Where Angels Don't Fear to Tread
It's a little after 7:00 p.m. when Murdock drops to a crouch and frisks the guy they call Speedo. He pats him down from inseam to armpits, cop style, as the impassive Speedo extends his arms in a Jesus-on-the-cross position. It's not that Murdock suspects Speedo of carrying a gun or a knife. But the banning of weapons is a cardinal rule among the Guardian Angels. As Murdock explains later, the Angels aren't even permitted to carry a Mag flashlight. And since this is the first official outing for the Minneapolis chapter in two decades—and since two supervisors from the regional office in Denver are bird-dogging the newbies—protocols must be observed with special rigor.
Murdock's real name is not Murdock. All the Angels have a handle; among others, tonight's crew includes Sandman, Razor, Borg, Batman, and Elvis. Murdock's moniker was chosen in homage to "Howling Mad" Murdock of A-Team fame. But he is actually John Schulte, a 50-year-old third-generation resident of northeast Minneapolis who has a salt-and-pepper moustache, a slight paunch, and more than a little frustration about the city's recent crime woes.
Schulte is the individual responsible for the resurrection of the Minneapolis Angels. It all started in April, when he fired off an email to Angels founder Curtis Sliwa inquiring about the prospects of reviving the local chapter. In short order, Sliwa flew into town, toured some trouble spots with Schulte, and agreed that the time had come for the Minneapolis Angels to spread their wings again.
It's not Schulte's first foray into citizen policing. Last June, he and a few friends founded an organization called the Northeast Citizens Patrol. The impetus was the attempted mugging of a man and a woman out on a cigarette run—walking down Central Avenue in broad daylight—by a gang of unruly teen girls. "That was just that last straw," Schulte says. "These girls were intimidating and terrorizing a lot of people, especially some of the older folks." While the Citizens Patrol has remained active in Northeast, Schulte figures the Angels, with their extensive training and higher profile, could do even more to stem crime in the city.
Among criminologists, the efficacy of citizen patrols is disputed. Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says groups like the Guardian Angels may produce small benefits in the short term—especially in terms of reducing fear. But, he adds, they tend to peter out, as volunteers become bored and drift away.
Schulte and his comrades, however, are confident that the Angels can make a difference in Minneapolis. After two months of training, the crew—almost all white, mostly middle-aged, and predominantly male—is finally poised to hit the streets. They are about two dozen strong this night, as they line up in the alley behind Tom and Colleen's Styling and Tanning on Central Avenue. Everyone is dressed in similar fashion: black boots, black pants, white T-shirts emblazoned with the Angels' Citizen Patrol logo, and, naturally, those trademark red berets.
With regional director Grey Sowler barking out commands, the Angels break down into six-member teams. Schulte—or Murdock—serves as the director of the Minneapolis Angels chapter, but he doesn't lead his team tonight. That's left to a young, bearded fellow who calls himself Sarge. As their team sets out on Central Avenue, Sarge and Murdock take the point, followed by Speedo and Cat, who is the only woman in this particular group. Tank, a strapping linen-truck driver who bears more than a passing resemblance to Predator-era Jesse Ventura, and Major bring up the rear.
Most of the time, they remain two abreast. But when the lilac bushes crowd the sidewalk, they switch to single file. Major—one of just two current Angels who patrolled the streets of the South Side with the organization 20 years ago—is notably gung-ho. He is quick to shout out warnings alerting his party to hazards such as low-hanging branches and uneven pavement.
With a Channel 5 cameraman hustling alongside, the team pushes north along Central Avenue. It's still light out, but Schulte cautions that incidents of drug dealing and prostitution occur on the thoroughfare at all hours.
The first salutation from the local citizenry occurs at the corner of Central and 26th Avenue. A scruffy, middle-aged white man and a slightly androgynous-looking black woman, who are waiting at a bus stop shelter, engage the group in conversation. The guy is especially enthusiastic about the Angels and, it quickly becomes apparent, pretty drunk. "Can I join? I want to join," he says. "I'm ex-military."
Major hands the man a brochure, turns to the woman, and says, "Glad to meet you, man." The woman looks nonplussed. After a moment, she points to her breasts. "These are real," she says. This elicits a quick apology and the team hurries on its way.
Heading north, the Angels pass a Walgreens, where a guy leans out of the window of his mini-van and shouts a question that would be posed more than once this night: Why don't you go to north Minneapolis?
In fact, the Angels made an informal visit to the North Side a few days ago, walking 21-strong down a stretch of West Broadway. While the North Side is ground zero for Minneapolis street crime, the decision to patrol there was mainly a matter of convenience. The Angels train at member Alice Splawn's karate studio, which is located on the corner of West Broadway and Emerson Avenue. In the near term, the Angels plan to focus on Northeast, a neighborhood where many of its members reside, and—despite some recent troubles—a relatively peaceable place.
The Angels say their North Side outing was inspiring and more than a little intimidating.
"I was scared as hell. Everybody was," explains new Angel Lorance Siwek, a longtime resident of Northeast. But, Siwek adds, the enthusiastic response from passing pedestrians and motorists—horns honking, shouts of approval—"made the fear go away."
As Sarge's team leaves Central for the leafy side streets, the neighborhood is a watercolor portrait of tranquility. "People enjoying their backyards," Major confirms resolutely. "That's the way it should be." A family outside barbecuing spots the patrol and shouts a round of thanks. This is followed by a request that the Angels stop for a moment. A blond woman sidles up to the picket fence with a complaint. It seems that a tan Chevy Caprice with Mississippi plates has been parked in front of her house for 10 days. The police haven't done anything. Sarge dutifully records the license plate number and promises to raise the matter with the authorities.
At the corner of Monroe and Lowry, Sarge orders the team to "post up." In the Angel lexicon, this means that every member assumes a stationary posture, each facing in a different direction in order to better spot trouble. "We do it so if anyone starts shooting, they can't get us all," Major explains. "You know, drug dealers don't like us very much." At that, he swivels his head and shoots his eyes upward, studying the two-story building he's been leaning against. "Don't need anything dropping down on us," he says. Neither of the mourning doves sitting on the power line above him makes a move.
As it happens, in over two hours of patrol, the Angels encounter no signs of trouble on the streets of Northeast. Occasionally, one unit of Angels waits at the corner until its "shadow team"—another six-member patrol that has been walking on the opposite of the street—has a chance to catch up. Radio contact is maintained at all times.
It's dark by the time Sarge's patrol heads east on Broadway, preparing to loop back to Tom and Colleen's Style and Tanning on Central. "Who are you guys?" asks a punk rocker on a bicycle. His hoodie is emblazoned with the word "Goatwhore." Major and Tank give him the spiel and the pamphlet.
"I don't get it," says Tank, shaking his head. "It's a different breed these days."
At the end of the shift, Sarge's patrol meets up with the other teams. Everyone seems to agree it was a very pleasant walk.
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