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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Please, do snitch!

Hello folks. I haven't posted the past week or so, 'cause to be frank I came back too soon.

I found after that last post on cell phones that it took Herculean effort to try to crack a joke. Couldn't do it. So since then I've just been easing back into my groove by focusing on the element of my gig that pays the bills: reporting.

I'm wrapping up one story on child custody today (hopefully) that I was working on for weeks before my bereavement leave, and I have another on political partisanship among 30- and 40-somethings that I'll be knocking out early next week. And for those of you who need a good laugh, I'm working on a video project in which I will take on my nemesis - knock down furniture, complete with unclear assembly instructions - in time trials. That video story is scheduled to post on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

On a personal note, Mrs. B is doing very well. We're getting there. Things are looking up. Etc. Etc. As the kid's say, it's all good...or is on it's way to being so.

So without further ado, back to blogging.

A colleague of mine, Andrea Robinson, wrote an article about the "Stop Snitching" movement last week, explaining that this "movement" appears to be gaining ground again and that it's frustrating local law enforcement. The next day, the mother of the late rapper Jam Master Jay, of Run-DMC fame, spoke out about the "Stop Snitching" movement hindering the solution of her son's murder. If you're not aware, "stop snitching" is a bit of tough guy slang that discourages witnesses to violent crimes from telling the police what they saw.

Some folks call it hip-hop/rap jargon. Some folks are ballsy enough to call it a black thing. But if you know your American pop culture history then you know the notion of "stop snitching" goes back to gangster movies from the Prohibition era in which white characters with names like Johnny the Nose and Frankie the Chin would declare "I ain't talkin!" or "I didn't see nothin'!"

We even encourage "stop snitching" in kids. Think about it. What happened when your older sibling smacked you in the head and you ran crying to mom or dad? What did your folks say? "Don't be a tattle tale!" In other words, "Suck it up and deal with the fact that you got assaulted, because your silence is more admirable than your assailant's behavior is distasteful!"

Still, in recent years the movement has been bolstered, unfortunately, by its commercial promotion in some rap music. An artist in Baltimore several years ago even made a widely distributed documentary-type video in which "snitches" were lambasted. At least one professional athlete gleefully appeared in the video. T-shirts bearing the phrase sold like hot cakes too.

Aside from the immorality of seeing one person harm another and not making an effort to help set things right by reporting the perpetrator, here's my problem with this movement: Not "snitching" does not help the depressed neighborhoods where so much violent crime takes place. It does not bring residents closer together. It does not prevent further violent crime.

Not snitching helps one person and one person only: the person who allegedly committed the crime. No doubt he appreciates you keeping what you witnessed to yourself. But what are you getting out of it?

A buddy of mine attempted to answer that rhetorical question with this history reminder: Back in the day, waaaaaaay back in the day, when poor people in depressed communities (very often minority-populated) declined to tell police anything it was 'cause they had a reasonable belief that a criminal suspect would not be given due process. Let's not forget that in some parts of this country, as recently as 40 years ago mob "justice" went unchecked. Turn over a kid who allegedly stole a loaf of bread, and your local sheriff may well hang that kid or shoot him just because. Turn over a kid who allegedly whistled at a woman who was the wrong color, and your local sheriff and friends may well hang that kid or shoot him. So fear of police for all the wrong reasons in many cases was legitimate back then.

It's a powerful argument, but like I told my buddy the difference between then and now is way back when, those suspects who couldn't count on fair treatment from the cops were not tearing their neighborhoods apart. These days? The guys who are not being snitched on, aren't taking their neighbors' silence as a sign from God that they have a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth...) chance to clean up their acts and do the right thing. Instead they're taking it as a sign that since no one will tell on them, their drug/gang/violent activity can continue as usual.

Fear of reprisal from alleged criminals is also a fair argument to not snitching. A woman in Baltimore's West End called police repeatedly several years ago to report neighborhood drug dealers doing business on her block. And several times they got arrested. But the dealers always got out. And each time they threatened her. Finally, one dealer got out and fire-bombed the woman's home. She and her kids died in the blaze.

It's easy for me to say this, 'cause I don't have neighborhood thugs menacing me. But at some point folks have to take a stand, weigh the future they're leaving for their kids or younger siblings and just do the right thing, for no bigger reason than it's the right thing.

And as cultural movements go, the first thing we can do is stop referring - even casually and even jokingly - to people who point out alleged criminals as "snitches."

Second? Until we excise that word from our vocabularies in the context of reporting violent criminals, then let's all be snitches.

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  • Welcome, welcome, welcome back. We missed you. I am so glad that you and the Mrs are finding your way. (And I can't wait for that video)
    I don't know what to say about the snitching. What do they think is going to happen - gangs and dealers are suddenly going to help the communities they feed off of? It baffles me.

    By Blogger WNG, at 11:28 AM  

  • welcome back, sugar *hugs* for you and mrs b

    re're right, everyone needs to take a stand against crime and speak out! it isn't the same as "mom, he hit me!" it's being a witness against wrongdoing. until we do the right thing whenever we can, nothing will change.

    By Blogger savannah, at 12:34 PM  

  • Yesterday, an officer was shot in the head while making rounds at a Dunkin' Donuts shop that had been robbed before. He was taken off life support and died. I think it was mentioned the robber having some type of spider tat on his hand and that he might have been the one to rob the store previously. Someone knows something.... the crime yesterday happened at about 10 a.m.
    It's time to do what's right, snitch, whatever you call it... just get that person off the streets.

    By Blogger CrystalChick, at 1:57 PM  

  • Just adding that it happened in Philadelphia.

    By Blogger CrystalChick, at 1:58 PM  

  • "Some folks are ballsy enough to call it a black thing."


    I have never lived in a community in which residents failed to cooperate with police to solve not only horrendous felonies but small-scale crimes such as chainsaw theft.

    My parents still speak of their shady friend from the '70s that showed up at their door one night wishing to hide a dozen stolen chainsaws on our property. They still can't believe they covered for him.

    Dude, my MOTHER murders someone in the community and I'll CONSIDER testifying against her.

    By Blogger M@, at 2:58 PM  

  • Welcome back and I'm glad to hear that you guys are slowly getting things back together.

    I find it more than a little funny that people would call "stop snitching" a "black thing" given that "stop snitching" is a government sanctioned idea and has been for a long time. We don't provide whistle-blower protection to people in white collar jobs or government jobs so people know what there will be payback if they tell the truth about illegal activity at a company or in the White House. And our gov't rewards people like Scooter Libby who not only don't "snitch" but in fact lie and mislead the FBI by pardoning him.

    So, it's hardly a "black thing". Although I'm sure that the people who call it a black thing are the very people who oppose whistle-blower protection laws for the white collar world.

    By Blogger Jay, at 4:43 PM  

  • scooter libby? Jay, do you have any actual idea what you're talking about? Not only did scooter libby do nothing illegal, but was convicted because of a bad memory. By a man who cannot find corruption in CHICAGO.

    As for snitching, I think ames is right- there has been a history of blacks protecting their own, and for some damned good reasons. Same as some of the Dutch in holland during WW2. Sometimes you have to shut up to protect people who will not get due process. Let's hope the rule of law becomes worthwhile again, soon.

    By Anonymous og, at 9:17 PM  

  • Very good message in this post, James. Now, let's hope your message - and not the continuation of the "Stop Snitching" spreads!

    By Blogger Jeni, at 10:59 PM  

  • Welcome back. If blogging becomes too much, stop for a while. This is a time to really take care of you and Mrs. B.

    It's always good seeing you, no matter what.


    By Blogger The CEO, at 11:22 PM  

  • I think we all probably knew why you were quiet again. I kept coming by though, hoping for the next post. I'm glad you and Mrs. B are doing ok.

    And I agree, how ridiculous to put the burden of guilt on anyone except the one committing the crime.

    By Blogger fiwa, at 1:30 AM  

  • I think the police have to take part of the blame in situations like the one you cited.

    If they'd not let the drug dealers out, rather than just re-arresting . . .

    Them & the fancy lawyers who are all for the 'rights' of those who will pay them big bucks - regardless of whether they are doing Right or Wrong.

    Not to mention the Rich & Famous, or Those in High Places, who get away will all sorts. & who come down like a ton of the proverbial on anyone even trying to indicate that what they're up to might not be quite correct.

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 6:31 AM  

  • Ditto what the ceo said.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 9:28 AM  

  • To snitch or not to snitch, that is the question.

    You say that one reason why people are afraid to "snitch" is fear of reprisal. I'll sign on to that.

    Another could be more surprising and perhaps a bit perverse. We loathe snitchers because they place us all in jeopardy: "If he'll tell on "Tommy the Tooth," he'll tell on me when he gets a chance, which suggests that many of us got a lot to hide.

    And it's very difficult for some to subject themselves to possibly wearing a "red letter" for life, even if it means a stone killer will go to jail, a purse snatcher will see time behind bars, or an adulterer will earn the disdain of the community.

    Public ridicule can be a powerful deterrent to snitching, whether obtained as a result of a national no-snitching movement denouncing it, or because local communities see snitchers as a threat to their collective well-being.

    Police, so it seems, have their informers (snitchers) hiding in the shadows, and I'm told cultivate them for the purpose of snitching.

    Who among us is without sin.

    By Anonymous The First Domino, at 7:10 PM  

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