by Benn Ray
This past Saturday (August 17, 2013) I was talking to a friend in my shop on Falls Rd. in Hampden when in the middle of the conversation, I lost track of my thought - I was struck speechless by what I saw out on Falls Rd.
For a second, I couldn't believe my eyes. And then, for a brief moment, I became unstuck in time. As I watched a group of Guardian Angels parade north down Falls Rd. towards Woodberry, I became disoriented. Is this the 1980s? Am I back in Fells Point in the early-1990s? What's happening?
I was surprised that Baltimore had reestablished a Guardian Angels chapter, but I shouldn't have been. The group of amateur, uniformed vigilantes vowed to return to Baltimore after fleeing the city while awash in controversy decades ago.
In 1990, Angels founder Curtis Silwa told the Baltimore Sun,
"We just felt abandoned in Baltimore. I mean we're fighting a war on drugs and the general in Baltimore -- Kurt Schmoke -- has turned down our request for help, so we're leaving. But, we'll be back. But when we return, we'll be in a cocoon so that we will be protected, so we don't have to go begging to Mayor Schmoke for help."
Not only will they not have to go begging Mayor Schmoke for help, they seem to have found their magical protective cocoon - actual cooperation of Baltimore city officials.
The first Baltimore chapter of Guardian Angels arrived in town in 1981 but disbanded by 1982 because of a lack of interest.
The group returned again in 1989, promising the city they would not engage in controversial citizen arrests. In fact, they were warned by local authorities that if the group insisted on making citizen arrests, they would face legal trouble.
This chapter fled Baltimore late in 1990 after two of its leaders were convicted of assualting a man they believed was a drug dealer - leaving him with 40 stitches. This is when they vowed to return, and they have kept that promise (they also came back in 2011 helping with the Phylicia Barnes missing persons case).
So there I was in my shop, watching a half-dozen of uniformed Guardian Angels marching in a line down Falls Rd., while law-abiding pedestrians were unnerved enough to cross the street to give them a wide berth.
Over the next day or two, concerned residents, remembering the history of the Guardian Angels in Baltimore, as well as the controversy surrounding their whole organization (staged rescues, controversial citizens arrests, violence, etc.), contacted me and asked what they were doing in Hampden.
These sorts of amateur crime watch groups (vigilantes by definition) can, and frequently do, run afoul of the law. For example, there was a 2011 controversy with Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish crimewatch group active in Northwest Baltimore (Upper Park Heights, Greenspring and Pikesville) when:
a black 15-year-old accused Baltimore Shomrim volunteers of accosting him on the street, striking him on the head with a radio and saying, "You don't belong around here" - a predominantly Jewish section of Park Heights.
The Sun reported that members of this group had been charged with false imprisonment, second-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon.
Northern District's Major Kimberly Burrus confirmed that LTC. Melvin Russell is working to coordinate the Guardian Angels' activities with some Baltimore city communities.
What struck me as particularly confusing was that the community had not officially requested their presence (there was no community coordination), but what's more confusing is the time and location they selected to make their appearance.
The police seem to have brought the Guardian Angels into Hampden in response to recent crime issues taking place throughout the Northern District. However, the time (dinner time on a bustling weekend) and location (along Hampden's Avenue - our busy commercial district) seems to have been selected more to increase the group's visibility and profile than to actually respond to specific crime which has been commonly taking place weekday mornings near Wyman Park and Roland Park and during the hours of operation of the methadone clinic.
For example, earlier, only a few blocks over, homes were being burgled in Remington. Wrong time. Wrong location.
So at this point, they've served little purpose except to provoke law-abiding citizens who are unsettled by vigilantes (and more specfically, by this particular controversial group).
I'm hoping we get one of those real-life superheroes next, because the only thing more entertaining than watching a group of Guardian Angels try to deal with some tweaked up Hampden junkies would be watching a dude in a cape tangling with our Baby Stroller Cartel.
But the larger question is, is Baltimore City condoning the acts of vigilantes in its efforts to combat crime? Is the Baltimore City Police Department now relying on the help of controversial, amateur crimefighters, and if so, what kind of message does that send to residents and visitors?