Angels on the B Train
By Shane Miller
The Bronx Journal Reporter
In early 1979, Curtis Sliwa, a McDonald’s cashier, was riding the Four train in the Bronx when he saw youths harassing and abusing people. Sliwa was upset that there was no one there to protect the victims and so he decided to take action.
On February 13th, Sliwa gathered 12 of his friends from McDonald’s and started to patrol Bronx trains at night. The group of men called themselves the “Magnificent 13.”
Sliwa and his friends soon realized their community was not the only place in New York that needed additional security. The Magnificent 13 branched out into Manhattan and other areas of the city. They got off the trains and started patrolling streets as well. One of their priorities was to reach young people, especially the ones in gangs.
Gradually the group began to grow and Sliwa changed the name from the Magnificent 13 to the Guardian Angels. As they started to become more popular in neighborhoods, more people started volunteering to be a part of the group.
New members are required to go through a background check to join. Once a person passes the check, he goes through a strict training program and a probation period of a year. The training includes martial arts classes, which is essential because Guardian Angels are not allowed to carry weapons while they patrol.
When Benjamin Garcia was 15 years old, he witnessed a young lady being attacked and said he was saddened because, “People on the train were watching like it was a movie.” The commuters made no effort to help. But soon enough, Garcia saw two Guardian Angels come and rescue the woman from her attackers. Garcia, now 49, was so inspired by this that in 1986 he decided to join the Guardian Angels.
Twenty-six years later, crime continues to be an unfortunate reality of life in New York City and Garcia is still an active member of the Guardian Angels. “I volunteer all year round with the Guardian Angels,” says Garcia. “Everything is on your time, after school, after work, whenever is good for you.”
The Angels also continue their train patrols in the four boroughs, wearing their signature red berets and white t-shirts. Entering the subway in October, a team of three Angels splits up, each spreading into different train cars. They radio each other the all-okay via walkie talkies and stand at attention near the exits. On one ride, an Hispanic woman leans over to thank Garcia, saying it is amazing to see the Guardian Angels still at work after all these years. At the end of the line, Bedford Park, an elderly man has fallen asleep. Garcia wakes him up, “Excuse me sir, this is the last stop and you have to get off.”
Everybody with the Guardian Angels works for free. Garcia says he likes it that way because he feels it makes it more genuine. If we charged for the service, he says, people might think we are just doing it for a check.
Most recently the Guardian Angels patrolled Washington Heights and Coney Island during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They gave out food, set up charging stations for people and patrolled areas where there were reports of looting. Their work is not done and Garcia plans on going to Far Rockaway in Queens to help with the devastation. “We enjoy helping people, this is what the Guardian Angels are all about,” says Garcia.
On Garcia’s first patrol as a Guardian Angel, a thief snatched a purse from a woman. He and his fellow Angels caught the assailant and waited for officers to arrive. “When something like this happens, we wait for officers to get there and we exchange contact info in case the Guardian Angels need to testify in court,” says Garcia.
The relationship between the NYPD and the Angels was rocky in the past, said Garcia, because officers weren’t sure initially if the group was out to protect people, or to menace the community. “With time our relationship did get better when they (the NYPD) saw that we were trying to help our community,” said Garcia.
Guardian Angels monitor the police radio and if an officer is in need of assistance, they might offer help if backup takes a while to arrive.
The Guardian Angels organization has grown tremendously over the years and are now located in all five boroughs of New York City, every state in the United States, and in several different countries around the world. The Guardian Angels not only patrol trains and neighborhoods, they also have programs for children six and up. “We help them with martial arts, homework, different kind of trips and show them there’s a different life from the ghetto where they live,” says Garcia. The Guardian Angels host an annual gift-giving event in Washington Heights a few days before Christmas.
As a non-profit organization, the Angels depend on donations from the community to stay afloat. They do have some wealthy patrons that support the cause and a few celebrities have donated.
The work can be dangerous at times. Garcia remembers being on a train in Brooklyn and seeing a man attacking a woman who was with her young daughter. When the assailant threatened to kill Garcia, he handcuffed him and waited for the police to arrive. Garcia says his most memorable moment as an Angel was when the little girl looked up at him and said, “Thanks for helping my mommy.”