Stand Up Acts
The first time I saw them, I was on BART: red bereted middle-agers in t-shirts that said "Guardian Angels" with a Freemason-like logo. I immediately grabbed a pen and paper and began scribbling notes: their utility belts carry badges of plastic that say "security enforcement" on them. They don't carry guns. Who are they? Vigilantes taking security into their own hands?
Since my BART encounter, I'd learned a bit about them: they were a non-violent safety patrol group started in New York in 1979. In the early days, they sometimes clashed with local enforcement. These facts didn't quite add up for me, and I still wondered why they did what they did, and what exactly that "did" was.
To understand them, I decide to become one. At least for a night.
I'm hopping on BART to meet JD, San Francisco chapter leader, for an 8-hour shift patrolling the Mission. Incidentally, that's also the neighborhood I call home. At 16th and Mission, sunlight is irrelevant. Deeds best done in dark, seedy corners at nightfall are performed in the airy plaza by the escalators. I see a woman and man slumped in a corner and make out the glint of a lighter and no more. Could be for a cigarette, but probably not.
Once downtown, I climb the stairs of a Filipino mall where the Guardian Angels' office resides. I'm not sure whether to knock on the glass door, covered in paper so it won't be transparent, but opt to simply enter. Several men in various states of dress turn to look at the diminutive lady who seems lost, and I am thankful JD notices me and introduces himself.
A squat man with a handlebar mustache and bulbous nose, JD has a Danny DeVito look about him and an excitable personality. He shows me the many photographs that plaster the walls, which record heroic patrol acts, from helping an injured biker to breaking up a fight. I take stock of the office: stereo playing the Beach Boys, clean carpet, fridge holding a few energy drinks, and a couch. I scan the 12 house rules:
(1) You must be a member to enter. (Oops).
(12) No Mama Drama!
Slowly, more members appear, including one woman, until there are nine in all. They are mostly in their 40s, and their names are Thunder, Cobra, Scorpion, Zorro, Hunter, Williams, Electra, Preacher, and JD. I'm surprised by several security measures the Guardian Angels take, not least of which is codenames to protect their identity. The given names can be fairly obvious: Preacher, who is studying theology, says a prayer before and after each patrol.
Everyone is in gear: red beret, black necktie, white t-shirt with logo, black pants and combat boots, utility belts holding handcuffs, a flashlight, and pamphlets. Security precaution #2: a bulletproof vest. In my yellow hat and bright blue jacket, I am an obvious outsider, and though my layers outnumber those of the uniformed, I feel exposed. JD assures me that in his eight years, he's never been shot at. One beat later: "not yet."
After a pre-brief where we pair up, we post up outside of the building. Posting up is a disciplined art: you stand in a line, erect, arms at your side, against a hard surface. I'm corrected many times for posting in front of a window or gate, a far more vulnerable position. As we patrol, we post up at least once per block. I suddenly feel like I'm in an alternate army universe.
Before we head on the bus to the Mission, JD whips out his phone. He's got contacts at the SFPD in each neighborhood they patrol, notably the Mission, Tenderloin, and Haight. To maintain an amicable relationship, they must warn the cops where they're headed, so as not to interfere with any undercover work. Since I still don't know what patrolling entails, I briefly contemplate a screwball comedy wherein the well-meaning Red Berets unwittingly try to arrest a cop.
The 14 bus is sticky and relatively empty, but the Angels aren't supposed to sit down. I look over at Thunder, standing close to an entire row of empty seats that surely tempts him. JD and I chat about his introduction to the Guardian Angels, which coincided with him getting clean and off the streets. Over the course of the night, I learn that most of the Guardian Angels have overcome drug or alcohol addiction and feel comfortable speaking openly about their past.
Back at 16th and Mission, we post up right in front of the escalators and people start to scurry immediately. Moments apart, we hear someone scream, "punk punk Angels" in warning, and, from a middle-aged man close by: "It's nice to see you guys here." I am eager to keep moving and not simply stand, since the air is cold and piercing any exposed skin it can find. After only a minute, there is only one potential drug deal occurring, and JD stands about 10 feet away to pressure the interaction to cease, which only partially works. While he sees an exchange of money, he doesn't catch any drugs, so there's nothing to be done.
We move onto "Hunters Alley," where Hunter found his first crack pipe, to begin our search for drug users, paraphernalia, or any other illegal activity that occurs down the narrow, poorly-lit Mission alleys. After a while, anything can look like a needle in the shadows - a leaf, a candy wrapper. In this alley, we find three needles, a heroin cooking spoon, and a crack pipe.
A debate: how to most satisfyingly smash a crack pipe when confiscated from a user. Hunter: take the device from its user and chuck it hard so you can hear it shatter. JD: put it gently on the floor and then crush it with your boot right in front of their face. Since Williams spotted the pipe, he is given the honor of breaking it, and utilizes JD's method.
The rest of the patrol mirrors the beginning: we post up, intimidating and eventually dissipating any indecent behavior, to the sounds of abusive name-calling or appreciative words. I spend more time than ever on the grittier streets of my neighborhood, actually watching what I avoid. This is the essence of patrolling: walking and stopping in formation to make our presence known and to safeguard against illegal activity.
They are looking for any way to be good Samaritans and keep the streets safe: checking on homeless people to make sure they are alive, breaking up fights, cleaning the streets of drugs and alcohol. They have helped save a man from a near-fatal heroin overdose, scoured the 49 bus after a young boy was attacked on it, and sought out the gang, the Fillmore Kids (unfortunately to no avail) after an incident occurred in Golden Gate Park.
Throughout the night, I'm gushingly told stories from last week's Haight Street patrol. Actually, it's mostly just one story: they saved the finger of a homeless woman whose digit was so badly infected that they could see through to the bone. They were prepping me for the thrills I'd encounter that night, of fights, blatant drug use, first aid heroism.
To them, these thrills never seemed to come, and they'd label the night as a good time for reflection, but ultimately, boring. By night's end, we'd helped a store owner inside with his heavy fruit stand, waited to make sure an old lady could get up a challenging flight of stairs, iced the incredibly swollen hand of a drunk and homeless man, and picked up countless needles and littered bottles.
As we head back to headquarters for debrief, a homeless woman, irked at our intruding, throws her empty airport-sized bottle of whisky at us. It doesn't actually hit anyone, but it really hits us all, and leads me to consider my original question: why do they do what they do.
I hear explanations echoed: having a base of friends, even family, and a home. For those once been caught up in some of these very same deeds, patrolling challenges them not to react violently. Instead, they marvel at the simplicity of "words are words," and acknowledge how their training has enabled them to not react.
Over our eight-hour journey, I have come to appreciate their openness and strength, but I still can't help but wonder what they really accomplish. After all, I had no doubt a few hours after we left, 16th and Mission wouldn't look much different. But Cobra explains that he knows the drug dealers rush off once they see the red berets, only to return later. "But for the little time we're here, we make it safe for someone to walk, like a woman with her baby."
My first-encounter confusion and skepticism of the Guardian Angels was now a distant memory. Without illusion of their value, the Guardian Angels simply hoped to make others feel safer while building their own community for themselves.
Do It Yourself
The Guardian Angels' headquarters are located at 953 Mission Street, Suite 201. To start volunteering, call (415) 541-9530 or email email@example.com . On any given weekend, you might catch them patrolling the Mission, Tenderloin, or Haight. http://sfguardianangels.blogspot.com/