feat_hellrell

A Snitch and Time

Over the past year, the hip-hop community has come under intense

scrutiny and criticism for the wildly popular “Stop Snitching”

campaign. The movement, which has been accompanied by a flurry of t-

shirts, songs, websites, and DVDs, is ideologically grounded in the

belief that people should not cooperate with law enforcement

authorities under any circumstances. In addition, Lil Kim’s 2005

conviction and one year prison sentence for obstruction of justice,

Cam’ron’s refusal to help police find the person who shot him during

an attempted robbery in October 2005, Busta Rhymes’ and Tony Yayo’s

refusal to speak to police about the February 2006 murder of Rhymes’

bodyguard Israel Ramirez at a video shoot, and the now infamous “Stop

Snitching” DVD featuring NBA star Carmelo Anthony, have all increased

the recent amount of public attention paid to the centuries-old

politics of snitching. In response to the “Stop Snitching” campaign,

community organizations, politicians, and law enforcement agencies

have mounted a full-fledged counter-movement, informally titled

“Start Snitching”, designed to encourage the hip-hop generation to

cooperate with authorities when criminal acts are committed.

To be certain, the issue of snitching is neither restricted to nor

rooted in hip-hop culture. Within most American communities,

reporting other people’s bad acts is a practice that is strongly

discouraged. Judaic, Islamic, and Christian laws all speak negatively

about backbiting and gossip. Mantras like “don’t be a tattle tale”

and “snitches get stitches” serve as early childhood reminders for

many Americans, irrespective of race and class, of the moral and

pragmatic consequences that accompany snitching. Prominent white

Americans like New York Times writer Judith Miller, who recently came

under attack from her neo-conservative comrades for failing to expose

Lewis “Scooter” Libby, have paid dearly (multi-million dollar book

deals notwithstanding) for their commitments to secrecy. Even the

police, who are among the strongest opponents of the “Stop Snitching”

movement, have a ‘blue code’ of silence that protects them from

internal snitches. Nevertheless, the hip-hop community has absorbed

the brunt of the public attack on snitching, with little effort given

to examining the unique significance of snitching within urban

communities.

While critics dismiss the “Stop Snitching” campaign as a rejection of

civic responsibility that further verifies dominant public beliefs

about the moral incompetence of the hip-hop generation, a closer

analysis reveals a much more complicated set of issues that have gone

unaddressed. In its a priori dismissal of the “Stop Snitching”

campaign, the general public has failed to acknowledge the moral

complexity and legitimacy of an anti-snitching position. In all

fairness, this is partially the fault of the hip-hop industry itself,

which has marketed “Stop Snitching” in ways that undermine any claims

to moral authority by not placing any conditions or caveats on its

pleas for silence. While it is certainly problematic to condemn all

acts of communication with authorities, it is equally shortsighted

and irresponsible to advocate an absolute pro-snitching position.

The act of snitching necessarily creates a social and ethical

quagmire in which an individual must sacrifice one set of loyalties

for another. More specifically, the potential snitch is forced to

choose between competing ethical codes and social commitments when

making their decision. Often, this process entails deciding between

locally defined rules and larger, more official ones. For example,

Lil’ Kim’s refusal to identify her crew members as assailants during

a shootout at the Hot 97 radio station was an anti-snitching gesture

that privileged her friendship bonds and street ethics over the

established laws of the land regarding obstruction of justice. While

it is tempting to condemn all such acts on moral or ethical grounds —

in this case, arguing that Kim should have protected the interests of

the assaulted and not those of the assailants — it is necessary to

consider the validity and value of the particular rules and issues at

stake on a case-by-case basis. It is also important to understand the

various ways that snitching is considered and discussed within the

context of hip-hop culture.

Dry Snitching

Dry snitching is one of the most common practices within contemporary

hip-hop culture. The term emerged from prison culture to describe an

inmate who, in an effort to avoid a confrontation, would talk loudly

or otherwise draw attention to himself in order to attract a nearby

correctional officer. This is done as a way of “snitching without

snitching”. Dry snitching also refers to the act of implicating

someone else, intentionally or unintentionally, while speaking to an

authority figure. Dry snitches are typically considered to be weak,

naive, passive aggressive, or self-centered, all of which present

ethical and practical dilemmas that must be weighed when discussing

the practice of snitching.

For example, before channeling Tupac and becoming America’s thug de

jour, 50 Cent was a struggling rapper attempting to make a name for

himself on the underground scene. In a 2000 song “Ghetto Quran”, 50

named and described many of New York’s most notorious drug dealers,

including Pappy Mason, Rich Porter, Fat Cat, Prince, and Kenneth

“Supreme” McGriff. The song earned 50 many enemies in New York’s

crime underworld, who were angry at the precarious legal position in

which they believed 50′s public disclosures might have placed them.

It was this anger, according to the federal prosecutors involved in

Chris and Irv Gotti’s recent trial that led to 50′s May 2000

shooting. To many observers, 50′s sonic, dry snitching revelations

undermined the very ghetto authenticity that the song was intended to

evince.

Another example of dry snitching occurred in 2003, when Kobe Bryant

was arrested on rape charges. While being interrogated, Bryant freely

disclosed potentially embarrassing aspects of teammate Shaquille

O’Neal’s personal life in order to gain favor with Colorado police.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Kobe reportedly told the officers

that he should have followed Shaq’s example and paid the woman not to

say anything, adding that Shaq had already spend over one million

dollars for those purposes. While some attributed this slip-up to

Kobe’s inexperience in such situations — one of the reasons that the

suburban bred Kobe will never reach the ghetto superstar status of

his generational peer, Allen Iverson, despite his extravagantly

calculated gestures — others saw it as a passive aggressive act

against his not so secret rival.

More recently, Karrine “Superhead” Steffans released her bestselling

memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen (Amistad, 2005) in which she

exposes the underside of the hip-hop industry. In offering her self-

proclaimed “cautionary tale”, Steffans also names numerous

celebrities with whom she engaged in sexual encounters. While many

people expressed disgust for her exploits — unfortunately, few people

expressed similar disgust for the promiscuity of the men with whom

she shared the trysts — others were more disturbed at the

embarrassment that the book caused in the lives of her former

partners, many of whom were married.

The motivations and morality of each of these acts of snitching are

debatable. Did Kobe “out” Shaq out of innocent fear, or was it a

disturbing display of schadenfreude? Was 50 ratting out the

underworld elite, or merely paying homage? Is Steffans confessing her

sins, or selling out her former running buddies? If we assume that

all three of these people were not attempting to harm anyone else, is

it okay for them to report someone else’s misdeeds? Even if each of

them were to admit that they had the worst intentions at heart, do

they have any commitment to the people with whom they shared implicit

or explicit compacts? Does this commitment change if they now believe

the agreements to be immoral? While these questions are not easily

answerable (if at all), they suggest that an anti-snitching position

can be a legitimate and sophisticated response to dilemmas such as

these.

Wet Snitching

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.

Snitching vs. Witnessing

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 Final Verdict

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.

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill is a professor at Temple University and one of

the nation’s leading hip-hop intellectuals. He can be contacted

through his website: http://www.MarcLamontHill.com.

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