I reach Curtis at home on the Upper West Side, almost exactly a week out from the U.S. presidential election that has city residents (and everyone, everywhere) on edge. It’s a blustery October morning and he’s bundled up in full uniform, topped with his trademark red beret — originally borrowed from the Boy Scouts. A lifelong New Yorker, one of his several rescue cats slinks behind him mid-call while he grows increasingly impassioned talking about this city he cares so deeply for, whose bureaucratic chaos frequently drives him nuts. It’s in these moments that I catch faint glimpses of how he must have been as a restless twenty-something in 1979, when a South Bronx McDonald’s (‘like Mom, apple pie, and the flag’) fired him from his night manager gig for founding what would evolve into The Guardian Angels, his non-profit citizen patrol group. Some welcomed their presence around town, while others accused them of vigilantism. Curtis admits he’s grown tired of fighting the latter label: his perpetual scarlet letter. Despite his critics, the once scrappy organisation has grown from the ‘Magnificent 13’ — who rode the subways unarmed to keep watch over a city reeling from compounding crises — to an estimated 5,000 members in 130 cities and 13 countries. This summer Curtis announced his plans to throw his hat in the ring for mayor come 2021. But for today, his personal call of duty continues out on the streets, and his uniform of 41 years remains firmly intact.
The primary reason for the uniform was so that we could be identified. We were predominantly patrolling trains at that time, in the late ‘70s. They were very dark and dank. Old GE light bulbs often provided the light on the platforms. Thugs would knock ‘em out or vandals would destroy them. We tried to create an identity where, if you had a problem and you were seeking help, you could see the red beret in the distance and you would run in that immediate direction. Or you would see us running to help you. Unlike the cops; even nowadays they don’t wear the hat. They want to be like John Travolta, styling and profiling, you know, they hold the hat. Does no good. We always wear the red beret, because that’s how people know who you are. It’s not the red satin jacket or the T-shirt — really, it’s the red beret. They say, ‘Oh, it’s the Guardian Angels.’
We don’t ‘own’ the red beret. I appropriated them from the Boy Scouts. I’d go to the Army Navy store and buy them in bulk in different sizes; they had the patch on. It was strange to see these visual advertisements of Gucci with the red beret and their logo, selling them for outrageous amounts of money. I think somebody who created that fashion look was looking at the Guardian Angels patrolling in Italy and thought, ‘Oh, that’d be great.’ Their whole purpose is obviously to churn out more and more fashionista material. Before that, [the beret] was considered ‘counterculture’ — we were being harassed by the police, we were considered outliers. Then all of a sudden, Gucci mainstreams the red beret as a fashion statement.
I came out of the era of the ‘60s and ‘70s. You had the Black Panthers, you had the Young Lords — they were like a paramilitary group. They were at odds with the status quo, with police. But then again, what we were trying to do was to provide public safety, so we were the opposite of gangs. In searching for a name, ultimately I thought that the group that seemed to have the most traction among inner-city young men and young women in the late ‘70s was the Hells Angels. They hated Black and Hispanic people, they were one-percenters. And yet young Black and Hispanic men idolised them. They were watching the B-grade movies, like Hells Angels Forever, in Times Square — you could get three flicks for five dollars — and they would emulate them. And I said, what’s the complete opposite of Hells Angels? Well, Guardian Angels. But still it didn’t matter: People thought we were a gang, thought we were vigilantes, thought we were Hells Angels, thought we were Charlie’s Angels. Everything other than what we were.
The Guardian Angels give a good look into what people can do who decide that they have to protect themselves, protect their communities, protect their quality of life, and more importantly, protect strangers that they don’t even know. This is something that everybody should be doing without a red beret, without a red satin jacket. It was more the norm years ago; people felt you had to be a good Samaritan. But nowadays, everybody’s got the earbuds in, they’re texting, sexting, whatever they’re doing at that moment. They’re oblivious. And the pandemic has made it ten times worse. Now I’m supposed to be afraid of my neighbour? I’m supposed to be afraid of the person on the subway? You don’t engage in conversation, you’re constantly tugging your mask. If anything the pandemic has caused us to isolate more, to think about I and Me, not Us and We. We’re constantly on guard.
The identification of the red beret should be synonymous with self-help. People are too dependent on the government from the cradle to the grave: ‘What’s the government gonna do for me?’ Eh, c’mon. People walk around with an attitude, like, ‘They’re all corrupt.’ Why even waste your time? They do care about you, but a lot of the time they promise to do too much when they’re elected. And the reality hits: They really can’t do all the things they promised they could do. If [we] were less dependent on the government and took more responsibility for what happens day-to-day in [our] neighbourhood, we’d be a lot better off, we’d be happier, we’d feel empowered. And then when politicians are a dollar short and a day late, as they are with most things, we wouldn’t be as disappointed. I say: Channel that anger into doing something constructive. Internationally this red beret is a symbol of, If you’re not satisfied with the way things are, do something about it. Legally, lawfully, within the constraints of what your society permits. Don’t tell me you’re gonna sit on the couch and grow barnacles on your backside. It’s time to get your rear in gear, get out there, and do something.
People want to get involved. But then they realise it’s a regimen, you have to work for this. You don’t just get the red beret, you don’t just get to style and profile. You have to jump through the hoops. That’s how we maintain quality control. You also have to be able to work with a wide range of people: men, women, gay, straight, people who agree with you, who disagree with you. We try to keep religiosity and politics out of it. You’re here for one mission. You’re capable of being the individual that you are, so long as you’re not promoting crime. Other than that, we put you all in the mix, and that’s what makes it a successful group.
I learned the purpose of the uniform early on, in elementary school at St. Matthews in Crown Heights, run by the Josephite Irish nuns. We had to wear grey slacks, a white T-shirt, and a maroon tie; the young ladies had to wear a similar uniform, except pleated skirts that were sort of maroon grey-ish. Now after school, the young boys especially would sometimes go into a store and cause a problem. The store owner would then come to the Mother Superior and say, ‘You know, some of your folks, they came in and took some potato chips and ran out the store.’ The Mother Superior would take the store owner from class to class and she’d say ‘Identify who it is.’ Occasionally he would: ‘That’s the young man there.’ He would leave, and the Mother Superior would say ‘We’ll take care of it.’ Everyone in the class was culpable. It was group guilt. Mother Superior would say, ‘You know, some of you were probably aware of what Johnny did there and you decided not to say anything.’ This would be a group punishment. It might mean having to stay after school for a week; it might mean having some of the privileges you were extended removed. Now you’d be really mad at Johnny.
In society now, news is so instantaneous — it goes viral, it’s all over the world. Let’s say a Guardian Angel did something in Gothenburg, Sweden that tainted us. It would impact every Guardian Angel all over the world. It’s that understanding of when you earn the red beret and that jacket, you — one rotten apple — could taint all of us, after 41 years. It puts on a lot of pressure and responsibility. Our philosophy is: We trust people.
Oftentimes somebody’s joining who may have low self-esteem, who may not think they could ever achieve anything in life. Now all of a sudden, they’ve earned their way into the Guardian Angels. People are patting them so hard on the back they gotta go for a chiropractic adjustment the next day. In their normal life, they’re either a person of no consequence or a person that people fear because of the way they look. We have to have quality control, which means we have to trust the people to follow the rules and regulations. I would much prefer to take risks on people than risks with money, gambling, or the stock market.
My credibility is based in the streets. I can go into any neighbourhood — I’m gonna have my detractors, but I’m gonna know how to deal with them, because I’m gonna debate ‘em right there in the streets. My limousine is the subway and the city buses. You’ll never find [politicians] on the subways and the city buses — occasionally for a photo op. Like Bloomberg, the billionaire, he used to go to 59th and Lexington and he would take the express train two stops to City Hall. And all of a sudden he said he was ‘a man of the people’ — yeah, with eight NYPD armed security officers, and he took the SUV from his townhouse on 79th Street. That was all a mirage. I will take the subway, I will take the buses, I will not have security. Maybe I’ll have an aid or two to handle this technology, because I’m like a luddite. But other than that, I’m gonna have the same means to get around as the people do. Because if elected officials had to use the same public transportation as the people do, you’d watch how fast things would be improved.
People think, ‘He must be a right-wing totalitarian dictator-type.’ I’m not at all happy with the [current] president, but I’m not at all happy with what the Democrats have offered up. I am Curtis Sliwa. A unique individual. In this particular run, I’m gonna run on the Republican line and probably on the Independent line. Right away people say, ‘Oh, you’re nothing more than Donald Trump.’ You look at my quotations about Donald Trump. I said he’s a manic depressive. He is the George Steinbrenner of American politics. And he needs to get off that damn Twitter at 4:30 in the morning. He has helped to polarise this country. But I look at the alternatives, at the Democrats, and, you know, they’re not necessarily upping the standards here. I’m an independent, autonomous person. No matter who gets elected president, we’re gonna have to learn to do more with less.
One of the benefits of always wearing a red beret, the jacket, and the garb — I can be like Zuckerberg. He’s got billions, I’ve got two cents that I rub together, but I get to wear the same thing every day. It doesn’t matter what I wear. It’s so easy to pop the beret on. It doesn’t matter what I have on underneath. So I get a pass on being a fashion statement. Then again, some people out there wear the same freakin’ stuff, day in, day out and they could afford a wardrobe — they just wear the same black T-shirt, black pants. For me, it’s who I am. I’m 24/7-365 Guardian Angel Curtis Sliwa.
Some people will say, ‘Hey, do you sleep in that?’ Yeah, sometimes I do! Boom, I collapse. Beret is on. Coat is on. [Laughs.] And then you get up, and you go right on out. Back to it.
Olivia Aylmer is a New York-based writer, editor and graduate of Barnard College at Columbia University.