Guardian Angels thrive while continuing struggle for respect and funding
By Robin Hug
(For El Tecolote)
Every other Saturday night, the Guardian Angels of San Francisco patrol the streets of the Mission District in hopes of ridding the neighborhood of drug use and crime. The Guardian Angels group was first established in 1979 in New York City as a response to the rise in gang-related crime. Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, quickly expanded the idea and by 1981 there was a chapter in Los Angeles making them a coast-to-coast establishment. By 1984 San Francisco had established a chapter of its own. Currently, California cities host 14 of the 114 GA chapters nationwide.
The Guardian Angels mission statement states,“Every day, we receive calls and letters from individuals pleading for help to overcome violence in their worlds. These calls only confirm the increases in violence, harassment, and intimidation reported daily in newspapers and research surveys. Bullies, predators, and gangs, in increasing numbers, are creating fear and danger in our communities. The perpetrators lurk in schools, neighborhoods, streets, subways and the internet.”
The Guardian Angels begin their patrol preparations at their Mission headquarters. After the team suits up and veteran GAs are paired with new members for on-the-spot training, they head out towards the 16th St. BART station. There are 30 members in the group. If there are enough volunteers on a given Saturday, the group splits into two teams and head in different directions. You can spot the patrol teams standing on the corner by their signature look, a white logo shirt over all black attire including black glove, topped with a red beret.
“When we see a drug corner we post up against the wall, not against glass, and we have our hands in front of us and that way we are not letting them get close,” said Jerry Longoria, who patrols under the name JD. “Once the drug dealers see us, they know what we are about and if they have crack, heroin, crystal meth, that’s a felony and we will handcuff them and call the police to come and pick them up.”
Longoria or one of the other senior members always calls the police department of the neighborhood in which they are heading toward to let them know that they are coming into that area in order to avoid interference with police operations.
“We attend the police department meetings and we attend community meetings,” Longoria says as he explains the changes the angels have made over the years.
Over the past 25 years, the San Francisco Guardian Angels chapter has not always had a working relationship with the police department.
“At the time, the Guardian Angels in my opinion appeared to be organized, yet uncontrolled,” said Lieutenant Ed Santos, who has been with the San Francisco Police Department for 29 years. “Knowing very little about them concerned me because I did not know what they were capable of doing and what they would do in a violent confrontation.”
Santos explains that today he doesn’t have a problem with the Angels’ presence in the Mission District as long as they are not interfering with law enforcement activities. When he sees them on his beat he says that they stick to themselves and don’t have much interaction with the public.
Although the Angels say that they receive community appreciation for their hard work, there is no type of funding coming from the local community or government. The non-profit organization relies strictly on donations and all of the members are unpaid volunteers. Over their time in San Francisco the Angels have had trouble earning respect from city officials. They recall walking a fine line with the police department and community members.
“There were so many of us, including martial artists and street fighters, and they wanted to prove that they could fight, and little by little it became a problem—and the police began to see us as a problem,” said Freddie Batres, known to the Angels as Greencard. The group started cutting down on members and only kept the ones that were trained on how to diffuse situations peacefully and not create them. They now have rules on conduct and anyone in the group showing signs of becoming a problem are immediately out.
Batres, who has been part of the Guardian Angels for 25 years, describes the San Francisco chapter as a family that works together to improve where they live and create an alternate group for young people. Currently the chapter has eight teen-aged members and will accept teens as young as 16. Families in the community reach out to Batres asking him for help with their children.
The goal of the senior Angels is to lead by example and show the younger generation what the group represents.
“We tried to get funding from the city and show them what we are doing for the youth but they are cutting funding everywhere right now,” Batres said. “We survive off of what people donate.”