On the streets of Midwood, Brooklyn, last week all was quiet as a cold, gentle rain fell and pedestrians and motorists went about their business, slowly marching into the weekend.
Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa and two of his volunteers stood out on a street corner in their bright-red garb in a heavily Orthodox neighborhood where more subtle and modest clothing is the norm.
It wasn’t exactly the National Guard, or even an NYPD watchtower, but the small delegation of volunteers — some would call them vigilantes — following two moderately violent incidents in the community was welcomed with open gratitude as they made their way around the area in a lunchtime patrol.
“We’re hard to miss,” said Sliwa, who is 59 but shows no sign of mellowing with middle age. “People know who we are and what we’ve done.”
Sliwa, who founded his civilian patrol in 1977 and has become one of the New York’s most recognizable personalities, says he was invited to patrol Jewish neighborhoods following a string of “knockout punch” attacks in Brooklyn neighborhoods, involving some 10 victims.
Sliwa says he has large groups pounding pavement day and night in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Borough Park and Midwood. Jewish leaders in those communities, however, reported only sporadic sightings of Guardian Angels when contacted by The Jewish Week.
In any case, their visibility and deterrent factor was applauded.
“Anyone who wants to come in and help is welcome,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents parts of Borough Park and Flatbush.
Along the busy Avenue J and Avenue M shopping areas in Midwood, Sliwa had numerous positive interactions with motorists and pedestrians during an hour-long span of his patrol with his associates, Manuel Colon, 31, and Shaggy Wilfred, 39.
In each case he gave out cards promoting his evening radio show on AM 970, while Colon and Wilfred handed out fliers promoting the Angels’ work.
Crime is generally low in this middle-class area rich with Jewish infrastructure, but before the knockout attacks it periodically made news with swastika paintings and the occasional synagogue vandalism. Concern about crime is such that the founder of the Flatbush Shomrim Volunteer Patrol, Chaim Deutsch, was elected to the City Council in November.
“The neighborhood is changing,” said Gregory Rozenblatt, 35, a transit worker who lives in an apartment on Avenue M and has been in the area since his family arrived from Russia when he was an infant.
As he welcomed the Guardian Angels patrol near Moisha’s kosher supermarket, Rozenblatt blamed landlords for letting “the wrong kind of people” into the neighborhood by not properly vetting them. He says his neighbors play loud rap music in the evening and police won’t intervene. “It wasn’t like this 20, 30 years ago.” He recalled being in a local pizza shop when someone came in and spit at the owner, who called the police.
Sliwa, a hardcore political conservative who served as a counterweight to hardcore left-winger Ronald Kuby when they shared a radio program on 770 WABC AM from 2000 to 2008, said the knockout attacks are not new, but rather a third cycle of them in his three decades on the streets.
He blames the resurgence on the current political climate, saying the Democrats’ attacks on the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk searches during the mayoral election, and a federal court ruling against them have made police less aggressive and more reactive, while criminals are bolder.
“The cops are laying off, not frisking, not tossing guys, not making their lives miserable,” Sliwa lamented, which leads to ”thugs taking license to rough people up.” He said cops overused the searches as a means to make more arrests and then get themselves off the street to process them, but a middle ground should be found.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who will be replaced next month by William Bratton, has said it’s unclear whether recent incidents were part of a game or merely isolated incidents that may have drawn little notice in the past.
But Sliwa said the presence of the Angels is meant to invite anyone who feels drawn into the game to pick a more suitable target.
“If you want to be a macho, maniacal guy and you want to challenge someone, see if you can knock someone out, hey, I’m standing here, I’m close to 60,” he said defiantly. “We have other Guardian Angels — you hit us first, see if you can knock us out and we’ll hit you so hard your mother will feel the vibrations.
“Maybe that’s the language you can understand,” he added. “Pain compliance.”
Lou Guida, a Midwood resident who is applying to be a police officer, was one of those who stopped Sliwa to welcome him and shake his hand on Ocean Parkway. “They take a lot of pressure and time off the police,” he said. “More ears and eyes deter crime.”
Sliwa, who is raising three Jewish children with his companion, Melinda Katz, the borough president-elect of Queens, has been honored by many Jewish organizations and offered advice about fighting back and Jewish pride at dinners and other events. He’s also a proud Israel supporter and has publicly criticized the people of his ancestral Poland for cooperating with the Nazis.
The Canarsie native knows New York neighborhoods like the back of his hand and uses catchphrases to let people know it. “I live in the streets, I don’t live in the suites,” he says in cadence, coming across like a walking crime map.
“On the Avenue M commercial strip, there’s been a lot of intimidation there,” he said as his patrol approached that area.
He recounts how a group of Orthodox women were recently being heckled nearby, when one of his patrols appeared from around the corner. “They did the bird,” he said of the hecklers. “Disappeared into the park.” He believes that criminals start with verbal intimidation, and then quickly graduate to assaults. “The next step is home invasions,” he warns.
In 1991 the Angels mobilized in full force to protect Crown Heights chasidim who were under attack by bands of rioters during three days of violence sparked by the accidental death of a black child in a traffic accident.
These days, with crime figures plummeting, the Angels seem to have fewer members and a lower profile, but Sliwa said there are still thousands in chapters around the country. Arrested more than 70 times, Sliwa said the group has come a long way, from being treated “like Hell’s Angels instead of Guardian Angels” under the Koch and Dinkins administrations. Rudy Giuliani, for whom Sliwa vigorously campaigned, told police to respect and work with the group.
He said he has some Jewish members, but observant Jews who are inclined to do this kind of work are generally drawn to Orthodox neighborhood patrols.
“What happens is when a young boy goes home his bubbe and zaide will say, ‘This is how I raised you, to join the Guardian Angels?’ ” Sliwa says in his best faux-Yiddish accent.
He hails the heroism of the Jewish groups and their rallying call of “chapzem,” Yiddish for “Get them,” referring to criminals.
But although the Orthodox patrols and the NYPD are out in full force, the Angels believe that when it comes to protecting yeshiva students and elderly women, the chance that vigilantes might be waiting around the corner could be just the ticket to nip the knockouts.
“They have no spine,” said Wilfred, one of the Angels volunteers, of the knockout punchers.
A Newark resident who works as a security guard when he is not on patrol, Wilfred echoes Sliwa’s challenge. “Anyone who has the guts to walk up to an elderly person [and hit them] them, someone bigger than them should have the same guts to knock them out. Turn the situation around, and see how that feels.”