Common Law

photo by Lydia Gorham

photo by Lydia Gorham

This is Part Two of a two-part series on the Guardian Angels. Part One can be read here.

It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. Chicago’s chapter of the Guardian Angels, however, is undeterred by the prospect of such danger. With Miguel “3rdRail” Fuentes at the helm, the Guardian Angels regularly and intentionally encounter all the violence, injuries, and admiring citizens that Chicago’s streets can throw at them. As Fuentes says, asked if the job puts him and the Angels in real danger, “Yeah. Of course.” But in his words, because of the Angels, “[the criminals] will think twice.”

The Angels patrol the city as often as possible, constantly trying to widen their anti-criminal reach. As Fuentes says, the group’s aim is “to deter crime.” The CTA provides a natural opportunity to protect many people from across the city, as well as an opportunity to easily traverse and patrol some of the city’s roughest areas.

It was no accident that the Guardian Angels were on the Green Line the night that they almost identified a rapist. Fuentes had chosen the Roosevelt Red Line stop as a base for that night. There were four Angels in the group: “3rdRail” Fuentes, the patrol’s stocky Hispanic leader; Richard, a lanky, gaunt, African-American newbie; and Luis and Javier, two young Hispanic men.

Richard, Luis, and Javier were assigned to “float” around the train, which, as Fuentes explained, means that they travel from car to car as the train moves, checking for suspicious activity. As Fuentes monitored the car, Luis floated by and stopped. He and Fuentes quietly conferred. Fuentes began to stare intently at his Android smartphone, on which he carries hundreds of wanted posters. Glancing at an overweight African-American passenger behind him, he began scrolling through the photos before stopping. He and Luis made eye contact, and Fuentes surreptitiously snapped a photo of the passenger.

Although they say that no man is an island, the passenger could surely have made for a large atoll. Weighing in at over 300 pounds (part of the wanted poster description), clutches of fat bulged out of tears in his jeans, while his shirt, maculated in sweat, was stretched to the seams. He was fast asleep, blissfully unaware of his surroundings like a character on a “Law and Order: SVU” rendition of the Princess and the Pea.

The man that Fuentes had in mind was a suspected of committing a rape in broad daylight near the Red Line. In his Little Village Latino accent, Fuentes said, “Look. He matches the weight, he’s got the same face, facial hair, little hair. I think it looks like him.” Luis stayed in the car with us while Richard and Javier, who had both been quietly briefed on the situation, continued to float throughout the train.

The victim’s parents had contacted Fuentes roughly a week before to ask for help. Fuentes had already made and distributed posters asking for information about the case across the city, and he had the parents’ cell phone numbers on hand. Luis, younger and more technologically adept, commandeered Fuentes’ phone and texted the picture to the victim’s parents.

Then they waited. As long as the suspect slept, the Angels stood, while the Green Line ran through some of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. The Angels, if they see a known criminal or suspect, will drop all other plans and trail that person until he reaches home. The suspect snored as the train thinned out. The victim’s parents responded to Luis, saying that they had forwarded the message to their daughter. If she gave a negative ID, the Angels could move on, but if she gave a positive ID, they would have to spring into action.

The train hit Roosevelt around midnight. Just as the intercom drew our attention to the closing of the doors, the suspect jolted into consciousness. He jumped up with far more agility than his BMI would suggest, and made for the door. In a moment of profoundly ironic uncertainty, he turned to Miguel, who was holding the door open.

“This is Roosevelt, right?”

“Yeah, man, it is.”

The suspect tumbled off the train. Fuentes forced the doors open as the intercom ding-donged in opposition. Signaling down the cars to one another, the Angels emerged from the train like bees zooming out of a honeycomb.

The suspect was moving slowly and, more importantly, inattentively. In spite of the Angels’ numbers and gaudiness–four men dressed in loud red berets and poofy white hoodies–the man failed to notice that he was under close pursuit.

On the platform, Fuentes muttered directions to the Angels. They were to pursue and, if the victim responded with a positive ID, call the police while attempting to keep the suspect in the same place.

The man walked on, leaving only him and the Angels on the deserted street. Luis, after paroxysmally checking his phone, finally received a text from the victim’s parents: negative. He told Fuentes, who signaled to the other Angels to break off pursuit and regroup at Roosevelt. In spite of the tension, and the confidence with which Fuentes pursued the lead, he had refrained from calling the police. He would have been betting the group’s reputation: “The cops might get mad at us, CTA might get mad at us for holding up the train, that guy would probably get mad at us too!” Given that Fuentes acted entirely on suspicion, ringing the police could have had dire consequences, both for the group and for the man. The Angels clearly violated his privacy, based entirely on a haphazard glance and a blurry cell phone picture. Fuentes, if troubled, displayed no such concerns while debriefing the rest of the group back at Roosevelt. He concluded, after a theatrical appraisal of what had happened: “Too bad it wasn’t him. We need to get this guy off the street.”

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photo by Lydia Gorham

photo by Lydia Gorham

While acting out of the best of intentions, the Angels put themselves in danger of this kind on a regular basis. They go out prepared to make citizens’ arrests, and stoically follow possibly violent criminals across empty city streets in the name of safety. But noble motives do not necessarily translate to realities on the ground. As Sergeant Antoinette Ursitti of the Chicago Police Department said of the Guardian Angels, “We never encourage anyone to take any enforcement action risking their own personal safety.”

Such risks have taken their toll: Since the Guardian Angels’ inception in 1979, six have been killed, and dozens have been seriously injured. Fuentes himself, along with three other Angels, was wounded last year. During a patrol on the Red Line, he and his Angel squadron came across a man being pistol-whipped. They tried to intervene, but were rebuffed by the blade of a knife–an accomplice stabbed Fuentes and the other Angels, leaving them to bleed on the platform as the perpetrators escaped.

These attempts at arrest can make the Guardian Angels a nuisance for the police. The Red Line intervention quadrupled the incident’s victim count. However, these gory and action-packed events break the norm. Numerous videos on YouTube show Fuentes and other Angels detaining violent offenders while suffering no injury. However, most of these videos follow the Guardian Angels’ dictum found in their patrol manual: “Guardian Angels will only make an arrest when it is safe to do so. An arrest will not be made if: The perp produces a gun.” The events on the Red Line thus directly contravened Guardian Angels protocol. Fuentes, however, remains undeterred: “Yeah, I’ve been shot at, hit, stabbed…being a Guardian Angel is tough.”

Nonetheless, the danger that the Angels put themselves in not only affects the local police department, but also exposes a gap in the group’s avowed volunteerism. No member, from Luis to the group’s founder, Curtis Sliwa, receives compensation, nor do they expect to. As a nonprofit organization, the Angels are funded almost entirely by donations, with some gathered from the public and some gleaned from an annual fundraiser gala held in New York. None of the fundraised money goes to injured Angels–as Sliwa said during a phone interview, “there’re no benefit packages.”

According to available tax records, however, the organization has channeled its spending away from the volunteers on which it relies. In 2011, the Guardian Angels reported revenue of $579,548, with $712,374 in expenditures, leaving them $132,826 in the red. $423,247 was allotted toward “community safety.” However, the Chicago Angels are left with little to no financial support in their activities. Members purchase their own gear. Wounded Angels like Fuentes must raise their own funds to cover medical expenses.

Sliwa, who speaks with a Brooklyn accent thick enough to make Joe Pesci sound like William F. Buckley, says of the effect of injuries over time: “[Healthcare] really hasn’t cost people that much.”

While the footsoldiers of Guardian Angels volunteer and expect no payment, a significant amount of the $423,247 in expenditures goes toward one board member’s salary. Although Sliwa does claim that “the board members are all volunteer,” the organization’s chief operating officer at the time, Mary Sliwa, Curtis Sliwa’s ex-wife, received $147,115 in compensation.

As to Ms. Sliwa’s payment, Mr. Sliwa claimed that she had been offered a position at another firm. The Angels on the board preferred to reject voluntarism in favor of Sliwa-ism, and thus offered her the $147,115 paycheck. Mr. Sliwa receives no compensation, although he does hold down an additional job as a radio host.

Yet beneath the shadow of possible institutional injustice, the Chicago Guardian Angels’ commitment to the community shines all the stronger. Last year, for example, the Angels led a self-defense workshop at Harper High School in Englewood at the request of 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes. The seminar was targeted at vulnerable populations in a high-risk area–mostly women and the elderly.

Foulkes, who speaks with the kindly timbre of a grandmother, called on the Guardian Angels after a sexual assault on a young girl on her way to school. At around the same time, adjacent Chicago Lawn was shaken by multiple sexual assaults. The incidents provoked widespread outrage, resulting in a march through the neighborhood. Foulkes, however, wanted her constituents to gain practical knowledge of how to defend themselves against the predatory and depraved. She called on the Guardian Angels for help, and they happily obliged.

The brand of “self-defense” taught in the workshop was distinctly Angelic in nature–a combination of street smarts and martial arts. Fuentes explained how to defend yourself with a credit card: “You grip the corner of the [credit card], and scratch…Not only will the card leave a mark on the individual that the police can look for, but you’ll also get DNA on the credit card.” Other tactics included basic hits and kicks, as well as common sense tips on avoiding risky situations.

In spite of neither promise nor potential of payment, the Angels managed the whole workshop, from PR operations to cleanup. Foulkes said, “For someone to come out and not ask you for a quarter, and just do good, it’s really heartwarming.” Other community organizations in the area are following the grassroots model that the Guardian Angels employ. After reports of sexual assaults on schoolchildren, the Angels often escort kids on their way to school. Such measures can only be preventative, but Foulkes plans on replicating the model in a more permanent way for her ward. This “Porch Patrol” would focus on getting members of the community to stand out on their porches as children walk to school, incorporating Fuentes’ mantra of “deter” into the area’s everyday life.

The Guardian Angels go out their doors every day, inviting dangerous business so that citizens don’t have to. In spite of the protests of the police, and what most would consider common sense, the Angels commit to their job. While financial irregularities seem to plague the organization’s upper echelons, a commitment to service endures in the organization’s grassroots. Each member of the organization wears the same logo: an eyeball inside of a winged shield perched atop a carpet of fluffy clouds. On one of the last Red Line trains to run on the South Side before the closure, Fuentes explained the Guardian Angels logo to me. “Everyone has eyes..The shield around [the eye] represents strength, the wings around the shield incorporates elevation, hence we look over everybody, we’re the Guardian Angels, we’re looking over you.”