The guardian angels
Peer group action in big cities
The initiators of the project
were young men and women in England who contacted
the Guardian Angels organisation in New York City,
where the movement was founded in 1979. People involved
as founder members were in England: Dave Edmonds,
Tom Hibberd and Colin Hatcher; and from New York:
Collins Pompey, Sebastian Metz, Robert Powell and
Guardian Angels Founder Curtis Sliwa. I (Colin Hatcher)
was one of the people from London who contacted the
NYC group, and I was also one of the first members
to join in January 1989 when the project was set up
Throughout 1988 the streets
of London like many large towns and cities were becoming
more and more violent. Young people (men and women)
were getting involved in street fighting. The major
problem was racial hatred and intolerance. So there
were racially segregated street gangs of Black youth,
White youth and Asian Youth. Particularly dangerous
were the large street gangs of white football hooligans
and racists who were involved in some terrible acts
of violence during that year. They cruised the underground
on Saturday nights, looking for trouble, they usually
Another development during 1988 was
the emergence of "Steamer" gangs, where
a group of 10 or more youngsters, armed with knives,
boarded underground trains and, between stops, would
rob ("mug") all the passengers. Because
the robberies needed to be carried out very quickly
any resistance from victims was met with extreme violence.
The targets for these gangs were often young men and
women of the same age group. These were teenage gangs
robbing and attacking teenage victims.
Violence against women was not a
new thing in 1988 but was certainly increasing, especially
on public transport systems, most notably on the Tube,
where the lack of security made it a paradise for
rapists, flashers and gropers. Increasingly women,
especially teenage women were becoming reluctant to
travel alone at night.
Growing unemployment, lack of opportunity
and boredom drew many kids into violent lifestyles
and criminal behaviour during this time. For many
kids, crime was the only way to make money. The role
models for a growing number of youth (symbolised by
money, success, status) were the drug dealers and
gangsters on the street corner. And many youngsters
aspired to that lifestyle. A whole climate of intolerance,
hatred and violence was growing. And also indifference.
Passengers on trains sat and watched while gangs beat
up victims, and no-one did anything.
But many young people were distressed
by what was happening on the streets of London. They
were unhappy with the situation, with the way kids
were divided and with the way that fear and hatred
and violence were making Saturday nights more and
London is like every other big city.
On Saturday nights many go out on the town and have
a good time. Then everyone tries to get home, not
everyone makes it home. Some end up in jail and some
end up in hospital. And the most dangerous age to
be (the most at risk) are young men and women between
the ages of 16 and 25. Myself and my friends had all
suffered this violence - street fighting, racial violence,
muggings or sexual attacks.
So we were looking for some way to
do something. You know how it is. Most people watch
TV or read the newspapers, and say "Oh how terrible
the world is!" but they don't DO anything. We
wanted to DO something to make our city safe and to
unite the youth, especially against racial hatred
and violence. Since the youth are the future.
So having known about the Guardian
Angels for a long time and admiring the way they had
brought the youth together in New York City we contacted
them and asked if they would come to England and teach
us how to be Guardian Angels too.
They said yes, the instructors came
to England from New York and set up a training programme.
The project started in January
1989 based in Kings Cross, London - an area notorious
for violence, drugs, prostitution and a place where
young kids who ran away from home often ended up.
The other place where we trained was Leytonestone
in East London, very near to West Ham United football
ground, an area with a large minority Asian population
and a lot of racial violence.
The target group of the project was
the youth of the city - all of them! We aimed to bring
together young men and women of all races, all religions,
all cultures and subcultures (i.e. skinheads and
B-boys or Hip Hoppers), all abilities and all political
opinions (racists of other people with hatred and
intolerance were not welcomed) many people came down
and changed their views through contact with our group.
We reached the youth of the city
in a very direct way. The Guardian Angels basically
walk the streets and travel the trains and we help
people get home safely. When we run our "safety
patrols" as we call them, we wear an identifying
uniform, which consists of a red beret and a white
T-shirt with the symbol of our organisation printed
on it in red (we call it our "colours").
Apart from the red beret and the T-shirt, everybody
can dress however they want, and express themselves
through the way they look. This meant that wherever
we walked in London, young men and women saw us and
wanted to talk with us. When we walk the streets we
make it our business to talk to everyone we meet.
And we also carry information leaflets about our group,
which invite everyone to join us and participate.
In addition to talking with youth
on the streets, in the most dangerous and violent
areas, we also received media coverage from TV, radio
and newspapers. Since our initiative was the first
time anyone had tried this in England. Some people
said "This won't work in England - it's an
American thing" but the New York City Angels
reassured us - "This is a universal idea addressing
a universal problem" they pointed out to
us. After all, they observed: when crack cocaine and
its associated American style gang violence came to
England, no-one said "This won't work here
because this is England."
Main content of the project
The purpose of the Guardian
Angels in every city where we work is twofold. Firstly
it is our aim to prevent violent street crime by being
a visual and if necessary physical deterrent. This
means that when we are out on the streets, if we see
violence, we will go in between the people fighting
and we will try to stop the violence. We put our own
bodies between the criminals and the victims. The
group is anti-violence and carries no weapons. But
we will get physical if we have to. The streets are
tough and so are we. But we follow the laws of self-defence
in whatever country we work.
We are activists, protecting the
United Nations Declaration on Human Rights 1977, especially
article 3 which states that: "All people have
the right to life, liberty and security of person".
Our second, and equally important
aim is to provide real life walking talking role models
for young people. By showing them members of their
own peer group who come from the same backgrounds
and have the same problems, but who are solving them
in a constructive and non violent way. The aim is
to attract young people away from violence into positive
activities. And we make this activity exciting!
'In this world a few good guys
stay good and a few bad guys stay bad'. But the
vast majority are caught in the middle, and make choices,
especially during teenage years. Many young people
could go either way depending on what is available.
The Guardian Angels was established for these kind
of people - it was set up BY these kind of people.
Many of our members are ex gang members and trouble-makers,
who have found a positive expression for their energy.
Curtis Sliwa the founder of the group
in New York City found a way to create a group with
all the attractions of a gang - "colours",
a look, a language, an attitude - but without the
New members of the group train for
three months before graduation. During this time they
are given the opportunity to learn some really effective
urban survival skills everything is free.
In addition new members walk out
on the streets straight away and start learning how
to communicate, to protect and to help other people.
The sense of empowerment is great. We believe that
young people join gangs for love and respect, friendship
and status, and especially in order to feel powerful.
We have been successful in the Guardian Angels in
providing that powerful feeling to young men and women
who have previously only experienced it in criminal
Guardian Angels hang out on the streets
and squares, and we look cool - and we are seen by
youth as positive role models. Young men and women
want to be like us. And we look just like them, so
people see us and think "I could be like that!",
because it's not just males, or just Black guys, or
just big strong guys. Young people are attracted by
the way we look, by our sense of purpose, and because
they can see that we are having a good time. The sense
of danger and risk which accompanies the group is
also attractive to youth. We are like real life comic
book superheroes and superheroines. The martial arts
features strongly in our training programme and in
Description of a training session:
I will here briefly describe
a typical training session, and a typical safety patrol
on a Saturday night:
A group of 20 or so young
people have met in an upstairs room of a youth centre
in Kings Cross, London. The group is multiracial The
chief instructor today is, surprisingly, a young Indian
women, who goes by the street name "Judge".
The other instructors are a stocky Black guy who calls
himself "Mr X" and a white guy called "Gabriel".
The training group consists of a mixture of experienced
Guardian Angels and relatively new trainees. New and
inexperienced people are straightaway partnered up
with the more experienced ones. Most of the trainees
are wearing Guardian Angel T-shirts and red berets.
The experienced graduates wear a shirt that reads
"Guardian Angels Safety Patrol". Trainees
who have been on patrol but have not yet graduated,
wear a T-shirt that reads "I Support the Guardian
Judge introduces herself and welcomes
the 2 new people. And this a feature of the whole
training - despite the intensity and physical violence
of a lot of the training, the Angels certainly look
after each other very well. The class begins with
a close quarter combat drill called "Sticky Elbows
Defensive Wall Drill". This long title describes
a simple drill which gets everyone warm and develops
close range sensitivity. It also teaches everyone
to protect their head from attack.
Next in the class come wrestling
and grappling work. Partners fight on the ground,
trying to hold each other down. After the combat section
comes role-playing. Some of the experienced angels
take off their berets and T-shirts, and become the
bad guys, or "mutants" as the angels call
them. A "patrol" is picked of 6 angels who
leave the room. Then as they enter the room as if
on patrol, they are presented with a problem to solve
- it could be two people fighting, it could be an
encounter with a gang, or it could be a man harassing
a woman. Whatever it is the patrol tries to deal with
it - calming the situation down, and using minimum
force, and providing first aid if necessary.
"Angels train in first aid"
says Judge. "Now to a lot of people first aid
is not cool - macho guys think it's something that
weak people do, or sexist guys say it's for girls.
In the Angels first aid is cool, just like the medics
in a war in the army are cool - they are heroes. And
so are we. And then later when you use it on the street
and it works, and everyone is thanking you - especially
if you save a life, which we have done many times
- the feeling is incredible. You're high for days."
Sometimes the patrol screws up the
role-play - and things go wrong. "But that's
the whole point of training" Judge points out.
"You learn by mistakes, and this is a safe environment
in which to learn".
"You need to draw the line
earlier" Judge points out, and she leads
the class into a whole series of training drills called
appropriately "Drawing the Line, or DTL",
which teach Angels when to stop negotiating and when
to start fighting, and what to do in between. "It's
the mutants' choice" Judge observes. "We
don't want to fight, but if we are pushed too far,
than the Angel will take the mutant down".
All around us "mutants"
are "Crossing the Line" and are being wrestled
down to the ground by "Angels". The techniques
are streetstyle - hair pulling for example is permitted,
and everyone has to watch out for the mutants' teeth.
"On the street there are no rules" comments
Mr X. "In a street fight people will bite each
other, gouge, kick, scratch - do anything to win.
Angels are prepared for anything. The streets are
rough and so are we - but we have hearts of gold.
We use minimum force to prevent an attack continuing.
But don't be fooled - we are peacemakers -
You can see why the training is so
popular. Even small members can take the bad guys
down and out. Judge says one of the main purposes
of the training is to create and develop what the
Angels call "Warrior Spirit".
Training finishes with knuckle push-up
- more warrior spirit training, according to Judge,
and then the group "raps". Everyone introduces
themselves, comments on the training and asks any
questions they might have.
"Every angel has an angel
name - a street name" Judge answers. "It's
part of our tradition that every member chooses a
"tag". Your street name is like an alter
ego. You put it on with your colours. In your day
to day life you may not have so much courage, but
when you put on your colours to patrol, you become
an Angel, and the name comes with that. Our members
get inspiration from it. It's all part of our culture".
I meet the patrol at their
HQ in a dark side street of Kings Cross. It's 1930
hrs. HQ is a basement office, decorated with Angel
photos and articles. The patrol group is multiracial
and there are men and women present. The average age
is about 18 years old. "We dress for combat,
comfort and style, in that order" explains Michael
"Mr X" Quinn, one of the patrol leaders
for tonight. I ask about the uniform - "The uniform
is just the red beret and the T-shirt - we call that
the colours" Mr X answers. Apart from that people
can dress how ever they want. We encourage diversity
in our group - it develops tolerance."
There are 18 Guardian Angels present.
Mr X calls us all to order and the room becomes silent
and expectant. Mr X calls the patrols aloud, indicating
which angel is assigned to which patrol. Each patrol
has a name. Tonight London will see "Justice
Machine" (led by Dominie "Judge"
Before we leave everyone is searched
out of the HQ. I ask Mr X why. "We are checking
each other to make sure that no-one is carrying weapons
or drugs" he explains. "Out on the
situations Guardian Angels rely on our own bodies
and each other for protection."
The patrols split up. "Justice
Machine" heads for the subway, heading for a
dangerous area in east London called Stratford, where
there was a recent rape on the station platform. The
station manager there is a great supporter of the
angels. "Rapture" walks into the downtown
area of London's West End, where there are a lot of
clubs and a lot of people. They will be patrolling
an area where a local gang sell crack and other drugs
to the tourists.
'Department of Correction' heads
up to the area around Kings Cross station. 2 months
ago a 15 year old white boy was stabbed and killed
by a gang of 6 Asian boys - some of the killers were
13 years old. "The racial hatred and violence
has been going on for a long time" explains Judge.
"The murder happened right on our doorstep. This
is our neighbourhood and we want to do something about
The angels walk down Drummond Street,
a street full of Asian shops and restaurants. Half
way down the streets there is a big posse of Asian
boys, just hanging out, bored, with nothing to do.
Most of the youth clubs in this area are closed because
there is no money available to pay staff to run them.
The Asian youth are also nervous. Everyone is still
waiting for the inevitable revenge attacks by the
local White street gangs. Here in Drummond Street
Asians are relatively safe.
The Angels stop to chat, shake hands
and distribute information leaflets. They are respected
by the Asian boys, who have a lot to say about the
situation. The Angels move away from the Asian area
and cross into the White gang's turf. The Asian posse
said that they were too scared to walk these streets,
but the Angels seem to be able to walk anywhere. I
ask Judge why.
"Firstly" she answers,
"we are multiracial. That means that in an
area of racial tension, we are a calming influence
simply by our physical presence. The other reason
is that street gangs know that we are neutral in any
conflict. We try not to take sides. We are against
violence, but we are not "against" particular
people. If we see an Asian gang beating up a white
boy we'll do the same thing as if we see a white gang
beating up an Asian boy. We'll stop the violence.
And they all know it. Another reason that we are respected
is that everyone knows that we carry no weapons. And
the last reason youth look up to us is that we're
not getting paid for this - we're volunteers. People
respect that commitment."
Outside a pub the patrol meets a
posse of white boys. They, like the Asian boys, are
hanging out and are bored. They are also just waiting
for something to happen. Again the angels shake hands
and "rap" (as they call it).
"You know" says
Judge to 2 of the boys, "You're saying exactly
the same things to me as some Asian guys over in Drummond
Street. They think that you started it, and you think
that they started it. They hate the cops and think
the cops side with you, and you hate the cops and
think the cops side with the Asians. You're sitting
out here bored, and they're sitting out over there
just as bored. Why don't you guys get together and
have a party?" A police van rolls by. The
police don't walk the streets here. They patrol in
riot vehicles. They aren't very popular among the
youth. "See those guys over there"
says Falcon, pointing to some rough looking young
guys. "We arrested them a few weeks ago. They
were beating up and robbing a 65 year old man. There
was a fight. We won. We arrested them and called the
The night remains tense but calm.
"That's a good night for us" says
Falcon. "A good night for the Guardian Angels
is when nothing happens." We return to base,
and meet up with the other patrols. Everybody is excited
as they take off their colours and wind down. As we
leave for home the sun is rising. I ask Judge one
last question. Why do they do it, since it is all
volunteer work, and none of them are paid?
"Well, we all believe that everybody
has the right to go out and have a good time on a
Saturday night without being threatened, attacked
or mugged, and believe that every person has a responsibility
to protect that right, not just to say it, but to
do something to make it happen. We want to make our
city a safer place to live in. Many of us have been
attacked on the streets, and when it happened there
was no-one there who would help us. We don't want
what happened to us to happen to anyone else."
The best and worst moments of the
The main successes and failures
The main success of our group
has been to not only set up in London, but to expand
across Europe. To date we have 2 groups in England
(London and Manchester), 3 groups in Sweden (Stockholm,
Malmo and Gothenburg), and 2 groups in Germany (Berlin
and Hamburg). In Berlin especially the group has played
an important role in countering the neo Nazi movement
among young white guys, bringing together White Germans,
Turkish youth, Africans, German Jews and other minorities
into one group. We have also visited Amsterdam, Paris,
Milan, Copenhagen, Liverpool and Moscow. In 1995 we
will hopefully be setting up groups in Milan, Copenhagen
The main failure of the group is
that we are still small when compared to the population
of 16-25 year olds in our cities. We are always seeking
new ways to grow. Also, expansion needs money, and
we have constant difficulty in paying phone bills,
buying new T-shirts etc.
I think the best moment in the history
of our project has been the graduation day of 50 Guardian
Angels in Berlin in June 1993. Because there are such
problems in Berlin of racial hatred and violence we
felt the group's work was so important there.
I can think of 2 worst moments:
Firstly I remember in 1991 trying
to save a man's life, he had had a heart attack at
a station, and I was doing CPR (resuscitation), he
The second worst moment came in Malmo,
Sweden where we were patrolling during the European
Football riots, I think it was in Summer 1992. Our
patrols saw and were caught up in such terrible violence
that night, although we saved a lot of people there
was very little we could do to stop the violence.
There were several hundred football hooligans on the
loose with weapons, and the police had pulled out
of the area. Many of our members there were patrolling
for the first time. It was a nasty baptism of fire.
Training for the work
Training is not only given
to new members we encourage all members to train to
become leaders. Leadership and good life skills are
important to the group.
The results and the impact of the
We know we have changed the
face of many of Europe's cities. We have offered youth
a chance to do something positive. To date we have
probably had several thousand young people training
with us, working to stop the violence in the cities.
The groups not only patrol the streets we have speaking
engagements in schools and youth centres where we
talk realistically about violence. We offer free self-defence
courses for women, and offer 'street smart' courses
for young kids (6 to 14 year olds). Finally we are
involved in food distribution for homeless people.
We know we have made a difference.
For further information contact:
The Alliance of Guardian
Website in English of the
main organisations worldwide:
You can not fight racism or any other
injustices without have a dream of a better world.
The group may like to reflect on their own dreams
for a better world. If so, look at the activity, "Dreams"
in the all different all equal education pack
The guardian angels fought for rights on their own
streets. If you would like to find out about some
other activists who have fought for human rights,
then try the activity, "Fighters
for rights" in Compass.