Pictures of the controversial vigilantes who protected the streets in 1980s New York – New York city blog
In 1979, crime rates in New York were spiking. And if the streets weren’t bad enough, the subway system had become a symbol of decay hollowing the bowels of a bankrupt city. People were angry, frustrated with an impotent police force, the drugs, the indiscriminate muggings. That year, a few of them decided to take matters into their own hands. Led by the 23-year-old night manager of a Bronx McDonald’s named Curtis Sliwa, the Guardian Angels began patrolling the city as unarmed crime stoppers. They wore a uniform—red beret, red jacket, combat boots—and they employed a streetwise sensibility to diffusing tensions, especially on the subway.
At first law enforcement was understandably uncomfortable with the idea of self-styled vigilantes roaming the city. Mayor Koch called them “paramilitaries,” and a 1981 tussle with undercover officers aboard the A train landed eleven of the Angels in jail, but the papers ate it up. And the public loved them.
A 2001 New York Daily News article waxes nostalgic:
“New Yorkers cheered when a volunteer army of tough young men in red berets began riding the trains with them, patrolling the city’s underground every night of the week, beating up muggers and holding them for cops. They were everywhere you looked, far more visible than the undermanned transit police force and, in the public’s mind after a certain point, far more reliably effective. You knew you weren’t going to get hurt on your way home in the dark when a couple of these guys were aboard your car. God bless the Guardian Angels, all New York City agreed.”
Even then-Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo got onboard, calling the Angels “the best society has to offer,” which in 1981 meant a lot in reference to a group of mostly young black and Latino men from the inner city.
Koch eventually came around, realizing that public support was more important than complaints from his transit cops. The Angels were given official police training and provided with free subway passes. At their height they numbered between five and seven hundred strong.
Years later, the Brooklyn-born Sliwa would admit to fabricating a number of his group’s crime-fighting exploits, but by then he was a local celebrity and host of his own radio show on WABC-AM, and he’d always had a flair for the performative, so it wasn’t much of a surprise, either, when in 1992 he testified to having been targeted for assassination by the Gambino crime family.
Bluster aside, Sliwa’s organization was a lifeline to marginalized New Yorkers who nonetheless felt compelled to make a difference. In the years since, the Angels have expanded to over 130 chapters in cities across the country, and as far away as Japan and Israel. In 2016 they resumed subway patrols in response to a string of random slashings in New York.