This interview first appeared online on Gothamist.com on June 5th, 2007
In 1979, Curtis Sliwa founded The Guardian Angels with the goal of making the streets and subways of New York safe. Now, 28 years later The Guardian Angels have 86 chapters worldwide in 9 different countries, are providing schools with anti-bully, anti-violence, anti-gang, and anti-drug programs, and educating people about the Internet. Gothamist sat down with Curtis to learn more about what the Guardian Angels have been up to…
How involved are you in the Guardian Angels chapters around the world?
I visit the chapters, I help kick off programs for the chapters, I constantly deal with chapter and regional leaders because it’s still in its infancy. Even though we’re 28 years old, it’s just of late that in 9 countries and 86 cities that we’ve been officially recognized and have working relationships with law enforcement and other social services in those cities. Prior to 1993, few if any communities would work with us officially. Now it’s the exception to the rule if a community doesn’t work with us.
It’s interesting, in Cape Town, South Africa, we were approached by a member of the Cape Town metropolitan police force. He approached us because he felt things were so out of hand that, at times, anarchy prevailed. He slowly organized one group and has developed a second chapter in another part of Cape Town and is reaching out to people who have called him from outside of Johannesburg. It’s slow growth, but it’s badly needed because the violence levels are horrific. Cape Town is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nothing can compare to it. Both coasts are magnificent, but it’s been renamed Rape Town because of all the physical attacks on women that go on morning, noon, and night.
What sort of impact have the Guardian Angels had in Cape Town?
Tremendous impact. There was such hopelessness about people being able to fight back and get involved on a volunteer level that private security services have grown by leaps and bounds there. People are living behind walled communities with razor wire and technological impediments that have been set up along with boots on the ground and eyes and ears constantly viewing people as they pass by. We’re like a ray of hope because so many people have given up. Unfortunately, the political system has contributed to it. They’ve gone from one extreme where they had a dictatorship and responded by basically stacking the deck in favor of criminals. The criminal justice system is in disarray and there is little if any deterrents that exist outside of the normal police patterns.
Originally, you envisioned the Cyber Angels as an organization that apprehend pedophiles in chat rooms, but then you switched to educating people about the Internet. Why was that?
I’m not a computer wiz. Never have been and still am not. The whole idea of Cyber Angels came about from my discussions as a host at the time, 95 to 96, on WABC. Because of the power of the station, I was heard in 30 states and parts of Canada. One of the burning issues of the time was proposed by outgoing Senator Exxon of Nebraska, who said that because of the growing uses of the Internet for entertainment and commercial purposes that the government should start regulating its use. Internet users would call in and they would say, “Wait a second, this is the last bastion of freedom. This is the last great pioneering spirit that we’re going to experience. Don’t tread on our Internet.” My response, based on the information given to me by users, specifically mothers, was, “If you don’t want government regulation, then you need to self police.” Just like I did in setting up the Guardian Angels in the late 70′s to patrol the streets and subways. I didn’t feel the authorities were doing enough and I felt that they shouldn’t have to do that. Citizens should get involved.
How does one make a citizen’s arrest?
Recently, in our chapter in Davenport, Iowa, who are still in training and haven’t graduated, one of the trainees was riding home to East Moline, Illinois when he saw a man physically assaulting a woman in the streets. He jumped out of the car, called 911 while running down the street, and slammed the guy to the ground and held him down. The cops responded, talked to the victim, made the arrest, and the guy’s going through the criminal justice system. The police chief there said, “It’s not a citizen’s arrest,” and a reporter asked, “What is it? It’s a physical apprehension.” “Yeah, but we don’t allow citizen’s arrest in East Moline.” Well, that’s a citizen’s arrest. There are citizen’s arrests made everyday anonymously all over the country by people who are responding instinctively to someone who’s just committed a crime and they’re physically thwarting it either by blocking their path of exit or physically apprehending them, slamming and jamming them until the police arrive. It’s a right that every citizen has, but it’s never taught to citizens and it’s been described to me by criminologists and police scientists as an illegal activity. We have the right to bear arms and people are taught what their rights are when it comes to purchasing fire arms, possessing, and carrying firearms, but there’s no advocate out there telling people how they can make citizens arrests, how it can be done, and how they can avoid either being sued or arrested themselves because they detained the wrong suspect, used excessive physical force, or violated their rights.
Let’s switch focus from the Guardian Angels to competitive eating. How did you become a world champion pickle eater and do you have any plans to return to the world of competitive eating?
I established the world record one year at four and three quarter pounds. The contest took place on the lower East Side of Manhattan. I had done it because I was recovering from gunshot wounds that were inflicted on me by John Gotti Jr’s goons in the summer of 1992. One of the remedies was liquid penicillin- chicken soup. It came from the second avenue deli. The owner, Abe Lebewohl, would send it over each day and even inquire about my health. Unfortunately, he was the victim of violent crime. He was held up at gunpoint, shot, and killed. He had asked me to participate in this contest to represent the lower east side. I could barely consume solid food at that time and I had agreed. That was the first big solid food I’d had, which might be how I was able to set the world record, but I’d also won the contest three times after.
Unfortunately, I’ve suffered gastronomical depression. My head has revolted against my stomach. The stomach wants to continue but the mind has reached a wall. In my last pickle competition, I was so weak that I didn’t even place into the show. I placed third one year at the 4th of July Dirty Water Hot Dog Eating Contest at Nathans, with 16 hot dogs in 12 minutes. That was back in the late 90′s. Now that wouldn’t even qualify you to get into the contest. So, the world of competitive eating has passed this older timer by.
What’s your strangest “only in New York” story?
Probably when I was a kid and we played stickball. You’d hit the ball and sometimes it’d roll into the sewer at the corner where there was a grating. A stick ball, which is a Spaldeen, cost a quarter at the time. That was a lot of money. You figure, “It’s in the sewer. You can’t get it. I guess the game is over.” No! You’d take the scrawniest, skinniest kid, hold him by his ankles, and you’d hold him below the sewer cover. This would be putrid flotsam and jetsam swill and he would have to try to fish the ball out Now, you can imagine that if you were to fall into that pit of sewage you’d probably disintegrate. The fumes alone would curl anybody’s mustache. Anywhere else they’d say, “Forget it, that ball is lost.” Not in New York. The survival instinct is, “Hey, that’s my Spaldeen! I’ll risk my life to retreat it.” And, in the one case of only in New York, although we still don’t believe it, one of the kids claimed to have seen an alligator.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
Rudy Giuliani. When I saw him out there campaigning for the first time in the late 80′s, nobody ever thought that he’d be able to restore any quality of life. I think he proved all of the naysayers incorrect by giving a complete Colonic to New York City. He did something that nobody thought was possible.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
I’d start in education. The public school system is an absolute disaster. 50% of the high school students do not graduate after four years. That is a ticking clock of self-destruction. I’d promote vouchers, tax credits, and get everyone involved in the educational system because education is the answer to a lot of the social problems I see in the streets that lead to kids being incarcerated. Their lives are destroyed because now they have a record. Often times it starts with the fact that they can’t read or write. It’s like they’re almost doomed. Whenever I visit a jail I’m always surprised by the number of young men, and now young women, who cannot read, write, or even know how to communicate.
Under what circumstances have you thought of leaving New York City?
I never have. If you cut my veins and arteries I’d bleed the five boroughs of New York City. Really, more the four boroughs because I hate Manhattan, even though I live in Manhattan. I’m really an outer borough boy. Brooklyn and the Bronx are my favorites. I could deal with Staten Island if I had to. I hate Manhattan. It’s an island of privilege. A canyon of steel and glass. People, at times, are like transients because they’re all there for business. They’re like ships passing in the night. Even though some places have a neighborhood feel to them, for the most part people are nameless and faceless and are sort of like Robby Robot just passing one another in the day and night. In the outer boroughs, you get a sense of real people and real neighborhoods. Even though I have a family and people generally move to the suburbs when they have a family, I’ve never had the urge to do so.
What’s your idea of a perfect day of recreation in New York?
They don’t have it anymore, but it’d be going to a double header at Yankee Stadium. The only thing that can approach that is a twi-nighter. That would be if there was a rain out and they had scheduled two games in the same day. But, being the typical rip off artists and abusers of the national past time that they are, they wouldn’t allow you to see two games for the price of one, which was a key for many of us who were younger. On a Sunday, they’d have a double header. July 4th, a double header. Memorial Day, a double header. You pay one price and you get to see two games. You go out early in the morning, watch batting practice, the first game, there’d be an intermission, watch the second game, and you wouldn’t get home until very late. It was affordable and the greatest entertainment imaginable. So, now if you had a twi-nighter in addition to the day game, that would be the daily double of entertainment and relaxation for me.