election.” The man refuses to give his name because, as he puts it, “I just moved into the neighborhood. I don’t want to start no trouble, let my name be known already.”

“The Guardian Angels have come to Albany,” is a headline many have seen on the evening news or on the front page of the daily papers during the past month. Most Albany residents’ image of the Angels is likely a shot of founder Curtis Sliwa in his reds standing next to a smiling Jerry Jennings. The Angels’ arrival has been heralded as promise of relief. But until the Angels are on neighborhood streets, patrolling every weekend, it is unclear what their arrival will mean to the neighborhoods and residents, although some have already decided what it means to them personally.

“They don’t belong here,” says Jamal, sitting in a lawn chair in front of the Barber’s Den clothing store, which is attached to a building that houses a deli. “They just intimidating working people. Tell them they should be down the street. Tell them we need after-school programs for the kids so they won’t be on the streets. So they wouldn’t need to have people out here watching ’em on the streets.” He looks up, frustrated. “OK, never mind, I’ll tell them myself!” he says, as he and his companion start shouting, “You don’t belong here. Down the street, down the street, get out of here!”

Jeff Blay, the head of the Schenectady chapter of the Angels since last December, and head of the Albany chapter since its creation in June, and his companions Roy and Ray B. (who would not give their last names) follow behind as Sliwa begins his march up the streets of Arbor Hill. Blay and Ray B. are both middle-aged, and their faces are hidden behind thick, grizzly beards. Roy is younger, short, stocky and built. They march with their chests stuck out. Sliwa leads the way casually, like a man going for a walk in the park. He has done this a million times before in places that were likely a million times worse. Blay and Ray B. don’t seem so confident. They push out their chests farther as they approach a group sipping beers on their porch.

“Oh, man, they’re coming,” a man leaning on a fence says to his friends. “They better not put me on TV for this shit,” responds another. “We don’t got gangs on the Hill. They need to be on the South End,” says a third. The rest of the tipsy group shake their heads in agreement. The Angels march by in a blur of red and black. The group of seven men and women gathered on the porch stare straight out at the Angels with a piercing “Why the fuck are you here?” glare. When the Angels have turned and are farther down the street, a great wave of chatter and laughing begins. “They crazy,” snickers a woman to the man beside her. “They in the wrong place.”

“They are gonna get themselves shot,” responds her companion.

The cameramen pack up and head back to their trucks as Sliwa and his Angels march farther, deeper into the fading twilight.

The Guardian Angels weren’t founded by today’s Curtis Sliwa, the busy radio talk-show host who knows how to draw the news cameras. The Angels were founded in 1979 by an earlier incarnation of Sliwa, who was night manager at a McDonald’s in the Bronx. Sliwa was sick of his customers being too scared to come to the restaurant or too scared to leave. He organized a group of 13 people to patrol the streets of the Bronx and the subways around his McDonald’s restaurant. The group patrolled the area without weapons and with little training. Soon, images of the Angels were gracing the front pages of newspapers and magazine covers around the country. Today the Angels are not just involved in patrols, but also anti-violence education and other training programs.

The Guardian Angels currently have 40 established chapters in the United States, and more than 30 chapters throughout the rest of the world. So this is certainly not the first time Curtis Sliwa has gotten a mixed reaction to the start of a new chapter. In fact, this is not the first time Sliwa has received a mixed reaction to starting a chapter in Albany. During the Angel’s first run in Albany in the mid-’80s, there was a scandal involving a forged death threat, and then things really got personal. Mayor Thomas Whalen made it very clear the Angels were not welcome in Albany.

“The reputation of Albany has always been [that] the mayor is a totalitarian dictator,” says Sliwa. “Mayor Whalen sent building inspectors [to the building where the Angels were training]. They spotted 12 infractions. They probably were infractions, but they [the inspectors] never would have been there under normal circumstances.” Sliwa was asked to leave by the landlord. Undeterred, he began training sessions in Academy Park across from City Hall. After one training session, Sliwa found himself in an unfamiliar situation. “We were doing calisthenics, and they tell us ‘Hey, guys, you can be arrested!’ I say, ‘For what? For doing isometrics and calisthenics?” Sliwa was then arrested. After a hearing, he was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine or face 10 days in lockup. Sliwa spent three days in prison before being released. That was the end of the Angels’ first run in Albany.

The Angels’ second run has started a bit more smoothly; it began, Sliwa claims, due to citizen outcry. In some cities, he says, he gets the “fleabag treatment,” but he says the overall reception he has received in Albany is closer to being a “red-carpet treatment.” Sliwa says that if it wasn’t for community groups asking for direct attention from him he would be spending a lot less time in the area. “I get people coming up to me and saying, ‘I want you at this meeting at this time,’” he says. “I understand their concerns, but I have to tell them I can’t be everywhere.”

Some people, including residents of Arbor Hill, insist that the Angels were brought in by Mayor Jennings as a political ploy during an election year to combat the rash of recent suspected arsons, gun crimes and murder. As far as Blay is concerned, politics don’t matter. “I’ve made it known that my door was open, that I wanted to start more chapters in the tri-city area. So if this is because of an election season, so be it. If I can help just one person during an election year it’s worth it.”

According to Sliwa, it wasn’t a call from Mayor Jennings that brought the Angels back to town, but instead calls from concerned residents. “There was a series of fires and there was a shooting on a Sunday afternoon. That night I got a call from people living on the block in Arbor Hill asking, ‘Can the Guardian Angels come here?’ And it is hard for us to just say, well, you’ve got ’em in Hamilton Hill. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I don’t wanna bring ’em in without meeting with the mayor and the police. ’Cause if I do then the whole community is gonna start insulting the cops, saying, ‘Ah, we need Angels! Cops aren’t good enough!’ Sliwa promised the residents he would start a chapter, but only after consulting the proper authorities. Judging by the response Sliwa and Blay get on the street, it isn’t hard to believe they were drawn to Albany by citizen outcry.

After a press conference, Blay and Sliwa stand in front of unmanned television cameras waiting to do an interview. Cautiously, a women holding a cigarette in her shaking hand approaches Blay and says: “Excuse me, sir. I don’t want to trouble you, but we got a real problem down on Colonie Street. I got dealers in front of my house day and night. I hope you can do something.” Blay responds: “Ma’am were going to try to get everywhere we are needed.” The woman explains she doesn’t want to give her name because her son is in school and she doesn’t want him to be harassed by gangs.

Some of the crimes that Sliwa cites as a reason for coming into the area did not take place in Arbor Hill, and it leaves some wondering why there is such a focus on that neighborhood. “It starts with Arbor Hill,” says Sliwa. “If we can get that under control, then we can take care of the rest of the city.”

Some wonder how the Angels can be effective—let alone survive—in an era where it is common for the youngest criminals to carry guns. According to Sliwa, there have been six Angels killed and three injured to the point of needing physical therapy since the group’s inception. Yet the Angels have had less violence perpetrated on them than one may suspect. “Many people would have assumed there would have been far more injuries, far more casualties and probably a greater change in our philosophy, where either we would get out of what we were doing period, or we would aggressively take on weapons, guns and become judge, jury and executioner, or a gang,” says Sliwa.

One of the more controversial functions of the Angels is to perform citizen’s arrests when necessary. According to Sliwa, citizen’s arrests should not be a concern to residents. “Our system here keeps us in check, particularly in New York state,” Sliwa says. “Lawyers like buzzards and vultures are encouraging people to sue for minor violations of their rights. So imagine if a citizens’ group like the Guardian Angels improperly detained a suspect, used excessive force or violated someone’s rights. Not only would we get arrested, ’cause we have no special powers, but more than likely the individual or the group will get sued and that would make big headlines. That keeps us in deep check. . . . They know who we are and they know where they could come and get us if they wanted to.”

Some of the fear and defensiveness regarding the Angels may stem from the fact that not many people know what the Angels are doing on their streets. According to Sliwa and Blay, the Angels’ main function is to be an extra set of eyes and ears on the street; to scare away criminals by letting them know someone is watching; to be available to the community so that people who might be afraid to report things to the police can go to the Angels with concerns and tips. “The first thing the community should know about us is that we will call the cops,” says Blay. “While some people might be too intimidated to call the authorities, if we see something happening, the police will be notified.”

Barbara Smith, leader of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Watch, cautiously welcomes the Angels. “It would seem they are interested in improving the safety of the citizens of Arbor Hill,” she comments. She hopes that they will understand, however, that they are not the only group in the neighborhood taking steps to improve the quality of life of its citizens.

As for the future of the Angels in the Tri-City area, Sliwa and Blay think they will be around indefinitely. In fact, both would like to see a Troy chapter of the Angels. Still, they have yet to establish a working patrol in Albany, and so far have only two committed members in Schenectady. Sliwa, who claims to have received many e-mails from Troy residents asking for help, pressed ahead trying to establish a chapter in Troy. “The mayor at first was delusional,” said Sliwa. “When he was talking about his city, at first I thought he was talking about Disney World. I said, ‘Wait! I realize Troy is not Hamilton Hill, it is not Arbor Hill or the South End, but you got Hell’s Angels, you got Bloods, you got Crips, you got New York City-influenced problems here. You can’t be in denial like this.’”

On June 28, Sliwa and Mayor Harry Tutunjian met and toured Troy so that Tutunjian could show Sliwa why the Angels are not needed in Troy. According to Blay, during their meeting in front of City Hall, the Angels found themselves breaking up a domestic dispute. Mayor Tutunjian accused the Angels of setting it up—a claim Blay denies.

According to Blay, if citizens of Troy want a chapter of the Angels, there is really nothing stopping them. “We don’t want to cause trouble,” says Blay, “but I keep getting e-mails from concerned Troy residents, and if they want to train to be an Angel, there is nothing stopping them.”

There is not a consensus among Arbor Hill residents about whether the Angels belong in their community. Most say, “There isn’t a problem here. Go to the South End.” Another common reaction of residents when talking about the Angels is that no one will give their name. Ask an Arbor Hill Angels supporter about them, and you will likely get a quiet, “Yeah, it should be good,” or “It’s OK.” Ask for their name and you’re not likely to get it, partly from what seems like a concern for safety and partly so as not to draw attention to themselves. The same applies to those who don’t support the Angels, but their responses are generally louder. “Who do they think they are? They got the wrong place! They gonna get jumped.” When asked for their names they act horrified. “Ain’t no way you’re putting my name in that paper.” Although the initial reaction from residents of Arbor Hill was rough and conflicted, Ray C., a recent Angel recruit, says they hear more and more positive comments from the neighborhood each time they go out.

But no matter the response, no one seems to be willing to stick their necks out; even the simple act of giving their name to support their opinion is too much of a stretch.

Blay hopes to change that. “Sure, there are a lot more guns out there,” he says. “Do I ever want to face one? No! Of course not, but someone needs to stand up. It needs to start somewhere.”

Getting people to volunteer may be Blay’s greatest challenge.

“I like what they’re doing,” says Schenectady’s Mayor Brian Stratton. “I’d like to see our police force doing more of what they do—speaking to people on the streets, getting out and talking to citizens, having a rapport with the community—things you can’t do behind the wheel of a car.” However, Stratton points out that some of the services the Angels would normally provide have been limited by the lack of recruits. “Their recruiting has a selective nature to it. You really have to have the right stuff to be a Guardian Angel.”

Besides Blay, the Angels currently have three solid members in the Capital Region: Ray B., Ray C., and Roy. Ray B. and Roy are Schenectady residents and Ray C. is a recent recruit and a Latham resident who works in Albany. Ray C. likely will become a head figure in the Albany chapter. According to Blay, the Angels are looking for anyone they can get. “Anyone from 20 years to 60 can be an angel. Kids under 18 need parental consent.”

The demand for the Angels has greatly exceeded the capabilities of their four main members. The Angels have not been able to set a consistent patrol schedule yet. In addition to requests for patrols from citizens, local businesses have asked the Angels to provide security for their buildings. Until Blay can assemble a decent membership, the businesses likely will be out of luck. Blay also has personally apologized to Sliwa for the lack of membership and interest from the Schenectady community. “I told Curtis I will be out there doing this myself if I have to,” said Blay. “We have a rule that you should patrol with three people, but I’ve found myself breaking my own rule. I’ve gone on patrol by myself some days.”

On paper, the recruiting in Albany seems to be taking off. Blay claims to have received nearly 40 responses to fliers within weeks of distributing them. However, the problem has been getting potential recruits to show up, to fill out paperwork and begin training. Recruits have a tendency to not to show up when they say they will. Blay would like to have his first batch of recruits trained and on patrol by Labor Day.

On a rainy Wednesday night in Schenectady, the local core members of the Guardian Angels gather in front of the Craig Street Boys and Girls Club. Blay and his crew stand in the parking lot waiting for the arrival of two new recruits. “They said they would be here,” says Roy. Kids ride by, two to a bike, splashing through puddles.

The Angels take their positions in front of the Boys Club, each posted an equal distance from each other in front of the building like red gargoyles. Behind them, the sound of a men’s basketball game rumbles, the squeal of rubber soles on the court colliding with the excited greetings of the kids in wet white T-shirts who dangle from the windows above the Angels. Across the street, teenagers sit on the curb despite the now-torrential rain. The crackle of what may be fireworks mixes with the crash of thunder.

Cars pull up in front of the teenagers sitting on the curb and roll down their windows. Blay produces a notebook and jots down the license plates of the vehicles as they pass.

Then Blay gets on his radio. Within minutes, the lights of a police cruiser break through the gloom of the rainy evening. Blay approaches the vehicle and points in the group’s direction. Blay reassumes his position in front of the building as the cruiser turns toward the group. Quickly they disperse.

“Rain drives the undesirables off the street,” says Blay. “Let’s pack it in.” It has become apparent that the new recruits are not going to show up. The Angels acknowledge Blay’s order, but stand watching as groups of children splash through the stream that has taken over Craig Street. “Where are the parents?” asks Roy, a Schenectady resident who works in a day-care center just down the street.

The Angels look at each other, unsure of whether to head out into the rain. “Can’t get any wetter,” chuckles Blay. “Let’s head out.” With that he and his three companions form up two by two, and instead of heading to their car, they start patrolling. They splash through the flooding streets of Hamilton Hill, through puddles up to their ankles, over sidewalks covered by uprooted metal gates, past houses with collapsed roofs, broken windows and peeling paint, past porches full of residents who shout “Go Angels!” and “It’s about time you guys got here!”

They stop at abandoned houses and peer into dark windows and past broken fences into yards covered in rusty bikes and deformed swing sets. “Part of our function is to monitor abandoned properties,” says Blay. Drivers slow down as they pass to shout words of encouragement.

Blay orders “left,” and the Angels turn down a street that is more water than pavement, with more abandoned houses than lived-in ones. White eyes appear in darkened windows. A little boy waves from a second story porch; Roy waves back: “Hey, little man.”

Across the street, a family sits on a porch, and the girls in the family start shouting “Hup two, three, four.” They raise their hands in mock salute. A little girl dashes onto her porch shouting, “Mommy, who is that?” Her mother follows her, explaining, “That’s the Angels. That’s the guys that are gonna clean up the ghetto.” The Angels turn, smile and wave, while sloshing through a puddle as the rest of her family spills onto the porch. “Welcome to the ’hood! You gonna be here for a while?” she inquires. Roy turns his head and responds, “Yes. Yes, ma’am, we will.”

dking@metroland.net


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