Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.
“I was born in Brooklyn and raised in Staten Island. The community that I lived in was overrun with crack cocaine. A lot of my friends got into selling drugs. I, personally, didn’t think that was for me, and I went in the opposite direction. When I was eight years old, I joined the Young Marines. When I was older, I remember seeing the Guardian Angels in my neighborhood. I thought they were a gang because of how they looked. They were all wearing the same outfits and looked like gangsters. But I questioned them about what they were doing, and they told me they were out to be role models and help the community.
“When I was 14, I joined the Guardian Angels. You needed to be 16 to join, but I lied about my age. I didn’t have any brothers, only younger sisters, so it was nice to have all of these guys as older brothers to me. Every Angel has a code name. I always thought that John was too common. They call a man without a name John Doe. A toilet is a john. A man who picks up prostitutes is a john. I said that I needed something unique and that’s where the name come from.
“I came to D.C. 21 years ago, when I was 19. At that time, crack cocaine was terrible in the D.C. area. A lady in Bladensburg, Maryland, reached out to the Angels in New York and asked us to come help her keep the Mattapony Apartments safe. The police were outmanned and outgunned, and they heard about the good work that we were doing up in New York. I was just out of high school and offered to move. I came down to patrol the area, recruit people, and start the Guardian Angeles in the area. I had a couple of guys come down from New York occasionally to help me, but I basically did this by myself. It was my duty to stay here and help make the community safer.
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“My goal is to get as many young people involved and keep kids away from drugs and violence. The problem is that we are working against so much negative stuff on TV, in the rap videos, and on video games. Plus, so many young black men don’t have black guys to look up to. We are working to be role models for these kids and bring the positive back to the neighborhoods. People want to do something to help their community. They just don’t know how. We help provide positive options. We don’t want to bring people from outside the community to fix things. We want the change to come from within, which is why we recruit people from the neighborhoods where we work.
“The truth is that I haven’t seen that much of a difference in crime since I got here. Statistics show that crime has dropped, but I personally don’t see it. Obviously, it depends on where you are, but we are in Southeast now and people here don’t feel safe. There are still murders and drugs on these streets. Years ago, if someone robbed a woman here, you would need the police to come and stop the community from beating the thief. Now, they don’t call the police at all because they don’t trust the police or because they’ve given up.
“People always say to me they don’t have time to help. Come on, put down that XBox and come and help your community. Right now, I could be home relaxing, but I am here. I drive the Bolt Bus five days a week back-and-forth to New York and I still make time to patrol these streets. If we don’t fight back, the criminals will take over.”
John is the Director for the D.C. Metropolitan area Guardian Angels.