- Ayala, right, strikes a pose on the Met Branch Trail. (Photo: John Hendel)
The Metropolitan Branch Trail is quiet in the early evening. A cyclist will bike by every few minutes on the solid-black path, teenagers will hang by the side, the occasional couple will park themselves at one of the pleasant benches. It's really a gorgeous trail, in spite of or at times because of the graffiti lining many of the walls alongside it and the roar of the Red Line Metro trains in the distance.
I walked back and forth along the mile-and-a-half-long stretch of trail between Franklin Street NE and L Street NE on Wednesday night from 6 to 8 p.m. with a patrol of the security-conscious and decades-old organization known as Guardian Angels, trail advocates, and neighborhood residents. The band hopes to gather every Wednesday and soon Thursday to help deter crime along the trail, which had emerged as a problem in the preceding weeks. I wrote more about those details and how to join these volunteers here yesterday.
By 6:30 p.m., I was on foot and strolling with a Brookland volunteer as well as John Ayala, the 41-year-old head of all Guardian Angels in the mid-Atlantic region. The short man, sporting both a bright red beret and a mustache, has spent 26 years with the Angels, and he talks, moves, and thinks fast. His attitude veers from over-the-top to matter-of-fact. At one point, he realized he'd dropped his beads and whistle several feet back due to the enthused way he swung them around. His phone is never far — it's how he communicates and schedules the different Guardian Angel patrols throughout the week. "Just a Verizon droid but it works for me!" Ayala said with a laugh when I asked him. These Guardian Angels are often young, around 18-25 in D.C., and patrol all over, each devoting around 8 hours a week and patrolling the city's Metro trains and buses, its neighborhoods from Anacostia to Adams Morgan. Within five minutes, he referred to throwing something up on his Facebook page.
An in-depth 1998 City Paper feature, which discussed Ayala's role in detail, questioned whether the Angels were more comic than comic-book hero. Their reputation and reception shifts depending on who you talk to, but Ayala's own resolve stays firm. He was sensitive to the perception of vigilantism and cozying up to media as well as stressed the Angels' credo of no guns, no handcuffs, and building community trust.
We walked and talked of many things. Ayala, for instance, used to be a tagger himself back in the day. He spoke of his schedule, how when not coordinating the Angels (how he spends most his hours), he drives a charter bus. Late that night, in the a.m., he would need to wake up to navigate one. We also spoke of how crime in D.C. had changed.
When he described two buildings in Anacostia firing guns back and forth at one another, all in a setting where many of the young residents couldn't even answer why they were, I asked him whether things ever really seemed bad or worse over time. Ayala has spent 26 years with the Guardian Angels, starting as a young teenager.
Ayala paused to consider. Crime statistics overall have improved, he said, according to all the official police and political measures. The madness of the '80s had cooled down. The crack cocaine that dominated the streets and put people out of their mind ... all that was less of an epidemic.
But Ayala pointed to a different war dominating Washington D.C. in the 21st-century. The head Guardian Angel remarked that our city is under siege — a real, violent, heartbreaking threat — from its youth, many of whom are completely out of control. The psychology of youth is complicated in the District. Often, Ayala said, the problem comes down to numbers. Young people will gather on a Metro train or at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station in four, five, six or more people. They want to be in a group because they don't want any hostile rivals to find them alone, isolated. In a group, teenagers will get restless and badger a rider — harmless at first, perhaps, but the peer environment builds tendencies and pressures. Soon violence and harm can occur. In 2010, a quarter of Metro's arrests were juveniles, The Examiner reported earlier this year, amounting to 507 teenagers arrested and a significant increase compared to years prior.
I mentioned the Metro Party Boys to Ayala and explained that this perception of violent, antagonistic youth had inspired them to take to the trains with song and dance. He laughed and liked that, although we also talked about the inevitable problem. Many Metro riders didn't want that sort of entertainment on their commute.
We continued our stroll until a little after 8 p.m. Ayala coordinated with a new Guardian Angel recruit, explaining how his team of volunteers debriefed after a patrol and making sure he had his contact information. As dusk settled onto the Metropolitan Branch Trail, I realized that I would be walking alone for a half mile to the New York Avenue Metro station — all this after countless talk from the patrol about the virtues of traveling in a pack. I smiled and walked off alone into the night, nodding hello at all those I met on the way to my ride home.