When Aaron Brilbeck was 14 in upstate New York, he told a lie he does not regret. The minimum age to join the crime-prevention nonprofit Guardian Angels was 16, but he wanted to sign up for the group’s training and unarmed community patrols.
“The woman who recruited me was in her 70s and very well respected in her neighborhood,” Brilbeck recalled Sunday at a press conference to announce his formation of a Guardian Angels chapter in Oklahoma City. “We’re going to start recruiting immediately. The goal is to go out and create peace within troubled neighborhoods and to serve as role models within those neighborhoods.”
After his informal presser, Brilbeck watched as media recorded combat demonstrations orchestrated by potential Guardian Angels and members of Oklahoma Combatives, a school that teaches the combative system Krav Maga.
Normally, as Capitol reporter for News 9, Brilbeck finds himself on the other side of such weekend press events.
‘Sometimes people just need someone to listen’
I had driven to Oklahoma Combatives on Sunday as a journalist preparing to cover news being announced by one of my colleagues.
Whenever journalists wear multiple hats in their communities, it poses an interesting and complex set of circumstances. I thought I would unpack them a little if possible. I should know the scenario: My other hat is a baseball cap, and I coach at a local high school.
Brilbeck’s other hat, however, is a red beret, part of the Guardian Angels’ uniform that he has worn on nights and weekends for about 35 years.
“I’ve either started or helped to start the chapters in Syracuse, New York, Albany, New York, Schenectady, New York, Troy, New York, Detroit, Michigan, Cleveland, Ohio, Toledo, Ohio. There’s a very long list,” Brilbeck said before detailing one specific night on patrol in Madison, Wisconsin. “As we were walking past an alleyway, I looked down the alleyway and I saw three guys kicking a girl who was on her hands and knees. They were beating her up pretty good. We went, we intervened, we stopped that, got her medical attention, got the police there and got those guys arrested. That was about a year ago.”
After his press event had ended, Brilbeck and I sat outside and discussed the complications of being a journalist while also wanting to lead community projects. (As an example of the type of disclosures journalists have to weigh whether to make, I’ll note that Brilbeck recently purchased a $20 T-shirt in support of the baseball team I coach.)
“There’s a difference between my professional life and my Guardian Angel life,” he said. “My bosses are very supportive of me because they understand that this is something that improves the community. Channel 9 is an interesting station to work for in that, when you talk with the owner, David Griffin, he genuinely, genuinely cares about Oklahoma. He wants it to be a better place.”
We talked through hypothetical scenarios wherein Brilbeck personally would be unable to cover, say, a criminal altercation that the Guardian Angels were heavily involved in reporting to police. While news is always news, sometimes reporters must pass a story to a co-worker if they are too personally connected. (For instance, News 9 had a separate reporter and cameraman at Brilbeck’s presser Sunday.)
“There’s a fine line, and as journalists, we’re there to be observers. We’re not there to be right in the thick of things. But the reality is, as being observers, we’re right there in the thick of things,” Brilbeck said. “Most journalists I know do some type of community service.”
He told the story of how Guardian Angels formed in Brooklyn, New York, in 1979 when a McDonald’s franchisee started working to protect his customers from being mugged. Brilbeck said much of the organization’s job is visual deterrence and conflict resolution.
“As a journalist, I’ve learned how to listen to people over the years; take time to find out what their issues are and what their stories are,” he said. “That helps me a lot when I’m out on patrol. When people are fighting, there’s very high emotions going on there. Sometimes people just need someone to listen to them and talk them down. That’s the bulk of what we do with Guardian Angels.”
‘I used to be terribly afraid’
In Oklahoma City, potential Guardian Angel members will have to complete a three-month training and vetting process. That training will include basic first aid and CPR, as well as legal information and the self-defense offered by trainers at Oklahoma Combatives.
Brilbeck said Guardian Angels will start six- to 12-person patrols three or four times per week in yet-to-be-identified neighborhoods and districts. He said the Oklahoma City Police Department has assigned the group a liaison, and he said Guardian Angels will outfit their patrol groups with body cameras.
Former letter carrier and current engineer Dianne Rabourn has been studying Krav Maga for about two years and will be seeking to become a Guardian Angel once more people sign up and training begins.
“I just got very excited when Aaron started talking about this project,” Rabourn said. “So once I get the training and he believes I’m all ready to go, I’ll be out there.”
Rabourn worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 17 years, delivering mail in neighborhoods from wealthy to poor. She said she hopes her past experiences help her be a good Guardian Angel for anyone she encounters who is facing trouble.
“I used to be terribly afraid. I was in an abusive marriage. Got beat up quite a few times, so I was just paralyzed with fear,” Rabourn said before praising her Krav Maga training. “This has gotten me to where I can attack if they attack me, which is a huge step for me.”
Rabourn said she hopes the program increases unity across the city.
“You see a lot of division, and that’s not good for anybody,” she said. “We can do a whole lot more together than we can apart.”
‘Laying the seeds with the community’
Elijah Malachi X Mothershed Bey expressed similar sentiments. He runs M.A.N. 101 and attended Sunday’s announcement in preparation of promoting Guardian Angels among other community efforts and organizations.
“I think this is something that could be safe and a complement to what I’m already doing. I work as a male mentor in the criminal court system and the criminal justice system,” Mothershed Bey said. “I agree with the no-weapons community patrols (of Guardian Angels). Especially in Hispanic and African-American communities, visual deterrents are the first front line of action to stop violence.”
Moments later, Mothershed Bey found himself being trained how to disarm a pistol-wielding perpetrator at close range. He had just watched an officer with a federal law enforcement agency learn the same maneuver. That officer praised Krav Maga for its “simplicity” and offered his opinion of the Guardian Angel program on the condition of anonymity.
“I think it’s an ideal thing for community involvement,” he said. “Because, in today’s world, you can’t count on the police to be everywhere. I just think it’s a wonderful and helpful idea.”
Mothershed Bey agreed.
“We’ve already been prepping the ground for this,” Mothershed Bey said. “We’ve already been laying the seeds with the community.”
Now, Brilbeck and his supporters need community members interested in joining the Guardian Angels to contact him by email at AaronElm@hotmail.com or by phone at (405) 669-0632.
“Right now, what we need is bodies, people who are willing to step up, go through the training and make a difference in their community,” Brilbeck said.