Friday, April 13, 2007

COLUMN: Angels?

"There's a feelin' in the air that you can't get anywhere except the Quad Cities... where the rivers flow through the hometowns we know/Friends and neighbors building pride."

Unless you live under a rock, you know those lyrics. They're part of the jingle that local station KWQC uses in their ads and the TV news. Yes, it's super cheezy, and yes, the same jingle is probably employed in twenty other markets around the country ("...that you can't get anywhere except [insert town name here].")

But, in a corny way, I've always kinda liked that tune. There really IS a feelin' in the air that you can't get anywhere but here. We're big city enough to have thriving commerce and a fun nightlife, but we're also small-town enough to be able to stop and watch the river float by. We've got industry and big buildings and multi-lane roads, but we're also less than a five minute drive to a cornfield when the need to escape hits.

And it's this occasional small-town mindframe, rare in a city this size, that makes the Quad Cities twinkle. From trivia fundraisers where total strangers come up and share food... to waiting in line at a gas station and sparking up a temporary friendship with the person next to you... to a show at Music Guild where you can experience a community supporting the arts. Folks, it's the closest this columnist ever gets to warm fuzzies.

But those fuzzies shriveled up in a heartbeat a couple weekends ago. I was on my way to one of those trivia nights in Davenport and had just crossed the Arsenal bridge headed to Brady Street. That was when I saw them: the red berets of the Guardian Angels.

This is one of those subjects that drives people to, at the very least, write very nasty things in the forums of QCOnline. The Guardian Angels have come to Davenport. The streets will soon be patrolled by a batallion of volunteers who have submitted to the Angels' intensive training sessions of martial arts, CPR, self-defense, and First Aid. Vigilante justice, right here in River City.

"No-o-o," say the group's members and supporters, "The Guardian Angels are NOT vigilantes."

Vig•i•lan•te (n.) A member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily, as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate.

That's what Webster's has to say about vigilantes. Sorry, Angels, but what are you if not that?

I remember the first time I ever saw a Guardian Angel. I was fresh out of high school, and a carload of my friends and I decided to drive up and explore Chicago. I've been to the Windy City a jillion times since, but I'll never forget that first trip sans parents. We saw things young Galesburgers hadn't been exposed to outside of cop shows: Projects. Burning cars. Subway rats. And, yes, a Guardian Angel riding in our train.

And what feeling came over me when I first noticed the Angel? A feeling of peace, safety, and security knowing that this guy had our back if something went down? Nope. I thought this: I am in a very, very dangerous place right now. If this subway car needs a beefy dude in a beret to protect its occupants, this is NOT a place for 17-year-old me right now.

Is that the impression we want to make of our communities? What's our new tourism motto to be? "Welcome to the Quad Cities. Don't worry, we have people who can protect you!"

Look, you don't have to tell me that our cities have problems. I work at a newspaper, and I read the headlines for myself. But has it come to THIS? Are our police so ill-prepared and unrespected that we need a volunteer army to wander around and make downtown Davenport look like its under martial law?

The answers shouldn't have to come from the public. They should come from those employed to enforce the law, and THEIR bosses -- our elected officials. We need more police on the streets, we need concentrated social programs to uplift impoverished areas, we need economic development to bring jobs to town. Kids need options OTHER than drugs and guns. It's not an easy road, but it's a road worth walking. As long as we've got brains in our heads, we shouldn't have to fight fire with fire.

I'm not trying to disrespect the guys who have heeded the Angels' call for volunteers. In fact, I applaud them. These are dudes who are SO concerned about their community that they're willing to risk their necks for it. That's commendable. It has to take some serious guts to put one of those berets on. But it shouldn't have to come to this. Not here, not where the rivers flow through the hometowns we know.

I'm not the guy with the answers. I'm just one voice that happens to have a newspaper column that I can occasionally turn into a soapbox. We DO desperately need to curb violent crime, but by turning our problems over to the Angels, we're no longer friends and neighbors building pride, we're just people building anxiety, paranoia, and consternation. And those are some pretty sucky words to have to rhyme a new jingle to.

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