It’s a cloudy spring afternoon in Coney Island, and Guardian Angel Jose “Crazy J” Gonzalez is on a routine street patrol with his partner, Jose “Mumbles” Colon. Both are dressed in the organization’s signature bright red jackets and slightly darker red berets.
As they walk through the entire neighborhood, from the Stillwell Avenue subway stop to the border of the Sea Gate entrance on West 37th Street, Gonzalez periodically calls the dispatcher on his cellphone and says that the situation on that particular street is “calm and cool.”
Gonzalez, 39, has been patrolling Coney Island since 1994. He points out the blocks where the drug dealers work, the buildings where the prostitutes stand, and where he says they take their clients and provide their services under the boardwalk.
In January, a shooting at a deli on Surf Avenue left a teenager wounded, and another in February wounded an 18-year-old woman. Even the neighborhood’s McDonald’s has been a target for shootings and stabbings.
Gonzalez says that incidents like these point to the continued need for the Guardian Angels, to help keep the neighborhoods they patrol safe.
Guardian Angels Work with the Community
“Over time, the one thing that a lot of people always respected about the Guardian Angels is our commitment,” he said. “If we say we’re going to be at a meeting or a neighborhood or going out, we’re out.”
The Guardian Angels formed in 1979 at a McDonald’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Led by Curtis Sliwa, who was then the night manager of the McDonald’s, the angels decided to combat crime by having 13 volunteers patrol the streets, subways and crime ridden neighborhoods, including Fordham.
In the 36 years since, the angels have gone on to speak in schools about how citizens can take back control of their communities, provide after school programs and patrol many neighborhoods in New York City including: Fordham, Coney Island, Washington Heights, Hell’s Kitchen and Christopher Street in the West Village.
Gonzalez originally joined the Guardian Angels not because he wanted to fight for justice, but because they offered martial arts classes. He was on the way to a subway stop in East New York when he saw a Guardian Angel handing out flyers, and was intrigued when he heard the organization was offering free classes.
“I was always a martial arts fan,” he said. “I would run after Sunday school, take off the tie real quick and sit in front of the TV to watch the Bruce Lee flicks. I didn’t have it in my heart to ask mommy for karate classes because the money wasn’t there.”
A few months after Gonzalez joined, he realized that as a Guardian Angel he could also have a positive effect on the community. He was patrolling in a park in Hell’s Kitchen, then a hub for drug dealers, when he felt someone tugging on the back of his shirt.
“I’m thinking it’s a drug dealer coming back for their stash and I’m getting ready to turn around in the fighting stance,” he said. “There was nobody at eye-level. I had to look down and there was this young, 8-year old kid and he’s looking at me with some puppy dog eyes and said, ‘Thank you, Guardian Angels.’”
Still, the Guardian Angels were not readily welcomed by all in the neighborhoods they patrolled.
Dr. Tracie Keesee, project director for the Department of Justice National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, and a retired police officer, says the relationship between law enforcement and vigilante groups like the Guardian Angels was initially contentious, because the police felt they were being monitored.
“This new form of accountability was something that law enforcement back then was surely not used to,” she said. “As we watch those relationships come from one of ‘we’re watching you’ to one of cooperation when crime is going on speaks to the evolution of what happens when citizens and law enforcement partner together.”
Veteran Guardian Angel Dennis “Super Stretch” Torres was part of the Guardian Angels when it was founded in 1979. While the Guardian Angels still patrol Washington Heights, the neighborhood Torres works in, the organization has also taken a different approach to crime prevention, running a community center that offers free karate classes for children, as well as defense classes. The center also offers homework assistance and tutoring, and takes children on occasional field trips.
“We like to go on a lot of trips so the kids see that there’s a whole world out there,” he said. “Washington Heights is full of gangs, drugs and it’s getting worse and worse.”
Torres and Gonzalez said the Guardian Angel program has helped steer young people away from gangs, and even into the NYPD.
“The young teens that we’ve gotten involved in the organization could’ve went either way. We helped them make the decision to become the protectors instead of the predators,” Gonzalez said.
Despite recent protests against the NYPD in the wake of the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, and most recently Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Torres says he and most other Guardian Angels have respect for police officers.
“The cops are not bad. They’re human beings,” he said. “They leave their homes and they don’t know when they’re coming back. Because of one guy you can’t blame the entire force.”
Keesee says there is a continued need for The Guardian Angels and other citizen watchdog groups in communities where there is a distrust of the police.
“We still have trust issues,” she said. “So if the community is not trusting the police, then they will find alternative forms to make sure that they find safety.”