Looking for Trouble

Lisa Sliwa and the Angels find it in Boston
By KEITH W. JENKINS AND PETER CANELLOS  |  September 4, 2009

guardian-angels-main
Photo: Keith W. Jenkins
Guardian Angel Lisa Sliwa and Councilman Charley Yancey

This article originally appeared in the September 4, 1984 issue of the Boston Phoenix

As he does every night, the custodian is riding the red line from Mattapan to his job in Central Square, where he's supposed to start work at midnight. He watches as a group of Guardian Angels leaves the car at Fields Corner, and he confides to another passenger that he can't understand why anyone is so worked up about the Angels and what they did in Mattapan. "Anybody with common sense can't be against them," he says.

He is black and in his 50s. He's lived in Mattapan all his life. Now he lives in fear. Fear of being on the streets alone at night. Alone with the kids who hang out there "drinking beer, smokin' reefer, trying to out-cuss each other&ldots;. And you can't say nothin' to them 'cause they'll kill you."

The custodian was not on the corner of Morton and West Selden Streets along the Mattapan-Dorchester line the night of Wednesday, August 22, when a squad of six Angels went looking for trouble. It was around 9 o'clock. They were on a bus headed up Morton Street, and as it approached West Selden, they sense they'd found trouble -- about 20 kids hanging out at the corner. In their red berets and T-shirts, the Angels jumped off the bus. But this time, instead of preventing trouble, they got into it. There was a discussion, followed by some taunts from the neighborhood kids and then a shoving match, which broke up before anyone was seriously hurt.

The next night, around the same time, the Morton Street bus brought the Angels back again - back to assert their right to patrol the neighborhood. But the patrol had grown, either to a dozen (by Angel accounts) or to 20 (according to some witnesses). The street-corner crowd had grown to about 60. First there was an argument, then fists flew. Minutes later, as the police arrived, a bottle sailed out of the crowd. A 16-year-old Angel tried to deflect the bottle with his arm and was cut. Police broke up the crowd and took the young Angel to the hospital for stitches to his hand.

With the Angels' decision to meet force with force, a molehill was turned into a mountain, and that mountain got bigger and bigger in the days that followed. In their zealous pursuit of some abstract form of order and community safety, the Angels left confusion and chaos in their wake. After a week of histrionics, failed diplomacy at City Hall, and tests of territoriality in Mattapan, it was easy to forget the story's small-time beginnings.

***

Georgette Watson, a long-time anti-crime activist in the Dorchester-Mattapan community and an early supporter of the Angels was furious. After the first two nights of friction, she condemned their "gang mentality" and practically championed the kids who'd confronted them. "Crime and hostility are present in all neighborhoods," she said. "The kids were hanging out because it was hot." She suggested that if the Angels had known the neighborhood, they might not have gotten into the first night's trouble.

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