On 39th Anniversary, Guardian Angels Say Community Involvement Will Help Protect Cities From Mass Attacks

Today, there are more than 100 chapters all over the world, from San Francisco to Boston, Israel to Japan, but the civilian crime-fighting group known as the Guardian Angels began life as the brainchild of a McDonald’s restaurant manager fed up with the mayhem in 1970s New York City.

Curtis Sliwa was working at the fast food chain in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx—an area, he said, was blighted by crime—when he and a dozen other volunteers decided to become New York City’s subway sentinels in 1979.

“When I first started the Guardian Angels back in the late ’70s in the Bronx, you could describe [the area where I worked] as an armpit of a cesspool of crime,” he told Newsweek. “Anarchy, chaos, mayhem consumed the city. The poorer neighborhoods, lawlessness prevailed, and the cops didn’t care jack-diddly-squat.”

The Guardian Angels formed in an era depicted in movies like Taxi Driver and Serpico. The city recorded 1,733 murders in 1979, up 15 percent from 1,504 the year before. For perspective, that was more homicides in New York City than the past four years combined.

At the time, the Guardian Angels took the superhero-like moniker "the Magnificent 13,” but much like nascent comic book protagonists, they did not enjoy the support of elected officials or the police. Then-Mayor Ed Koch initially rejected them as “paramilitaries” and publicity seekers. Police were also suspicious.

“We don't need 'em, and we don't want 'em," said Captain Gerald McClaughin, commander of the Central Park Precinct, the New York Daily News reported. "Historically, these groups have always turned bad. I think they'll probably assault somebody."

GettyImages-1608678 A Guardian Angel keeps watch on a New York subway on August 12, 2001. The group is celebrating its 39th year, and there are more than 100 chapters across the world. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sliwa embraced the challenge. "Between the cops trying to run us off the trains and the streets, the gangs trying to eliminate us and a lot of the initial coverage being very negative, it was almost like crawling into the belly of the beast," he said.

The group was undeterred, eventually winning over the city.

“We focused on the ‘mugger’s express’: the No. 4 train,” Sliwa said. “And as a result of that, crime went down on the No. 4 train, where it was going up on the other trains. So people began to say, ‘Wow, you can make a difference.’”

Homicide numbers in New York City remained high through the 1980s, peaking in 1990, when 2,245 people were slain. But a downward trend began over the next 20 years. Although overall crime in the city is at record lows today, community engagement remains one of the Guardian Angels' central tenets to combat new dangers like mass attacks, Sliwa said.

“We live in a time in which, at any moment, a terrorist action could take place either by a lone wolf or by someone who has been highly organized in a cell,” Sliwa said.

On December 11, 2017, Akayed Ullah, 27, an immigrant from Bangladesh, allegedly detonated a homemade pipe bomb in a crowded walkway between the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Times Square subway station. No one was seriously injured, but the incident came weeks after the deadliest attack in the city since 9/11, when Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old Uzkbek immigrant, slammed a rented truck into pedestrians on a Manhattan bike path, killing eight people before police shot him in the abdomen a few blocks from the World Trade Center. 

Sliwa says the Guardian Angels work to combat what he calls an "apathetic" community to stop these types of attacks before they occur. 

“A lot of citizens say, ‘I pay taxes, that’s what police are to do. Why should I take any form of risk?’" Sliwa said. "We try to break that kind of ignorance that actually caters to continued criminality.”

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