This is Part One of a two-part series on the Guardian Angels. Part Two can be read here.
Late one night, the Guardian Angels were patrolling the El. A group of young and middle-aged men, they were out to help the injured, trail suspected criminals, and make citizens’ arrests when they deemed it necessary.
A young man ran into the opposite end of the car from where Chicago chapter head Miguel “3rdRail” Fuentes was standing. He was lanky, with tattoos strewn across his body. He carried a new smartphone, but seemed more interested in scrutinizing his surroundings, glancing at the security cameras and simultaneously trying to hide the phone while greedily staring at it.
After a few minutes, Fuentes moved near the kid, who unabashedly asked him, “Are you with the police?” Fuentes shook his head and said “No.” Neither pacified nor convinced, yet unwilling to move, the kid sat there, stop after stop, suspiciously glancing over at Fuentes and the other passengers. Eventually, shifty eyes gave way to clarity, and he said, “Oh! You stop people from getting robbed on the trains and shit?” Fuentes gave a brief nod. The kid still fingered the phone and nervously checked the security cameras, but was visibly relieved by the presence of Angels and the absence of cops.
The Guardian Angels got off at Roosevelt, while the kid stayed on. I asked Fuentes if he thought that the kid was suspicious. “No,” he explained. “He was [suspicious]…but then he started asking questions.” The crime was likely behind him, and so was the suspicion.
The Guardian Angels thrive on such false starts. As Fuentes will tell you over and over again, the group’s main purpose is “to deter,” and not to be heroes. Fuentes maintains that the group’s distinctive garb itself stops crime. Each Guardian Angel wears a blood-red beret. Depending on weather, they either wear a white hoodie or T-shirt with the Guardian Angels logo on it, along with black pants, black shoes, and black gloves. “The uniform gives us authority,” he says. “It acts as a deterrent.” Weapons are forbidden–members are mandated to search one another at the start of each patrol–and Angels carry handcuffs on their belts. When I loudly mentioned this to Fuentes on a late-night Green Line run, he muttered “Yes,” and quickly covered them with his hoodie.
In spite of his off-the-cuff skittishness, Fuentes stands at a buff five-foot-four. He speaks with a slight Spanish accent, a byproduct of his Little Village upbringing. The Angels first came to him through a chance encounter in 1988. “I saw a group of Guardian Angels, and [founder Curtis Sliwa] just happened to get on the train car with me. I asked him how to join…one thing led to another–I became a member, then a patrol leader, and so forth.”
For twenty-five years since, Fuentes has patrolled Chicago’s streets and train lines, helping citizens and deterring crime along the way. He rose to become the head of the city chapter, and is now the organization’s national director. By day, he works as an electrician; at night, he turns into 3rdRail, his Guardian Angel call sign and DJ moniker. The nickname comes from an incident early in his tenure as an Angel. His characteristic beret, for which the Angels are often ribbed, fell onto the tracks on the Green Line. He spoke to a station agent, who let him swoop down onto the tracks to retrieve it.
There are currently fifty Guardian Angels in the Chicago chapter. Many come from the South and West Sides and have working-class backgrounds, although one Angel, nicknamed Yoda, works as a TV reporter in Iowa, periodically travelling to Chicago to patrol with the local chapter. Background plays an important role in joining the Angels: regardless of spirit, no convicted felon can join. In addition, members must be sixteen years of age, clean of drug or alcohol dependency, and must also submit to a background check involving character references and an interview.
Although there are currently no gender restrictions, not a single woman numbers among Chicago’s angelic ranks. Some might attribute this to relatively high rates of sexual assault, or even to the underlying macho culture on which the Angels are based. Fuentes seems to think that women just aren’t cut out to be Angels. He said with a grin, “Women try, but they don’t last…it’s hard, you know, they get scared.”
Fear however, is universal. The training process aims to fight it. Recruits undergo six months of training before becoming full members. This includes training in the martial arts, in techniques on how to deal with verbal abuse, legal protocols for making citizen’s arrests, and general behavioral testing to weed out “who’s trying to be a hero,” in Fuentes’ words. Upon acceptance, members must patrol at least twice a week to remain Angels.
As Fuentes will readily tell you, being a Guardian Angel is tough. “It takes a lot…You have to deal with verbal abuse, peer pressure, people telling you you’re wasting your time, risking your life for people you don’t even know.” What doesn’t make it onto the application, but does make Fuentes the impressive crime-fighter that he is, is the ability to think like a criminal. Not in the cartoony sense of sniffing after a stolen purse, but in the hard-boiled way of putting himself into the consciousness of an outlaw. In large crowds, Fuentes claims to pinpoint undercover cops. On a Green Line train, a group of women had their smartphones out. Under his breath, he began detailing the ways in which they were vulnerable to robbery. He can recite strategies out of the pickpocket’s playbook, and went so far as to tell me that crime “is like an art form.”
All of this leads to an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chicago criminal underground. Fuentes carries hundreds of wanted posters and mugshots on his cell phone, periodically scanning them to match uneasily familiar faces in the crowd. On the platform at Roosevelt, he pointed to a passerby, saying, “We arrested that guy a while ago.” If a Guardian Angel spots a known criminal, the entire group will trail him until he goes home, if only to deter and prevent another crime.
The Angels monitor crowds at every station, and constantly search each train. All of this suspicion can seem a bit tiresome, and occasionally invasive. In 2009, the Angels posted a video on their website showing Fuentes and other Angels tackling a man at an El stop for smoking marijuana. The video, posted to reduce the chance of lawsuits, shows a heavily intoxicated man taking a few blundering swipes at Fuentes. Fuentes responds by tackling him to the floor, as another Angel pins the man to the ground and cuffs him. An outraged crowd screams at Fuentes to release the man, while Fuentes shouts back, “Get the fuck out of here.” The imprisoned pothead groans, “You’ve got no right to do this,” as Fuentes, perched atop his chest, yells, “Shut up!” In conversation, however, Fuentes likes to downplay his crime-fighting abilities and prerogatives. When it comes to drugs, he told me, “If someone has a joint, it’s not worth even getting involved in something like that.”
In 2009, a video showed Fuentes forcefully detaining a man for spraying graffiti on the CTA. The man’s nose was broken in the incident. However, as Fuentes told me during a trip on the Red Line, “we can’t enforce city ordinances.” In Chicago, graffiti is banned by ordinance, and not by law. Fuentes, as DJ 3rdRail, had frequently supported tagging during his radio shows. Some allege that he went so far as to claim that tagging illegally was the only way to be a “real” graffiti artist, though no records to support these claims are currently available.
Regarding what the Angels can do to stop crime, Fuentes told me, “we don’t have no special powers.” Nor do they have protection under the law, with the exception of the ability to make citizens’ arrests. Fuentes said that, for a citizen’s arrest, the crime needs to be serious, the victim needs to request assistance, and the offense has to be punishable in a court of law. In all other situations, they have to rely on constant vigilance, which, while provocative, can also prove crucial.
One night on patrol, a woman mangled her foot on the escalator at the Bronzeville-IIT Green Line stop while running for the train. Still caught in a passion for punctuality, she kept running, only to get her foot caught in the gap between platform and train. Her ankle snapped and, bloody and all, she stumbled into a seat in the train’s last car.
Fuentes and I were in the first car. The Guardian Angels are deeply methodical about train patrols. Through a combination of strategies, a complement of three Angels can secure an entire eight-car train. At each stop, the Angels will stick their heads out, looking down the train for signals. “If something happens, we give a hand signal, but if we don’t see someone come out we go to that car as fast as we can.” As the train moves between stations, the angels will “float” in between cars, moving back and forth along the emergency walkway.
However, in emergencies, Angels will run down the cars to Fuentes. Richard, a lanky newbie, sprinted over from the next car while the train sped at full tilt. He was panting, saying, “Emergency in the other car.”
“The last one.”
Without asking for details, and disregarding our mystified fellow passengers, the Angels took off toward the opposite end of the train following Fuentes’ lead. They flew through each car, jumping through the rickety cast-iron pathway.
At the very end of the last car the injured woman sat, cradling her foot. She had been wearing flip-flops, making the injury easier to access but also allowing blood to trail along the floor. Fuentes quickly assessed the situation, enlisting Richard to signal to Luis and Javier, the two other Angels on patrol, to get off at the next stop.
In the time between fracture and discovery, a glassy-eyed Good Samaritan with a Black Power—Afro pick had decided to sit and comfort the injured woman, albeit without a plan to help. Fuentes strode into action. As Richard readied himself to make the crucial trans-train call, Fuentes and the friendly stranger lifted the woman onto their arms. As the train rolled to a halt, they heaved her onto the platform.
Fuentes called 911. Before saying where he was, and before describing the emergency, he flatly stated, “I am a Guardian Angel.” This probably meant little to the dispatcher, but did give Fuentes a verbal uniform of sorts. They had sat her down on a bench toward the end of the platform, giving the woman privacy. As she groaned with pain, Fuentes comforted her, ordering Richard, Luis, and Javier down to the street to greet the ambulance.
The EMTs climbed the stairs. Amidst the screams of the woman, and against her pleas for them to stop, they wrapped up her foot, stabilizing it and stopping the bleeding. As she recuperated before the odyssey down to the waiting ambulance, a moment of bizarre serendipity took place. One of the paramedics, a short, swarthy man reminiscent of a skinny Danny DeVito, remarked to Fuentes that he had helped him almost exactly one year prior, when he was stabbed in the head following a pistol-whipping on the Red Line. The EMT recognized Fuentes not by the faint scars on his cranium, but by the red beret that covered it.
With the EMT’s blessing, the Angels made it to the street. As they helped lower the injured woman down onto the bottom steps, three homeless men appeared from underneath the staircase. Rankly drunk, they began to chatter.
Even for beaten-up nomads, they were an odd bunch. All had the leathery skin that comes from years of sun-baked alcoholism. One had a long lesion down his face, another seemed capable of speech only while waving a half-eaten apple around in syllabic synchronization, while a third, the most lucid-seeming, was wearing a bright yellow Cub Scout hat. As I got closer, I realized that they weren’t heckling the woman. They were shouting out signs of support. As the Scout man said with a slurred Chicago accent: “They really do help out, you know!” The other two nodded, one waving his apple in the air while the other thoughtfully rubbed his lesion. After making repeated attempts at engaging Fuentes in discussion, the scout turned to me and said solemnly, “I’ve always had great rapport with them.”
The Angels helped the EMTs lift the woman into the awaiting ambulance. The woman had earlier told Fuentes of the moment when she first saw Richard. She had been languishing on the train and, as Fuentes said, “If it weren’t for us, she would have gone to the end of the line.” Only the Afro pick—man had stopped to help, and she had been losing hope. As Richard strode in, uniform and all, she had said to herself, “Thank you Jesus, my guardian angel is here.”
People join the Guardian Angels with big aspirations. One man who approached Fuentes about joining said, “It’s terrible what’s going on in Chicago…I lost a family member back in January, my cousin was shot and killed at Chicago State…Between the Chicago Police Department, and the city gangs, the city neighborhoods, period, sometimes you gotta call to action…Just whatever I can do to help.”
The same communitarian spirit drives the current Angels. Richard told me, “I got fed up with the crime, drugs, with the whole scene.” He’s been with the Guardian Angels for about four months, and regularly works more patrols than are mandatory. One man, Kenneth “Iron Eagle” Dosie, has been at the Guardian Angels as long as Fuentes. “I started at the Guardian Angels back when I was eighteen, in 1988,” he says. “The best of all is….just getting the ‘Hey, thank you for making sure I got to my destination safely.’ ”
Of the many people that I saw approach Fuentes or other Guardian Angels to ask about joining, none spoke of motives of personal glory or selfish heroism. None spoke of the respect they get from passersby or spoke of individual acts of heroism that form a part of each patrol. “That’s the wrong mindset,” said Richard. “You need to have a mindset to serve.”
Richard’s “mindset to serve” doesn’t appease everyone. Some see them as objects of ridicule. People will sneer at their uniforms, and others will shout names at them on the street. In their training classes, the Angels have specific segments targeted at coping with open-air ridicule. Just as saving the injured and detaining the suspected constitute the ends of their training, so does enduring the ridicule of the masses. Fuentes and the Guardian Angels are clearly devoted to their cause of helping people, despite missteps along the way. On patrol one night, a young boy, maybe around nine, walked up to Fuentes and asked, jocularly, “Are you on a secuuuuurity operation?” Fuentes muttered “Yes,” and the kid walked away. A few minutes later, a man walked up to offer his appreciation. Miguel was tight-lipped.