First Person Singular: Guardian Angel John "Unique" Ayala

John "Unique" Ayala, 41 is founder and director of the D.C. Guardian Angels. Here he patrols the Potomac Gardens housing complex after a recent spate of crime in the area. (KK Ottesen - )
  Enlarge Photo    
Sunday, January 30, 2011

I first seen the Guardian Angels when I was 14. They was in my neighborhood looking for a missing girl. It was a whole bunch of them. They looked like a big gang to me, the way they was dressed. I was like, Who are them people? I went up, talked to them and found out these are a group of guys out to do good in the community, help the police, trained in the martial arts. I said, "Man, this sounds like something I would like to do." I had younger sisters, and I didn't like them seeing guys smoking their drugs, [urinating] in the back stairwell in our building, stuff like that. You were supposed to be 16 to get into the Angels, but at 15, I gave them a call.

I was in the group for six months before my mom knew. One day, I was out patrolling, and I was seen on "PM Magazine," a news show in New York. My mom, my grandmother, everybody saw me on TV; I couldn't deny it. My mom got mad, and she called Curtis Sliwa [the founder] and went off: "How could you have my son join the Guardian Angels without parent consent? I like this organization, but it's not for my son; he's my only boy." Curtis was like, "Look, the neighborhood you live in, your son could go either way: He could become a gang banger, or he could be out here with guys that are doing something positive in the community. He's gonna get involved with something, so which way you want him to go?"

I couldn't wait to get out there and patrol with the guys; it was exciting. We would go stand out with the neighborhood drug dealers, let them know: You're not going to sell no drugs. They would talk a lot of [stuff]. But even if the dealer tried, buyers would come and see Guardian Angels -- like barricades in red berets -- and they were like, "I'm not taking a chance with them there." So they would leave, and the dealers would lose business. We get threats all the time, but 99 percent of the time we're in the street, nothing happens. We are a deterrent.

Everything that the Guardian Angels do is psychological, to send a message: You have to fight back. The bad guys don't want you to get involved. "Snitches get stitches" -- that's their campaign. They want you afraid, to close the blinds, you know, put locks and bolts on your door, get the pit bull. You do that, they rule your community. But if you actually put them shades up, hang out on your porch, see what's going on, report crime when you see it, crime is gonna stop in your neighborhood. People don't want to commit crimes where people are telling on them. Look, we're out here doing it. You can do it, too.

-- Interview by KK Ottesen

© 2011 The Washington Post Company