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The Barbershop Notebooks, Volume 7:
A Snitch and Time
By Marc Lamont Hill
 

GeoClan.com brings you The Barbershop Notebooks a column by our friend and family Marc Lamont Hill. Hill's on the site because like they say "Great minds think alike" and Hill will bring you a wise youthful voice of cynicism, candor and analysis.  Be sure to check it out on a regular basis as Hill goes over all topics under the sun.


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.

"I Make Change"

Marc Lamont Hill is one of the youngest members of the growing body of "Hip-Hop Intellectuals" in the country. His work, which covers topics such as hip-hop culture, sexuality, education, and politics, has appeared in numerous journals, magazines, books, and anthologies. In 2005, he was named by Ebony Magazine as one of Black America's 30 future leaders. He is currently working on several book projects, including New Dilemmas of the Black Intellectual (with Gregory Seaton), Media, Learning, and Sites of Possibility (with Lalitha Vasudevan), and a book of African American cultural criticism. Marc Lamont Hill is an assistant professor of Urban Education and African American Studies at Temple University. Trained as an anthropologist of education, he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

For any questions of comments please send an email to community@geoclan.com

 

Pages from the Notebook

 

- Why Hip Hop Sucks, Pt. 1

- Breaking the Rules

- Bling Because I'm Happy

- Too Big To Be Hurting?

- The NBA Dress Code

- Why Hip Hop Sucks Pt. 2

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Bling on GeoBoards
 
 
 
 

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