‘I Remember You Guys!’: A Day on Patrol in Crown Heights With the Guardian Angels, Amid Antisemitism Surge
Blood was on everyone’s mind on Sunday in Crown Heights as I met up with Curtis Sliwa and two dozen members of New York’s legendary Guardian Angels wearing their trademark red jackets and berets.
We were outside 770, the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, where Kingston Avenue intersects Eastern Parkway, one of the great arteries through Brooklyn.
On Saturday night, Grafton E. Thomas reportedly rushed into a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, with a machete and started slashing people during a Hanukkah celebration, wounding five. Thomas was later apprehended in Harlem and his bail was set at $5 million, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo describing the incident as an act of “domestic terror.”
Sliwa, a hard-talking AM radio host who tries to project a larger-than-life figure and succeeds, founded the Guardian Angels in the very different New York of 1979. His organization is, depending on whom you ask, a crime-fighting and -deterring neighborhood watch group or a bunch of vigilantes.
When I joined their patrol across from the Jewish Children’s Museum, Sliwa and the Guardian Angels were being greeted with a bit of curiosity and a lot of nostalgic warmth. As I approached, a mother on her way into the museum with her kids greeted the Guardian Angels and turned to her kids beaming, explaining that “these are good guys.”
“We need you guys in Europe!” she said.
Several groups of young people came up sheepishly to ask for selfies, and the Angels happily obliged.
Along with the Guardian Angels, there was an NYPD mobile command center, and two Jewish neighborhood patrols’ own command center vehicles. If it is a good thing that all this protection is available, it is certainly no good thing that this is what feels necessary for Jews in Brooklyn to live their lives in peace.
The Guardian Angels can look like a sort of throwback to a different time, but in this community they are a reassuring presence during a period of fear. I watch dozens of people spontaneously approach the Angels, some greeting Sliwa on a first-name basis, some just recognizing the uniform, to thank them for being there. The Jews of Crown Heights are scared, and they feel they need protection right now. And they feel they can rely on the Guardian Angels to provide it.
I counted at least a half dozen offers of donuts, coffee, burgers and other snacks from grateful Jews anxious to give back to the Angels for being there (they are politely declined, though two boxes of donuts did make it through). Most but not all of the recognition and affirmation seemed to be coming from older Jewish residents of the neighborhood, who Sliwa says remember the Guardian Angels’ presence during the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when the cops largely let rampant violence against Jews go unanswered.
Sliwa told me that he has developed strong relationships with the various Jewish communities in the area, near where he grew up, since then. He said he started getting calls asking for a Guardian Angels presence to return as soon as the Monsey stabbing was reported.
We set off on patrol down Kingston with Sliwa in the lead, greeted often by friendly honks and people who want pictures or to share stories from the Guardian Angels’ time set up down the block for several months in 1991.
One now-former Crown Heights resident stopped the phalanx to tell the Angels that they were what made the neighborhood feel safe enough to live in. “We moved here because you guys protected us, not because the police were there,” he said.
Some of the honking came from Chabad cars with menorahs on top and a Jewish ambulance, and a number of black residents of the neighborhood greeted Sliwa too.
I hung back with Casey, one of the shorter Guardian Angels and by the look of it among the youngest, though not someone I would like to mess with.
“What do you do?” asked one young man in a heavily Yiddish-inflected accent.
“We’re a safety patrol,” replied Casey, a Bronx native who tells me she got involved after seeing her mom assaulted and robbed as a kid, once thrown down a flight of stairs and stripped of her paycheck and house keys. Casey’s family was locked out of her home that night.
Casey told me that, in the age of social media, “people think pulling out a camera is getting involved. We’re more hands on.” The Angels do not want to fight, but they are ready to.
The Guardian Angels’ MO is, as they described it to me, mostly about “visual deterrence” — just being there to show that they will stop any crime if it occurs. Several of them are certified to teach the rest basic martial arts, and some carry handcuffs. If they do intervene in a crime, they are trained to make a citizen’s arrest by detaining the perpetrator and calling the cops.
On our way up and down the street, everyone’s eyes were up. But the closest thing to a noteworthy incident that I saw was a three-second period when a mother unloading her car lost sight of her daughter, and the Guardian Angels passing by helpfully pointed out she was around a corner.
There was also considerable excitement when we took some pictures with a golden retriever belonging to the head of a Jewish neighborhood watch group which has worked alongside the Guardian Angels before.
Back on Eastern Parkway, the Angels divided into groups to watch over several corners and hand out cards with their number as people begin to congregate for services in 770. Squads periodically headed back out to walk patrols. People kept coming up and thanking the Angels and telling them they remember what they did during the 1991 riots.
I asked Sliwa about the differences between Brooklyn today and when he founded the group. Back then, he said, “the Jews understood they had to fight back.”
“They couldn’t depend on anyone,” he recalled. “They started organizing their own patrols. Then it got lax, lethargic. Depend on government, depend on the police, depend on the gentiles. Mistake. You have to employ self-defense. You have to fight back. It’s the only way. Or other communities will come in and take advantage of them. And then they’re victims. You benefit not by being a victim. You have to be strong. You have to fight back.”
One man cut in to talk to Sliwa about how he saw the tensions that have set community members on edge — he felt that the subset of antisemitic violence coming from their black neighbors got brushed under the rug by media outlets and politicians.
“You gotta get to the core of the problem,” he said. “There’s really big antisemitism problems. It’s really escalating. You know what gets me really upset? And I’m like a, you can see, ponytail.”
He gestures at a ponytail poking out of the back of his baseball cap, as if to show his credentials as a member of liberal and secular society in good standing.
“If that was a white Jewish person doing the crime, all the media would say ‘white Jewish, white Jewish!’ They’re just saying ‘individual.’ They’re afraid to say black, African American. It’s an outrage,” he declared.
Another man, sporting a black beard, came up to share the pessimistic take on the situation: “You know, you were here for the riots, the Crown Heights Riots. I was a small boy. People say a lot has changed. I don’t know. You guys are back. A lot has changed?”
Maybe a lot has, or maybe it has not. Whether antisemitism has returned or never left, the Guardian Angels are back on patrol in Crown Heights, and the Jewish community here is happy to have them. They are a legend, dating back to a time when all of New York was defined by crime and violence.
The threat of violent Jew-hatred, this community seems to feel, is not merely at the doorstep, as the mayor gormlessly claimed earlier this month on the occasion of an antisemitic mass shooting in New Jersey. It long ago crossed the threshold, and it is not some aberration that can be understood to exist elsewhere. It is part of their understanding of daily life here, now. You can feel it.
And now dozens of them have called some old friends in red berets, who split off as the temperature dropped to patrol Williamsburg and Borough Park as well.
Luckily, when I checked in the following morning, the Angels said they had run into no violent incidents.
“But,” Sliwa told me, “New Year’s Eve and New Year’s will be a real challenge.”
With revelers out on the street and drunk, plenty “might be looking to mess with people they see as Jews,” he noted.
Unfortunately, the crime statistics just from December show he was likely right. Brooklyn’s Jews have friends, though, in the Guardian Angels. They say they will be here around the clock, for anyone who calls.