Vancouver's Guardian Angels say they aren't vigilantes
There are a lot of familiar faces along the patrol route for Vancouver Guardian Angels members Vespa Lussier and Timex Loven.
On a Monday evening in the Downtown Eastside, the pair stop to talk with community members as they walk along East Hastings Street.
Several residents wave and greet the duo as they go by, seemingly familiar with the volunteers and their trademark red berets.
While the reactions from passersby appear to be mainly positive, curious, or indifferent, the group’s presence in the neighbourhood does produce a negative reaction from one resident.
A woman in a wheelchair exits a building and begins to shout at the duo as they pass by, telling them they shouldn’t be here, but on Granville Street instead. Lussier finishes the woman’s sentence and says she’s heard the comment many times from the same person.
The pair then walk down an alleyway, greeting people leaning or crouched against buildings.
At the end of the alley, a woman greets them with a smile and gives both Lussier and Loven a hug.
“Hey angels, thanks for being here,” she says.
Lussier, the chapter commander for the Vancouver Guardian Angels, is aware of the mixed reactions the volunteers receive in the city. But as the group increases efforts to expand its membership, she’s hoping to convey the kind of day-to-day work the group’s volunteers do in the community.
While the group was founded in New York and has chapters across North America, Lussier explains that the approach of the Vancouver chapter is unique to most cities.
Lussier and Loven note that a common criticism among the public is that the group is comprised of vigilantes. But they stress that here in Vancouver, that’s not what the group is about.
“Vigilante really means that people that go out there, they’re going to solve crime without anybody’s permission for anything, well Jim Chu, the chief of police, does know that we’re out here and has given us his blessings of us being on the streets,” she said in an interview with the Straight at a coffee shop in the Downtown Eastside.
She also notes there have been no reported incidents of Guardian Angels in Vancouver acting aggressively. In fact, she stresses that the local chapter’s approach is focused on community relations.
“Everything I do is community-minded and very community-based, so I’m hoping that my perception of how community is all about, about inclusion and all that sort of thing, is influence to the new angels that come in,” she explained.
“And then the old angels will pick up that same philosophy that this is community-based, it’s about inclusion, it’s not about judgment, it’s not about violence, it’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about if we want a community to become better, to improve, to flourish, we have to all do our part in it.”
Lussier also notes that while the group does regular patrols through the alleyways off East Hastings Street, they don’t intercept any drug use or deals.
“We know that they’re there, they know that we’re there, but we’re not there to bust up their business,” she said.
“If they see us standing on their street corner, it probably deters some people from possibly making some business, so they just walk somewhere else. They know that it’s not our job to go there and be the police – we’re not the police. But we are there to ensure that people in the community are safe.”
The group currently has 10 active members and 40 members at large. Lussier is hoping to double the group’s active membership. A recent recruitment drive attracted interest from about 20 people, and three have come out to join volunteers on their community patrol, she said.
The Guardian Angels will be holding their next recruitment drive on July 16 in Vancouver.
New Guardian Angels members receive three to four months of training, which includes law, first aid, martial arts and self-defense.
Lussier, who is a psychiatric nurse, said while Guardian Angels do sometimes split up fights, she said the group has a “non-violent crisis intervention” approach.
She prefers to resolve conflicts verbally, rather than approaches that have been used by chapters in some other cities, such as citizen’s arrests. While she said that legally “everybody’s allowed to do that,” she notes she hasn’t done a citizen’s arrest since 1986.
A Vancouver chapter of the Guardian Angels was formed in the early 1980s. The group began to wind down in the early 90s when participation dropped off, and the chapter was started up again in 2006.
In addition to increasing their membership in Vancouver, Lussier also hopes to eventually expand the group’s work to Surrey, if they can get the sign-off from police there.
“There are other areas we would like to go to,” she said. “I think we’ve got to start somewhere to make the awareness spread.”