Their ammunition is a stack of pamphlets. Their weapons are rolls of masking tape. Their sirens are bright red berets.
They are the D.C. Guardian Angels, a civilian police organization that works to deter crime in at-risk communities in the District. An international organization with 138 chapters in 14 countries, members work toward a universal goal, pushing the belief that everyone has the right to be safe.
Last Thursday afternoon, John “Unique” Ayala – the leader of the D.C. chapter of Guardian Angels – gathered with two comrades at the intersection of Atlantic and South Capital streets in Southeast D.C. They tape up their first poster of the day – a single page that explains who they are and what they do and asks for others to get involved – on a telephone pole that is just a stone’s throw away from the site of a drive-by shooting that occurred March 30, killing four people.
Ayala said talking with members of the communities they patrol and taping up posters is a regular day for the Guardian Angels.
“We want to teach people that you can fight back and take back your community,” he said. “Criminals don’t wanna be where people are watching.”
Ayala carries a Metropolitan Police Department radio on his belt, and the patrolmen are authorized to use force in self-defense and make civilian arrests if necessary. The others don’t carry radios. None of the Guardian Angels carry weapons.
The Guardian Angels’ uniforms consist of the signature red berets, a white shirt bearing the black insignia of the organization and black pants. Ayala said he believes just the sight of his patrollers prevents crime.
“We walk in there with no weapons where people are getting shot,” Ayala said. “But our presence in the community helps. We serve as visual deterrents to crime.”
Marcos, a stocky middle-aged man known as “The Punisher,” who hosts a trim beard and two ears lined with gold and diamond earrings, is on his first patrol since he stopped working with the group four years ago. He said the news report about the March 30 homicides made him want to come back.
“It’s not my community, but I’m coming out and helping the community,” Marcos said. Even with the Metropolitan Police Department patrols, there is fear in the community, he said.
Tamika Reed, a young mother of two, said she certainly feels afraid.
“Violence is here constantly,” she says, standing on the side of South Capitol Street.
Her 3-year-old daughter, Arionne, dances in a patch of grass nearby and demands that the photographer from The Hatchet take her picture. Reed’s 7-month-old son blinks tiredly in his stroller.
“It’s really not safe here,” Reed said.
Reed said she remembers playing double-dutch and hopscotch as a child in the streets of Southeast D.C., but that young people today need better options.
“Kids need something they can get involved in,” she said. “They mothers and fathers are all on drugs. they just need more stuff [to do].”
Ayala and Marcos said they believe that Guardian Angels can be a positive alternative for young people who would otherwise get involved with drugs and gangs. In fact, they say it’s how they got into the organization.
“When I was young, I always wanted to be in a gang,” Marcos said. He saw the Guardian Angels patrolling his Wilmington, Del. neighborhood and said he thought they looked cool.
Ayala, now 40 years old, said he has been involved with the Angels since he was 21, but was first inspired when he saw them in his community when he was 13.
“I thought, ‘these look like tough dudes, but they’re here to help,’ ” he said.
While on patrol, the Guardian Angels get more than a few nods that lets them know their presence is appreciated. Two motorists honked gently when passing the patrollers, shouting, “Thank you for protecting our neighborhood!” and “Thanks for coming back out! We need y’all.”
Sitting in his police cruiser outside Al’s Liquor Store, MPD officer Donnell Covington says he too appreciates the organization’s work.
“This is an excellent group,” he says. “They help us a lot in things we do here. I see them a lot.”