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How the Guardian Angels are trying to keep the peace amid looting

The Guardian Angels were founded in 1979. More than 40 years later, they're an active presence around the country and are trying to keep protests safe.
Protests Against Police Brutality Over Death Of George Floyd Continue In NYC
The unarmed volunteer group aims to protect protesters and minimize looting. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

As peaceful demonstrations across the country protest the death of George Floyd, cities such as New York City are seeing looting at night. To combat the looting, curfews have been enacted in many areas, and police officers and National Guard members have been deployed in various states.

One New York City-based organization has offered its own approach.

The Guardian Angels, formed in 1979, is an unarmed civilian patrol group that started out keeping an eye on subway trains during an era when New York City had a high crime rate. Now, they serve as a sort of neighborhood watch group, working to keep communities safe without involving police or politicians. As part of that role, they have in the past often accompanied protests, keeping the demonstrators safe and dealing with any outside instigators or looters.

Protests Against Police Brutality Over Death Of George Floyd Continue In NYC
The Guardian Angels, who wear recognizable red jackets and berets, are trying to prevent looting in major cities. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

"We've been through this before," Curtis Sliwa, 66, the founder of the organization who has been on the streets of New York City for the past week, told TODAY. "When there is insurrection, that's part of the political process. There will be demonstrations. And then all of a sudden, when the sun goes down, it's a whole different order to what's happening, and that's the organized mayhem and looting that you see."

Sliwa said that during past protests, he and the Guardian Angels have served as marshals, a third party that stays on the outer perimeter of the protest to keep things in order without involving police or any outside authority.

"They knew that the Guardian Angels are independent and autonomous," Sliwa said. "It's not the government, it's not the police, but we'll keep people out of harm's way and we'll deal with people who try to get into the group and have their own agenda. So we were very effective (in) doing that for many years for people who would exercise their rights to demonstrate."

Sliwa said that during the current protests, they haven't been asked to serve as marshals during the day, so they've turned all of their attention to trying to minimize looting.

Guardian Angels patrol streets of Manhattan's Chinatown
Before getting involved in the George Floyd protests, the Guardian Angels were patrolling Chinatown due to coronavirus-related attacks on Chinese people, Sliwa said.Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

"We're patrolling SoHo and NoHo, that's where you have all these trendy shops," he said. "We're also patrolling nearby Chinatown, because ever since coronavirus there have been lots of random attacks on Chinese people. ... So we were keeping the peace there, and (when the looting started) the neighborhoods next door were overwhelmed, and the community said, 'Please, get over here, we're getting overwhelmed.'"

In addition to lower Manhattan, Sliwa said that the Guardian Angels are also in Herald Square in midtown Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn, and parts of the Bronx where he said the looting has been "very bad." Beyond New York, there are groups of Guardian Angels in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami, Tampa, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Sliwa said even though he and the 150 Guardian Angels out on the New York streets are unarmed, they've been effective at protecting some stores.

"We've been warding them off, preventing them from looting. ... We're not just 'see something, say something,'" he said. "You have to physically intervene and get between them and the retail establishment and you let them know, 'No, no, you ain't breaking into this store.' And it's a standoff. ... We've established a reputation as, 'Hey, if you're going to come find us, and you think you're going to get behind us or get access to that street, think again.'"

Guardian Angels walk down a street in NYC during the George Floyd protests.
Guardian Angels walk down a street in NYC during the George Floyd protests. Maria Sliwa Public Relations

Despite their efforts, Sliwa said he and his organization can't be everywhere at once.

"Unfortunately for us there's so many other places to go at that point that we're a minor speed bump," he said. "We have to be happy with small victories and saving some of the businesses but realizing that there's so many of them throughout the area. There are a lot of places we are not able to protect."

The efforts haven't been risk-free. On Tuesday night, Sliwa was hit in the jaw with a hammer and another Guardian Angel was "seriously injured" and hospitalized with a broken nose and eye socket, according to a representative for the group. Sliwa said that apart from these injuries, the group has been relatively safe and added that in his experience, the Guardian Angels — who are recognizable in red berets and matching jackets — have been met with goodwill from both protesters and police.

"We have a 41-year track record, a history that goes back, like, three generations," he said. "The demonstrators don't have a bad feeling towards us, the cops don't have a bad feeling, it's the looters that do. ... But this is what needs to be done."