David Wexler will never forget the moment when, as a five-year-old walking with his family on Manhattan’s gritty Lower East Side, his father pointed out a man wearing a red beret. It was the late 1980s, and New York City was still battling violent crime and a crack epidemic.
‘These are superheroes,’ his father told him, nodding to the beret. ‘If you ever get nervous in the city, they’re like superheroes.’
It was the first time the comics-obsessed child became aware of the existence of the Guardian Angels, which had been formed roughly a decade earlier by Brooklyn native Curtis Sliwa – a McDonald’s manager in the Bronx. It fascinated Wexler, and both he and his father have spent the intervening decades admiring Sliwa, the organization and the work it accomplished.
Wexler, now 34, admired Sliwa so much, in fact, that now he’s made an entire documentary about him. After courting the controversial Sliwa over about 20 dinners, he finally got the Guardian Angels founder and radio personality to agree to a film – after guaranteeing that it would be told in Sliwa’s own voice.
And what a voice it is, from the first scene of the documentary, titled Vigilante: The Incredible True Story of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels.
There sits Sliwa in his trademark red beret, his excitable face and distinctive manner showcased in a close-frame shot. He’s animatedly describing the 1992 mob hit on his life, and soon he leaps up to yank up his shirt and show off his scars. It’s not long before he’s talking about ‘thugettes’ and ‘Uzi-toting’ criminals; if there’s one thing that Sliwa loves, it’s a catch-phrase or a soundbite.
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Brooklyn native Curtis Sliwa, center, became a well-known and controversial figure after starting the Guardian Angels; he says he was motivated by the spiraling crime and violence of New York City in the 1970s
Curtis Sliwa, second from left, says he had seen a ‘180 degree’ change in New York City since his childhood in Brooklyn – and someone needed to act as the boroughs ‘fell into the abyss’
The Guardian Angels began as a group of 13 workers from a Bronx McDonald’s that was managed by Sliwa, who encouraged them to patrol the subways, and widened to include other civilian volunteers
The Guardian Angels were known for their distinctive uniform featuring a red beret; when director David Wexler first saw them as a child, his father called them ‘superheroes’
Sliwa, now 63, hosts a conservative radio show and continues to be outspoken in his views
‘I have a particular vernacular, a phraseology that is pretty unique,’ Sliwa tells DailyMail.com. He’s a bit more reserved when he’s not on camera or on the radio, but he’s certainly never at a loss for words. He maintains his trademark presence throughout the documentary, which begins by listing the horrifying crime statistics from the 1970s – murders was up 325 percent by the end of the decade, the film proclaims – and then traces the path of the Guardian Angels from its inception to its current incarnation.
It’s an incredible story and, though Sliwa is a polarizing figure who has weathered more than a few personal and professional scandals over the years, it’s a great look back at the Angels and the city itself.
‘It’s like you love him or you hate him; that’s who he is,’ Wexler says. ‘He’s one of the greatest personalities I know. I think that’s fun.’
Sliwa, born in Brooklyn to parents of Italian and Polish descent, was working in a McDonald’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx in 1977, when commuters feared the ‘muggers’ express’ subway train and the rampant crime across the city.
‘The Bronx was slipping into the abyss in the-mid 70s,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘It was burning down block by block. Gangs controlled whole neighborhoods. I had to take the subways, because I was living in Brooklyn at the time, which was also earning the nickname “Crooklyn.” And so from riding the trains to walking the streets to managing a McDonald’s in the Bronx, it was chaos – anarchy.’
He says the situation really struck him one night in McDonald’s, when he was listening to a broadcast of the Yankees playing in the World Series. Burning buildings in the Bronx could be seen from the stadium, and – on foot of a Yankees win – the announcer mentioned that the team was considering moving the stadium to the Meadowlands.
‘That was sort of like the trigger, after witnessing the collapse of the Bronx and New York City at that time – to just scrape the barnacles off my backside, get my rear in gear and then start thinking about a subway safety patrol.
‘The first 13, who were all employees of mine on the night shift, they weren’t the most idealistic – so I had to brainwash them every night when they came in for their shift. So I’d have to pump them up; at times, I would tell them, hey, I’ll give you a few extra hours on the time card at the end of your shift. Once we close the restaurant, I want you to join me in patrolling the Number 4 train.’
Opposition was high, he says; not only were the other men afraid, but their friends and relatives urged them not to join the unarmed patrols, considering it a ‘suicide mission.’
Crime rates were spiraling in the 1970s and 1980s in New York City, with subways especially dangerous; New York City was in dire financial straits and the police presence was cut back
Lisa Evers, left, was a driving force in the Guardian Angels; she and Sliwa eventually got married, though the relationship did not last
Sliwa and Evers were vocal and visible as the Angels grew in size and spread across the US and the globe; the group now has a presence in 13 countries, Sliwa says
Unlike Ms Evers, pictured, Sliwa says many people were initially afraid to join the group or go on patrols because they considered it a ‘suicide mission’
Sliwa says he hoped the Guardian Angels would help obliterate racial stereotypes, describing volunteer members ‘just average citizens dressed like poppin-fresh Pillsbury dough boys and dough girls’
‘It created a lot of tension, because people knew I was putting the arm on them, and they didn’t feel that was right – and technically it wasn’t right, but I was on a mission,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘And the mission was to save the Bronx and save the city.’
He says: ‘At least I was at an age … I was in my early 20s, where I could compare it to what it was like when I was a young teenager growing up. And it had changed 180 degrees.’
‘The Bronx was the quickest to slide into the abyss, and then just the subways themselves – scarred with graffiti, the smell of urine, defecation, homeless people, emotionally disturbed people and gangs. Gangs would come onto the subway, they’d jump right over the turnstile and they would just start beating up on people, like locusts to a cornfield. And I said, nobody’s doing anything.’
He adds: ‘The city was in such dire fiscal shape; we were on the verge of going Chapter 11, bankruptcy. They had laid off a lot of cops. So now at night from 7pm at night, the off-peak hours, to 5am in the morning, there were no uniformed police officers assigned to the subway system. So the thugs and thugettes, that was a license to go on a rampage and steal.’
In 1980, for example, there were 1,814 murders in New York City; by contrast, there were 335 last year.
Citizen patrols, Sliwa thought, would act as a deterrent to much of that crime; the identifiable berets and uniforms, too, he believed would make a difference. He didn’t expect a backlash from everyone from law enforcement to normal citizens.
‘I was shocked,’ he says. ‘I thought we would’ve earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Remember, we’re riding the trains, nobody wanted to be on the subways back then if you didn’t have to be. We’re not getting paid for this; this is all volunteer. We’re risking our life, we have no weapons, no powers or privileges. We’re just average citizens dressed like poppin-fresh Pillsbury dough boys and dough girls. So I’m saying to myself, wow, this is America, this is what Americans love – that individual pursuit of freedom, self-help, not asking the government for any help, whatever, just go out and do it.
‘Well, I couldn’t have been more hopelessly wrong – because the group was predominantly black and Hispanic in the Bronx, which was stigmatized as being … drug-laden and just a place where the uzi-toting, dope-sucking, psychopathic killing machines reigned. Everybody looked at the makeup of the membership and they were like, this is just a gang.’
He adds: ‘It’s very difficult to lobby people and explain, most black teenagers, most Hispanic teenagers are not criminals. They’re going to school, they’re working, they’re looking to improve themselves. The stereotype needs to be obliterated. And that’s what the Guardian Angels helped to do. The same person you’re afraid of dressed normally, you put a red beret and a t-shirt on them, all of a sudden people were engaging them in conversation, embracing them, trusting them – whereas without that red beret and t-shirt, they might have been running away from them.’
Despite opposition from authorities and various corners, the Guardian Angels began to grow and diversify, incorporating more and more women – under the leadership of Lisa Evers, Sliwa’s future wife. The profile of the Angels and the couple rose, and chapters of the Angels spread across the United States; Sliwa and Lisa eventually began a radio show.
Sliwa says the Guardian Angels organization ‘proves the old adage that one woman or one man can make a difference;’ he has trademark words and catchphrases such as ‘thugette’ and ‘Uzi-toting criminals’
The Guardian Angels – who were all volunteers – were not armed and had no special powers or privileges, Sliwa points out, and they faced opposition from authorities and law enforcement
Sliwa and Evers co-hosted a radio show that ended before their divorce; she now works as a journalist for Fox 5 News
Director David Wexler says he believes the Guardian Angels movement ‘was so progressive, in terms of racial equality and women’s rights, and it was really advanced in doing a lot of things I think are hot topics today’
The Angels were not without obstacles, however; over the years, six members have been killed and three dozen seriously injured, he says. Sliwa himself – after publicly speaking out against the mafia – survived an assassination attempt in 1992, when he was picked up in a stolen taxi and shot multiple times before he escaped from the vehicle.
The same year, he admitted that he had exaggerated or manufactured some of the Angels’ heroics, and he has weathered criticism for years from disgruntled members and other naysayers. His marriage to Lisa disintegrated; he’s been married three times and now lives with in Manhattan with his girlfriend.
‘I’ve had many setbacks both personally and professionally, and I’ve acknowledged them publicly,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘I could’ve handled things a lot more professionally and in a much more mature fashion, but at the time, I made bad decisions and there were consequences for that. And this is what you learn in life. I think eventually I’ll probably best be known as a person who tooka licking and came back ticking. I’ve been knocked on my ass many, many times and just had to dust it off and start all over again.’
Through it all, however, the Angels have persisted; now, he says, they are active in 13 countries and 130 cities. They’ve expanded to include Junior Angels and animal protection units, and Curtis still manages the day-to-day of the international organization. He emphasizes that, particularly during the current social and political upheaval in the US, individuals and local communities have the power to effect change.
‘Our problems can be resolved from self-help,’ he tells DailyMail.com. ‘We don’t need the government, you don’t need to look to others; if you have a problem in your community, most times the community can resolve the problem. It’s just a lot of hard work involved in it. If you use the Guardian Angels as an example, it proves the old adage that one woman or one man can make a difference.’
The film’s director – though Sliwa is one of his personal heroes – says: ‘It will be too much for some people, but I think most people will just get a kick out of it. That’s the point of him being there [onscreen]. I didn’t want to interview other people; I could have very easily. I wanted you to make your own opinions – and the whole thing is controversial. But even the ones that he turns off or who don’t enjoy him or agree with him completely who I know have seen the film wind up enjoying him in the film. And there’s no doubt what this man has done in this world – and I think if you don’t agree with him, you can’t take anything away from it.’
Summing up his own views on the Angels, Mr Wexler says: ‘I thought it was so progressive, in terms of racial equality and women’s rights, and it was really advanced in doing a lot of things I think are hot topics today – and this was happening 30 years ago. I think it was a really healthy group, I think it was a group that didn’t see religion or race – just fighting for the greater good.’