Some criminal informers who are allowed to remain free commit more crimes; some return to crime after a shortened prison sentence; some frame others, or tell prosecutors what they want to hear. Boston defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate says the system encourages defendants “not only to sing, but to compose.”
According to a study by the Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, 51 of the 111 wrongful death penalty convictions since the 1970s were based in whole or in part on the testimony of witnesses who had an incentive to lie.
Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says that, based on federal statistics, one of every four black men from 20 to 29 is behind bars, on probation or on parole, and under pressure to snitch. She estimates one in 12 of all black men in the highest-crime neighborhoods are snitching.
She says informers strain the social fabric of poor minority neighborhoods, where as many as half the young men have been arrested. “Every family gathering, every party, every backyard barbecue probably has someone who’s secretly working as an informer.”
This is the world Rayco Saunders inhabits. It’s filled, as he puts it, with “guys doin’ all this crime and not doin’ no time, because they’re telling on the next man.”
“If the word ‘snitch’ comes out of someone’s mouth, I go insane,” says Pellegrini, the Pittsburgh prosecutor.
Saunders says he hates snitching so much that he not only wears the T-shirts himself but has given them as gifts to friends and relatives. “They love the T- shirts,” he says. “It’s way overdue for somebody to step up and speak about these things that’s going on with these informants and these guys walking around here with immunity to do whatever they want to do.”
Perhaps the most dangerous form of snitching that takes place in urban spaces is wet (also known as hard) snitching. Unlike dry snitching, which maintains a degree of indirection and unawareness, wet snitching occurs when an individual acts as a government informant in order to eliminate or reduce his or her own legal liability. Given the nature of most commercial anti-snitching messages — for example, recent t-shirts contain quotes like “I’ll Never Tell” and “Niggas Just Lookin’ For A Deal” — wet snitching is both the most reviled and relevant form within hip-hop culture.
While informants have always played a critical role in the government’s surveillance, infiltration, and destruction of countless progressive social organizations, informants have become increasingly central to the prosecution of ordinary citizens. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, nearly 40 percent of drug trafficking prosecutions that resulted in sentences of 10 years or more (a population in which blacks and Latinos are grossly overrepresented) were directly connected to the contributions of informants. While at first glance this type of data may signal progress in the government’s ostensible war against crime, a closer look reveals both moral and practical shortcomings.
While the practice of snitching has drastically increased the amount of drug arrests and convictions, it has also undermined the overall well being of America’s most economically and politically vulnerable communities. According to Loyola professor Alexandra Natapoff, who published a groundbreaking 2004 article, “Snitching: The institutional and Communal Consequences”, mandatory (and, I would argue, race targeted) drug sentencing laws, combined with the reduction of judicial flexibility have created tens of thousands of snitches who are mainly operating within poor, crime ridden neighborhoods. While snitching does not only occur within black and Latino communities, such areas are particularly susceptible, since one out of every four black and one out of every eight Latinos between 20 and 29 are under criminal supervision at any time. Given this reality, it is not surprising that, according to Natapoff, one out of every four young blacks are under pressure to snitch at any time. It is also not surprising that one out of 12 black men currently function as snitches within their communities in exchange for reduced criminal liability and continued police “protection”.
At a moment when civil liberties are in jeopardy for all Americans due to the Patriot Act and sophisticated forms of domestic spying, the proliferation of snitches creates a new set of problems for ghetto denizens. Increased violence, sustained crime rates, growing distrust of fellow citizens (imagine going to the basketball court, barbershop, or the local bar knowing that one in twelve people in your community — and possibly that guy sitting right next to you — is a government informant), destruction of positive community-police relationships, and the invasion of privacy for law-abiding citizens are all consequences of the ghetto snitch industry. Instead of merely enabling the drug culture’s foot soldiers to “flip” on big bosses (the expressed governmental intent of wet snitching), the current system often allows everyone to trade information for leniency, not least because the government is drowning in overstocked dockets and the criminals are masterful manipulators of the truth.
Indeed, in addition to fracturing communities with their deeds, snitches are notoriously unreliable in their testimony. To satisfy the conditions of their agreements, settle personal scores, or support their own criminal activity (which must be sustained in order to continue procuring information for the government — how’s that for a catch-22?), snitches often manufacture stories and falsely accuse friends, family, neighbors, and rivals of criminal acts. According to the Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, nearly half of the nation’s wrongful death penalty convictions are due to the information provided by snitches.
It has become increasingly apparent that the practice of snitching is undergirded by tragically flawed public policies that have vicious effects on the stability and integrity of black and Latino communities. Given this reality, it is no wonder that many within the hip-hop community have openly rejected the practice of snitching. Unfortunately, the “no snitching” code, now appropriated as a fashion statement, has often been articulated without critical nuance and has resulted in an extremist position that betrays its own inherent complexity.
In order to fully understand the legitimacy of the “Stop Snitching” movement within hip-hop, it is important to make a distinction between snitching and witnessing. While witnessing can be rightly considered a necessary civic practice in order to create and sustain safe communities, snitching is itself an act of moral turpitude. While a witness is an asset to truth and justice, the snitch is motivated primarily or entirely by self-interest. While witnesses are committed to upholding social contracts, snitches inevitably undermine them. Given this distinction, it seems that the bulk of the public outcry in favor of snitching is actually a plea for witnesses.
In building their case, anti-snitching pundits often cite instances in which acts of random or unnecessary violence go unpunished due to the public’s refusal to act responsibly. A classic example of this “Bad Samaritan” behavior occurred in 1997 when seven-year-old Sherrice Iverson was molested and strangled in a Las Vegas bathroom stall by Jeremy Strohmeyer. Although Strohmeyer eventually confessed to the crime, police were unaided by his friend David Cash, who acknowledged witnessing the event but did not feel compelled to notify authorities.
While the public disgust and rejection of Cash’s acts were nearly unanimous, such examples often serve as straw arguments — even the most ardent anti-snitching voices would condemn Cash’s decision — that obscure more legitimate and commonplace moral dilemmas. For example, what should Cash have done if he had caught Strohmeyer stealing chips from the casino or smoking marijuana instead of assaulting the young girl? In this instance, the necessity of acting as a witness becomes more debatable. The potential reasons for this shift in sentiment are varied: a lack of deference for the particular laws that protect gambling establishments, a collective distrust of the particular casino or the casino industry, a lack of interest in punishing recreational drug use (they may smoke marijuana, as well), or fear of repercussions from the offender. For these and many other reasons, many people would opt to “mind my own business” under such circumstances. Like the hip-hop community, the larger American public makes decisions about snitching based on their own level of commitment to particular rules, laws, and groups, as well as their consideration of the particular stakes attached to intervening. We all make this decision to some degree or another, many times in our lives.
The most prominent critiques of the “Stop Snitching” campaign represent yet another failure of the general public to acknowledge the depth and truth-value of the hip-hop community’s social commentary. Upon closer examination, an anti-snitching posture is a response to a set of circumstances, some unique and others universal, that many members of the hip-hop generation face. Clearly, the complexity of these circumstances cannot be adequately addressed through an “either-or” position on snitching. By advocating snitching under all circumstances, we ignore the moral dilemmas that are part and parcel of the practice. Also, we ascribe a level of unearned trust and moral authority to formal institutions, such as the government, despite its consistent indifference to the well being of its most defenseless citizens.
Conversely, by not articulating the particular rules and conditions under which snitching is highly problematic, the hip-hop community creates the conditions for a fundamentalist reading of a “don’t talk to cops” social text. Surely this can lead to the type of moral irresponsibility and social decline that snitching advocates believe already exists. The solution, then, rests upon our ability to cease looking for simple answers to complex issues and begin the difficult work of open, engaged, and public dialogue about both snitching and witnessing.
The shirt wars, however, obscure the fact that there are different types of reluctant witnesses. There are the bystanders, who fear retaliation. There are the shooter’s crew, who are loyal to their friend. There are the victim’s crew, who often prefer to handle payback themselves.
Finally, there are the liars — criminals who allegedly bargain for lenience on their own offenses by testifying falsely against innocent persons. The shirtmakers claim that this is the type of snitching the shirt condemns. “We were thinking about how the legal system uses people to turn on each other in exchange for plea deals,” says Tangg. “How they give people a motive to lie.”
That’s also how the shirt was apparently intended when the mother of Joseph Cousin, who was on trial for the murder of 10-year-old Trina Persad earlier this year, infamously wore it into court one day. The key witness in the case, a 15-year-old male, admitted to stealing the car used in the crime, helping to plan the shooting, and acting as lookout. Homicide detectives let him off with no jail time, in exchange for testifying against Cousin. Cousin’s mother believes — rightly or not — that her son is innocent, and therefore that this witness is lying to save his own skin. (A mistrial was declared for unrelated reasons, and a retrial will be held next year.)
Tangg insists the shirt was not intended to intimidate witnesses at a trial. “In no way are we saying that people should not testify,” he says, adding that “there are places to wear the shirt, and court is not one of them.”
Most teens and young adults in Boston’s high-crime areas questioned by this reporter over the past year define snitching as agreeing to testify against a friend in exchange for a reduced sentence. Few think the shirts are a warning that bystanders will be shot for cooperating.
But neither O’Toole nor Menino seems to appreciate the enormous resentment and ill will that comes from the high-pressure deals for testimony that go on routinely inside the BPD walls, which pit friend against friend, and family against family. Individuals guilty of little or nothing get threatened with harsh charges if they don’t cooperate, while known criminals work deals that send them back to the streets.
Besides, the mayor’s righteous indignation over the “code of silence” in the streets looks awfully hypocritical: the same code exists within his police department, and he’s never complained publicly about that.
But perhaps most important, by grouping all witnesses together — and all of the shirts’ tens of thousands of wearers together (Tangg says roughly 25,000 to 35,000 have been sold in Boston and elsewhere) — Menino has drawn a line between “us” and “them” in exactly the wrong place. Menino, the Boston Police Department, and the district attorney need those bystander witnesses to side with the authorities against the relatively small number of violent criminals causing the trouble. Instead, Menino has effectively labeled hip-hop culture as the enemy of law enforcement.
According to reports, Menino had no idea that the people selling the shirt are popular local rappers and businessmen, as well as trendsetters of hip-hop fashion who are also responsible for the currently hot faux-bulletproof vests. Certainly nobody expects Tom Menino to have Tangg’s “Rap Star (All I Ever Wanted)” loaded on his iPod. But his unfamiliarity with the culture’s leaders only reinforced the distance between city authority and city youth as he rushed to demonize the shirts.
Few law-abiding citizens would agree that legitimate witnesses to a crime should be intimidated into refusing to cooperate. Yet it’s also true that there is a long history of abusive law-enforcement practices, in which witnesses are pressured by police and prosecutors to “sing” their way to less severe punishments — not to mention those taught to “compose” false testimony. As a result of using some of those tactics on witnesses, Massachusetts has seen a rash of false convictions in recent years, particularly in Suffolk County (See “Let Us Now Praise Framed-up Men,” News and Features, April 9, 2004). Hence, there’s legitimate controversy surrounding the social benefits of “snitchin’,” where witnesses are subject to improper pressures and suggestions as to what they should be testifying.
We rely on MySpace.com to help spread the Movement, which is one of educating people on the Snitching (Criminal Informant) aspect of the legal system and it’s effects on communities.
This page, this movement, and our website, StopSnitching.com, are in no way advocating Witness Intimidation. While the local authorities and the Government would like people to believe that Witness Intimidation is our goal… It is NOT.