Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nice Hat

For whatever reason, I have always wanted to make a difference in the world. Ever since I can remember, I have had dreams of saving people/animals/spiders from terrible circumstances and helping them find a better life.
That stopped when I had kids. I am now fully invested in trying to keep my kids safe from terrible circumstances as well as alive, healthy, and free of cavities. I have killed a few spiders since giving birth, which I am not proud of, and have driven past countless stray dogs and people because I can't put them in the back seat of my car like I used to. They might bite the nose off of one of my children and, since I think they both have my nose, I'd like to keep it that way.
In my youth, I was much more interested in doing my part than I am now. I had been involved in animal rights for a few years but wanted something a little more hands on. Somehow, I convinced my sister to sign up with me to volunteer for the Guardian Angels.
For those of you that aren't familiar the Guardian Angels, it is "a non-profit, international, volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrollers". It was founded by a guy named Curtis Sliwa to combat New York City subway crime. Battalions of unarmed red beret wearing men and women would walk the streets in formation and deter crime wherever they saw it. They aren't technically a vigilante group but pretty damn close.
We spoke with Manny on the phone and then went down to headquarters, which was in a dilapidated strip mall in Korea Town (before it was known as K-town) across the street from MacArthur Park. The office was dark and disorganized and the Angels that were hanging around were a disparate looking bunch. Manny, our captain, was a heavy set Latino guy wearing a red beret, who sat us down and gave us the spiel. Lisa, another captain, was in her mid twenties, Caucasian ,scrawny but tough and looked like she had lived a fairly hard life. She had dyed blonde hair and the scars from disfiguring acne. There were a couple of random guys whose names escape me and a heavyset Latina chick named Christine. We signed papers, which I can only assume waived all rights to sue for and bodily injury or death sustained while participating in Angel associated activities. We were instructed to go to the surplus store and get our "colors"- white t shirt, black pants, black boots and the most important item, the red beret. I am sure as our eighteen and twenty year old white-as-the-driven-snow, private school educated, 5'6" and 5'4", 125 lb. asses walked out the door, they must have had a good laugh.
If they did, they never let on because when we reported back the next night for training, fully dressed in our "colors" and lined up with the nine or so other new recruits, no one was laughing. The group was headed by an intense black dude whose name escapes me. Let's call him Roc. As he walked up and down the line, I kept waiting for him to accuse someone of "eyeballin'" him and start asking if we were "steers or queers" and make us all do one hundred pushups. He didn't. He did explain our purpose, which was to act a deterrent to street crime and intervene only when necessary. He also said that we needed to learn the basic defensive moves to protect ourselves in the event of a throwdown ( aka fight). He looked everyone over for a moment and decided that the best option if a throwdown occurred in the next few hours was for the four women (ranging in age from 18 to 25 and weighing anywhere from 110 to 175 lbs) three of whom had zero combat experience, to form a circle with our backs to each other and then the remaining recruits and captains ( six or seven guys ) would form a second backward facing circle around us. Basically, the men were going to try to keep the women from getting their asses kicked. My sister and I exchanged a few looks but tried to avoid eye contact for fear of laughing.
After the throwdown drill we were informed that, once it got dark, we would be walking over to the park across the street to do some training. It was probably six thirty or so and the plan was to leave by six forty five. As we waited, suddenly there were two huge bursts of noise outside, could've been gunfire, could've been an aging muffler. The Angels took no chances. Everyone hit floor, and we followed suit. Manny belly crawled to the front door (which took some time and effort as he wasn't a small guy)to assess the damage and someone else got on the walkie talkie. Roc came back on the walkie talkie and told us to stay put.
As we lay there on the filthy carpet, I saw the silhouettes of two little girls cross in front of the office door, which was now open. Manny was on one knee, peering out the door to see what went down, like an over-zealous extra in an episode of Barretta. The girls, who were probably eight, looked at him as they walked by and looked back in the direction of his gaze. They shook their heads and kept on walking until their shadows disappeared. Not only did no one instruct them to hit the floor, but we must have stayed that way for five more minutes until we got the all clear signal from Roc on the walkie talkie. For a group with a reputation for bad assery they sure were a cautious bunch. The source of the loud noise was determined to be back fire from a vehicle. I suppressed the urge to say " well duuuuuhhhh.."
We fell into formation (two straight single file parallel lines of three) and marched over to the park, which was infested with drug dealers, drug addicts and general riff raff. It is a miracle we didn't encounter anything at the park since it was, at the time, one of the most dangerous parks in the city. We marched to the amphitheater and fell out of formation for calisthenics. Now, understand that the first form of group exercise I was exposed to was "jazzercise", which was a combination of aerobic jumping and repetitive toning exercises that gave you strong lean muscles. We wore puffy sleeved striped leotards and headbands like Jamie Lee Curtis in "Perfect" and everyone had their bottle of Evian and a towel. Calisthenics, on the other hand, were considered horribly outdated and extremely hard on the body, wrenching the muscles this way and that. At the risk of acquiring the nickname “Private Benjamin", I kept my mouth shut and did the squat thrusts as instructed. After an hour of jumping jacks, lunges and sit ups, we ran for a mile or so and headed back to headquarters.
Manny informed us that the next night, which was Friday, would be the first patrol. We were going to Hollywood.
We could have walked from our apartment, but in the interest of camaraderie, we drove all the way down to headquarters to be briefed on the evening patrol. There were a few new faces, clearly more seasoned Angels, who had been called in to join our excursion. All told, roughly fourteen people crowded into a Nissan Sentra and someone's rusted out van with a gazillion bad paint jobs. I was squished with Manny, Christine and two other dudes in the Sentra, and my sister went with Roc, Lisa and the rest of the random guys.
On the ride over to Hollywood, Manny revealed that the core group-Lisa, three other guys and he all lived together in a single apartment on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Fredericks of Hollywood building. They described the partying and the craziness of their daily lives and all I could imagine was the floor littered with Miller Lite cans and cigarette butts, old pizza sitting on the coffee table for days. Not to mention the reality of five people sharing a bathroom and attempting to have relations amongst a crowd.
I felt grateful for my shared one bedroom. Yes, someone slept in the living room but, at least there was some sort of privacy.
We parked the Nissan just off the Hollywood Boulevard exit and walked across the freeway bridge to Vine Street. We met up with the other team and again, my sister and I avoided eye contact for fear of laughing. It was all a bit surreal but as much of an adventure as I had ever taken. I imagine the conversation in her vehicle was similar to mine.
We split into the two teams and Roc told us the protocol. We were to march in formation down the middle of each side of Hollywood Boulevard and keep our eyes open for any sort of criminal or illegal behavior. At intersections we were to fall into a four point formation where each of us took a side of the curb and knelt down on one knee to stay low to the ground and survey the scene. Two others would stand behind us as lookouts. When the light turned green, we were to fall back into the single file lines and proceed. We were to continue in this manner all the way down the boulevard to the McDonald's at Hollywood and Highland and stand guard for the better part of the evening. In exchange for our protection, we would be given free meal coupons.
My sister and I looked right at each other for the first time all night. McDONALD'S??!! Are you fucking kidding me? Can't the rain forest raping corporate behemoth afford its own protection? Our social contribution was to facilitate more business for the company responsible for the some of worst man made ecological devastation ever?! I was flabbergasted.
Well, there wasn't time to argue. The teams split up, and we fell into lines. I was the second person on the right side. We began walking. Manny lead us in the front on the left, then Christine, then two randoms who I never got to know. They began walkie talkie communication immediately, which was a lot of "all clear", "nothing going on" etc. The first intersection came where we had to stop and Manny called out "on point!", and I ended up on the outside curb down on one knee. I surveyed the street, which had some cars driving by and people jaywalking but nothing that needed reporting. The light turned green and we fell back in line. This lasted for a few blocks. Then we started getting into the tourist area where the sidewalks were fairly crowded with people buying souvenirs or soliciting audience members for game shows. People stared. Some people snickered. The street was now choked with cars (this occurred just before the "anti cruising" legislation went into effect that banned people from driving up and down more than three times). Carloads of people would drive up and down a ten block stretch all night long looking for something to do. There were so many cars doing the same thing that they would basically sit in gridlock for the better part of an hour to get down to the end only to turn around and sit in traffic the other way. As we approached the gridlocked traffic the light turned red and Manny called "on point!". I knelt down again and surveyed the scene. My knee was starting to hurt. This time I was four feet from the chugging tailpipe of a low rider car filled with people. They were hanging out the windows staring at us. One of the girls leaned out the window.."umm, did you lose something?" . I didn't answer." what are you looking for?" she asked again, laughing a little. She was right to laugh.I looked like a total asshole. The light turned.We fell back in formation. The car erupted with laughter and cat calls, and all I heard was "nice hat" before we were swallowed up by the foot traffic. I put on my best tough gal face and and marched on. The guy behind me leaned in and hissed " try not to look so scared...". I supressed the urge to echo the sentiments of my hecklers, as he looked particularly stupid in his beret, but I kept quiet.I furrowed my brow even harder and narrowed my eyes and did everything I could to do justice to my "colors". And I wasn't scared. I was mortified.
By the time we reached McDonald's, we had heard every possible insult that one could hurl at a group of people walking in formation dressed in red berets. I wished we were some rogue Marcel Marceau band of mimes who went out and heckled people, or even a band of bank robbers about to pull off a heist. Anything but what we were, which was just lame. We were positioned outside the McDonald's in shifts so everyone got a chance to eat. I took one of the first shifts. I hadn't seen my sister in awhile and was hoping she was having more fun than I was. Her team approached and, as they went inside to eat, she rolled her eyes at me. I valiantly stood guard, protecting McDonald's from the evil tourists and street performers that wished to do it harm. People took my picture. People stared in my face like I was standing outside Buckingham Palace. One enormous drunk hulk of a marine pushed against me with his well muscled elbow as he walked by and muttered under his breath "I could crush you all....". I think I peed my pants a little.
After dinner ( french fries), we walked back down towards Vine Street. The thrill was gone. I just wanted it to be over. About half way to the car, Roc came on the walkie talkie requesting immediate backup and we all run, in formation, across the street to assist. I am petrified that my sister might be in a throwdown and am close to vomiting. We run down the street and into an alley where her team has cornered three drunken homeless people who were taking a piss. It is all I can do not to take of my beret, throw it on the ground, grind it a little with my combat boot and walk away. But we have to get our car back at headquarters.
We posed for a few more pictures, endured a few more insults and finally got to the car. The other team is already loaded up, and we all convoyed back to K-town. There are a lot of high fives and a short debriefing in which our team is commended for arriving so quickly when back up was requested. Everyone says goodbye. Manny invites us to their place for a party. We politely decline, backing slowly away as discreetly as possible and sprinting for the car before they catch on that we are so not Guardian Angel material. I stood a better chance of becoming one of "Charlie’s Angels" than surviving another night as a Guardian Angel.
In closing, I came across an article about the Angels and their return to Los Angeles:

Article reproduced from:

Guardian Angels Return to L.A. Streets
By Nikki Usher, Times Staff Writer
They were wearing their trademark red berets, white shirts and combat boots. But on Hollywood Boulevard,amid the throngs of tourists and street performers impersonating Marilyn Monroe, Superman and Batman, they barely stood out.
"I want a picture of you guys!" said Mike Cow, a tourist from San Diego. He turned to a bystander and added:

"They're weird. I've never seen them before."

It was perhaps not the most auspicious reintroduction for the Guardian Angels, who this summer returned to the streets of Los Angeles for the first time in a decade.

The volunteer citizens brigade, using martial arts and citizen's arrests, gained national attention in the 1980s by patrolling inner-city neighborhoods that are plagued by crime.

While the Angels made their greatest mark in New York City, the group also had several hundred members in seven branches that patrolled neighborhoods from Venice to the San Gabriel Valley in the 1980s and early '90s.

They left amid complaints from police and after several members had been attacked — one fatally.

Back then, the Los Angeles Police Department "would treat us like we were the Bloods or the Crips. And since the police didn't respect us, the gangs didn't," said Curtis Sliwa, the group's founder.

Now they're hoping for a renaissance. The group has come back to a Los Angeles different from the one it left,where community policing has taken root and crime rates are generally lower. Sliwa said the Angels have changed with the times, working more closely with police and conducting more training for volunteers. Sliwa said the group decided to come back to Southern California because of LAPD Chief William J. Bratton,who worked with the group when he was chief of the New York Police Department in the early '90s.Bratton, who became L.A.'s chief two years ago, has offered a conditional welcome to the Guardian Angels. He said his experiences with the group in New York were largely positive. But he's reluctant to see the Angels in some L.A. neighborhoods. He said patrolling Los Angeles is much more challenging because the city is spread out and there are fewer officers to back up the Angels. Moreover, he said,the group's conspicuous presence and aggressive tactics could backfire in the city's strongest gang enclaves.

"If they wear those red berets in the wrong area, the gangs will shoot them in a second," he said.

So far, about a dozen Guardian Angels have begun regular patrols along Hollywood Boulevard and at MacArthur Park.Bratton said he's comfortable with the group's presence in Hollywood, a tourist district that already has strong police staffing.

"The visibility and eyes and ears they provide is fine, but just don't do it in areas where they are going to be in great risk and danger," the chief said.

Others aren't so sure.L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, the police chief from 1997 to 2002, said that he couldn't support the Angels, and that professional police officers should be the only ones doing law enforcement work.

"It's hard enough to train police and keep them abiding by the law," he said. "These were people we knew nothing about."

Since the Guardian Angels left Los Angeles, the LAPD has tried to work more closely with community leaders to identify and target high-crime areas. Los Angeles also established a network of neighborhood councils that have a voice in law enforcement and other city policies.But the Angels have yet to establish ties with the councils, according to community leaders in Hollywood and atMacArthur Park, who said they were surprised to hear that the group was back in town.Sylvia Valle, a MacArthur Park neighborhood activist, said she worries that the patrols might make the situation in her neighborhood west of downtown less stable.

"There are four gangs in the radius of two blocks. This is just going to add fuel to the fire," she said.

Hollywood community activist Ferris Wehbe worked with the Angels when they helped patrol the Yucca Street area in the 1980s. He said that effort was effective because the group worked with neighborhood groups. This time, however, he doesn't see that partnership.

"We don't really need them here," he said. "The reason they worked in Hollywood was that they were connected to what the community was doing and really knew us…. I have had no indication of that happening this time."

In the 1980s, when the group was most active in Los Angeles, it had a decidedly mixed record.

It garnered praise when members patrolled the 1984 Summer Olympics. But a few years later, Sliwa was arrested for allegedly clubbing a man in an area of Hollywood the group had sealed off in an unofficial drug sweep. In 1993, in one of several attacks on group members, Angel Glenn Doser was shot to death when he tried to stop a robbery in Hollywood.

The Guardian Angels of the past, Sliwa and others said, could be aggressive and intimidating. They'd march into high-crime areas and ask tough questions, look for confrontations and try to break up drug deals.

"They were just these young guys and women, many of them ex-gang members, looking to rough someone up,get into a little trouble and feel like they were on the side of the right," said Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The L.A. group has so far been drawn from veteran Southern California Angels and a few new recruits. There's a mix of young and old, and a few women. Sliwa says they're better trained than the Angels of old.

Under new policies, recruits undergo three months of standardized training, during which they learn martial arts and how to make citizen's arrests. They are also subjected to verbal abuse to see how they respond. Guardian Angels are not armed, though many carry handcuffs and cellphones.Though they've been absent from Los Angeles, the Guardian Angels have remained a force in other cities,mostly on the East Coast. In Washington, D.C., members are working so closely with police, patrolling gang and drug areas, that the department gave them police radios.Sliwa said the Angels want to pick "mild" targets in Los Angeles, building a record of success, before going into more hostile gang areas. So far, he said, members have encountered little action.

During a recent evening patrol in Hollywood, members didn't make any arrests or break up any drug deals, but they did help an elderly woman and her caretakers push a wheelchair over the curb at Hollywood Boulevard and Ivar Avenue.An appreciative Vernadette Rebold smiled from her chair and thanked them.

"We remember you from 20 years ago, in New York," she said.

Patrol leader Dave Eagle shrugs when asked about the lack of public memory about their Los Angeles days.

"Sure, we're remembered for New York, and maybe people don't remember us here, but we were here and we are here," said Eagle, who was with the group during its Los Angeles heyday. "It's hard to compete with where you started."

I think that pretty much sums it up.

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