CROWN HEIGHTS — Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, a volunteer organization known for patrolling New York City’s subways in the 1980s, never left the streets, but he and his group are back in a more prominent role, because of the spree of anti-Semitic crimes that have hit the area during the last month.
The Guardian Angels are now focused on patrolling Crown Heights and Borough Park, two heavily Jewish neighborhoods.
For Sliwa, whose Catholic upbringing has shaped his moral compass, his sense of duty to protect the Jewish people comes naturally.
“These neighborhoods were always close to my heart, growing up in Brooklyn and Roman Catholic,” Sliwa said, shouting out his former schools, St. Matthew Catholic Academy and Brooklyn Prep. “It’s like every decade there’s a wave of anti-Semitism, expressed with physical violence; horrific acts of crime… We have a moral obligation to make up for historical anti-Semitism.”
Local Jewish leaders recognize and welcome their presence, expressing their concerns after decades, and keeping a close relationship with Sliwa.
“The ultimate guardian is the Almighty, and sometimes He sends a messenger to help. In this case, it’s the Guardian Angels,” said local Rabbi Nochum Gross, who is the former chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “We went through some very difficult times in this neighborhood…but they’ve had our back, and we’re forever grateful.”
Born in Canarsie to Polish-Italian Catholic parents who attended Our Lady of Miracles Parish, Sliwa credits his work ethic to his Catholic upbringing.
When it comes to being an “angel” himself, Sliwa says his “wings had been clipped” over and over. He calls himself a lapsed, “AMP Catholic—ashes on Wednesday, palms on Sunday, and then you don’t see for a month.”
His favorite saint is St. Anthony, “because his attitude is nothing more,” and after his middle name, Anthony. One of his fondest memories in Catholic school was dressing up as St. Anthony for Halloween.
He’s also a fan of Pope Francis, whom he calls a “liberation theologist.”
Sliwa attended the now-defunct Brooklyn Preparatory H.S., Crown Heights, but didn’t graduate. He was expelled during his senior year in 1972. He remembers the day he was expelled vividly.
“I was elected student government president the year the students all voted not to wear jackets and ties. The headmaster gave me a warning against it, which I defied, and openly organized to not have students wear their uniform … I said I’ll operate in a guerilla-style,” Sliwa told The Tablet. “It’s like revolution was in the air. One day I walk in to see a sign on the bulletin board, which said that I was no longer a student at Brooklyn Prep.
“The prefect of discipline marched me to my locker; told me to get my things, catch the bus, don’t look back,” he recalled. “I thought my [classmates] would march out in solidarity. None of the young men would even look at me. I learned then that there were consequences for my actions.”
Consider it a lesson truly learned. Sliwa went on to found the Guardian Angels and to work as a radio talk show host. He founded in the Guardian Angels in the Bronx in 1979. It now operates worldwide.
The organization is funded largely on donations, and works in conjunction with the police.
Men and women in the Guardian Angels are recognizable in their bright red berets and military-like bomber jackets; the insignia — an eye inside a pyramid, shielded by a pair of angel wings — easily visible. The unarmed angels patrol the streets and subways, often in groups, keeping a watchful eye over the city.
Volunteers of all ages go through weeks-long rigorous training, in which they learn martial arts techniques in order to defend themselves, enforce discipline and make legal citizens’ arrests, all without the use of weapons.
Sliwa started the group, first called the Magnificent 13, in the late 1970s while he was a night manager at a McDonald’s in a crime-rampant South Bronx neighborhood. He said he just wanted to clean up the streets.
“Back then, New York was a city that was falling into the abyss,” Sliwa said. “I thought back to the way I was brought up. It was the Good Samaritan ethic my parents taught me — always help people, whether you know them or not, you have a moral obligation. So I organized young Black, Hispanic, white, Asian youth that lived in the neighborhoods to begin patrolling the subways and the streets. I thought I was doing a really good thing.”
But the city was initially unhappy with the Guardian Angels; Sliwa said they were viewed as “interlopers, vigilantes, and gang members.” He was often harassed and was arrested 77 times during the first 13 years of the group’s nightly patrols.
He even survived several close calls from his enemies, including an attempted murder in a taxi in 1992.
“I remember saying to God, I’m too young to go. I got so much more to do.”
One of the organization’s longtime members is a crime-fighting married couple, the Olivers. Milton and Silvia Oliver met in high school, and joined the Guardian Angels in the early 1980s because they wanted “to help fight the fight.” Silvia’s late brother, Edgar, was a Guardian Angel.
“We help recruit, we train, we do what we have to do to keep the streets safe. We’re like a family; we take care of each other,” said Milton, who helps train recruits in martial arts. “It’s great to know that your partner is there by your side.”
The Guardian Angels have since grown through the last four decades, even receiving support and recognition from city leaders. It has since expanded its initiatives to include a CyberAngels program to combat internet lurkers, and the Perv Busters to fight the rise of sex crimes in the subways. And now it is battling anti-Semitism.