Curtis Sliwa is the founder and leader of The Guardian Angels, the world’s largest grassroots organizations with chapters in 13 countries and over one hundred cities. In the late 1970’s New York City was plagued by murder and violent crime. A trip on the Subway was an exercise in survival. Residents of the City resigned themselves to the reality as the politicians and police seemed powerless. However Curtis believed the City deserved better. So he acted. What started as a group of him and a dozen other dedicated volunteers riding the subways of New York to serve as protectors of everyday law abiding citizens grew into the “Guardian Angels” that NYC residents have come to know and love. The Guardian Angels operate under the motto “we dare to care” and have proved it over and over though the years, in some cases with their lives. Today, Sliwa presents his unfiltered take on his controversial organization and its enduring legacy, in David Wexler’s documentary, Vigilante.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Who came up with the idea to make Vigilante? You or David Wexler?
Curtis Sliwa (CS): In the past many people and production companies had approached me about doing a documentary. None of their pitches satisfied me; you only get one chance to do this and it better be good. With David Wexler his vision was to have the Documentary done in my voice and to focus on three periods in the beginning of the Guardian Angels. The initial subway patrols, the crackdown on crack and my battles with the Gottis and Gambinos. This spanned the time period from 1979 to 1992. To me that was the winning formula. David wanted it called Vigilante because of all the obstacles we had to overcome in those first 13 years.
LK: What’s the goal of the film? Why should viewers care? Why now?
CS: First, millennials and hipsters make up the majority of our population now. They have no idea what it was like back in that period of time. This film enables them to clearly understand how bad things were, and how average everyday people could make a difference, in this case, as a Guardian Angel.
[The film] also gets the message out that one woman or one man can make a difference. The message is that self-help can solve so many of our problems as opposed to being dependent upon government.
LK: Discuss the title and its relevance to the film and its relevance to the Guardian Angels.
CS: In our first 13 years we were branded as vigilantes. It was our Scarlet Letter. No matter what we said or did we couldn’t crawl out from under that description. And yet we persevered and gave the term a positive meaning, whereas in previous years it had been thought of in the most disparaging ways.
LK: How does the theme of vigilantism trace throughout your life and work as the founder of The Guardian Angels?
CS: The Guardian Angels are guided by the principle that when good men or good women do nothing evil will triumph. It also is the basis for our concept of “Us and We,” versus “I and me.” So when people feel victimized and that brings on hopelessness and despair, they need to take a stand and fight back. We chose to do it within what the law allows citizens to do. And that has become the mark of our existence.
LK: There’s so much work to be done. How do the Guardian Angels support their members and the community they serve? And how does the film support this endeavor?
CS: Each of the Guardian Angels is providing selfless service to their community. They are unpaid volunteers who patrol without weapons. They also partner up with other organizations to help in providing programs that benefit the community. Examples include Junior Guardian Angels in which members are six through 15 years’ old. They are provided a sanctuary from the temptations of the street. Then there’s Guardian Angels Animal Protection, which manages feral cats in colonies so that they can be used to suppress the rat and rodent population. Finally, there’s food and clothing distribution to the homeless and emotionally disturbed in the streets as well as a number of other community outreaches. [These programs] empower a Guardian Angels member to feel that their work can and will make a difference. Their paycheck is the thanks that they get from a grateful citizenry. This film helps establish the origin of a group that is now global with chapters in 13 countries and 130 cities.
LK: What’s the difference between a hero and a vigilante? Which one are you?
CS: The term hero is used too often nowadays and applied to actions that are beneficial and helpful to others but aren’t necessarily heroic. Heroic means that you have risked your life in a situation where clearly you could be dead or seriously injured because of your involvement. Oftentimes it means that you did sacrifice your life, or as a result of your intervention you were injured.
The term should rarely be used, [but] nowadays everyone is considered a hero for getting involved. That is not what the term means. The old explanation of vigilante was that you take the law into your own hands. Clearly I do not do that nor do the Guardian Angels even though to this day when I travel the world some people will say, “Oh, that’s the Vigilante.” I am neither a hero nor a vigilante. I am a person who believes that people make a difference not politicians. I am a community organizer.