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Subculture: Street Ambassador

The latest in a series of miniature portraits of life on the fringes.

As Told to Elena Gooray


Paul Scott. (Photo: Alex Boerner)

Vigilantism has a dark history in America: From the mutual-protection agencies of the 19th-century frontier to street patrols by armed white-nationalist groups, the term has been synonymous with racial discrimination and violence. But in some communities, another form of vigilantism exists — one focused on preventive outreach to stem violence before it happens.

  • About 10 years ago, we adopted one block in our community. We encouraged others to adopt one block if they want to stop crime. We started going through our blocks giving out information, positive CDs, giving snacks to the children.
  • When somebody gets shot, everybody jumps up, wants to do something, and then a week later nobody’s talking about it. We’re trying to get there five seconds before the crime is committed — trying to create that atmosphere so that it won’t happen.

A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

Buy this issue now


  • We’ve been called vigilantes, which I guess is fine. Being a vigilante is being proactive. And in that case, I’d give examples like the Guardian Angels and the Black Panther Party, who were considered vigilantes.
  • The glamorization, the misrepresentation, is that you can just go into a community and break up fights and everybody’s going to be glad to see you. It took me six months to actually get to know these people so they would talk to me.
  • In Durham, a lot of the politicians and the police, their only ideology on stopping crime is police-centric. It begins and ends with the police department.
  • A rookie [police officer] has pulled up, wondering what we’re doing, asking questions, but, for the most part, it’s live and let live. I don’t deal with the police, good, bad, or indifferent. What we do is keep the police department totally out of the conversation, totally out of the equation.
  • When we first started, a young person came up to us — probably about 15 years old — and said, “I got to look out for you all, because y’all fed my mama.” And that’s the type of relationship you have to build with people. Very few people are gonna be mad at you for giving them a bag of potato chips.
  • We had a record rate of murders last year. And something had to be done. To me the police should only show up when a crime has been committed. So I said, why don’t we take that same energy that we have been using to politicize the gangs, politicize the young people. We started giving out black history books.
  • My job is to put the police department out of business, whereby the police will be no longer necessary and the school-to-prison pipeline is completely shut down.

—Paul Scott, 49, church minister, Durham, North Carolina (as told to Elena Gooray)