May 10, 2007 - Issue 229
The Real Truth About Snitching
By Jamala Rogers
BC Editorial Board
I feel compelled to give some history and context to the snitching debate. It’s gathering steam, as indicated by the recent 60 Minutes interview with Busta Rhymes. It seems that a number of honest people are trying to understand the latest incarnation of the “No snitching” campaign. Those who stridently condemn this phenomenon should look at the issue from all sides, starting with the difference between snitching and giving information that could lead to a crime being solved. I admit, sometimes the line that distinguishes them is razor-thin and sometimes it’s a moving line.
The first real “No Snitching” campaign was probably that which was in response to the FBI’s COINTELPRO targeting radical black activists and organizations (although arguably some may even go back to the witch hunts of Joseph McCarthyism and the parallel anti-Communist investigations by the House on Un-American Activities HUAC). Those of us who were part of black revolutionary or radical organizations were ranked in accordance with our danger to society. We later found out the Black Panther Party held the distinction of being Public Enemy #1.
Snitches, informants and agent provocateurs were used to acquire information that contributed to a campaign of disinformation, misinformation, paranoia and infiltration. Black people were used in the vilest ways to bring down individuals and/or destroy organizations. Law-abiding organizers were set up for drug possession or for killing a cop. Many were set up for their own premature death. It was a paid informant who set up and drugged Black Panther Fred Hampton for a pre-dawn massacre by the Chicago cops. Cynthia White, an alleged prostitute and police informant, was one of the “eyewitnesses” in the murder trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The list goes on.
One of my favorite old school rappers, Chuck D of Public Enemy, has come down heavy on the perversion of snitching and I totally agree with him. "The term 'snitch' was best applied to those that ratted revolutionaries like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Che Guevara," he said. "Let's not let stupid cats use hip-hop to again twist this meaning for the sake of some 'innerganghood' violent drug-thug crime dogs, who've sacrificed the black community's women and children."
We must resist the merging of snitching and informing. Such a campaign was never intended to be used only to save one’s butt or in the case of gangsta rappers like Busta and Cam’ron to protect their slimy businesses.
By the 1980s, the introduction of crack cocaine to our communities resulted in the destruction of our families and neighborhoods. It was like an unstoppable disease, striking its victims regardless of their financial situation, age, politics or education. The gang-led drug wars wreaked havoc on our lives and black folks were desperate to end the carnage. It was in this swamp that the new phase of snitching emerged.
Aided and abetted by police and department policies, many a young man was pressured into giving a name that resulted in an arrest and conviction. Estimates suggest that one in twelve men in urban communities has been used as an informant. One of the many problems with getting "caught up" with the law is that one is placed in a compromised position whether they are good for the crime or not. Sadly, too many will sell their mama’s soul to avoid prosecution or a police whooping. Boston defense attorney Harvey Silverglate has noted that rewards for informers encourage them "not only to sing, but to compose."
Under the banner of a so-called war on drugs, an assembly line of our sons, uncles, fathers and friends have gone straight into the prison industrial complex. Despite the fact that whites use more illicit drugs than blacks, a cottage prison industry swallowed up hundreds of thousands of black and brown people. By 2002, the US prison population reached an historic 2 million with about half a million of those being drug-related, non-violent offenses. Some criminals were put away through credible police work and the assistance of honest citizens doing their civic duty. Far too many of them were not, as verified by the growing number of exonerees over the last several years.
I have been doing work around the prison industrial complex for over 30 years. I’ve seen more than my fair share of people who were coerced in some form or fashion to bear false witness for the sordid purposes of police and prosecutors. I don’t call this snitching. I call it what it is: forced confessions. I’ve seen it in rape cases before the advent of DNA, where the police kept showing a traumatized rape victim a photo of their suspect, until finally, the image in the victim’s memory was successfully supplanted by the photo image. This is such powerful manipulation that even when, years later, DNA exonerated the wrongfully convicted, the rape victim steadfastly held onto her original testimony and rebuked the forensic science.
I can point to a dramatic example of how snitching and giving reliable information to police collided. In St. Louis, I worked on a case that for years put a chill on citizens coming forward to help police solve a crime. When Ellen Reasonover, a young single mother with no criminal history, came forward to give police information about the murder of a gas station attendant, the police looked no further. Ellen was quickly labeled the suspect. She was arrested, charged and served 17 years before evidence was found that had been hidden by prosecutors to ensure a guilty verdict. The police used jailhouse snitches, an often-used but unreliable practice, to testify against Ellen at trial.
We have on record, numerous cases similar to Ellen’s that have led to innocent people serving time. But we also have on record, incidents where persons came forward with information for police; their identity was exposed, setting off a whole other set of circumstances. The scenario would go something like this: Citizen Smith calls the police on a group of young men who have been observed selling drugs on the same corner or out of the same house. The police apprehend them and disclose that Citizen Smith called them to investigate the alleged drug-dealing.
If we really are going to get down with the truth, you have to include the police in the accountability circle. Their blue wall of silence has no room in their own ranks for those cops who accuse one of their own of criminal intent. Yet police expect unconditional cooperation when they need help from the community. You can’t have it both ways.
All communities have the right to be safe and secure, including African-American communities. We have an historically complicated and hostile relationship with police that has to be understood, regardless of how much we want to rid our neighborhoods of its criminal parasites. Those who rightfully don’t trust the police to Serve and Protect must play a greater role in helping to come up with whatever the alternative is going to be that ensures that our grandmothers can walk to the store without being robbed and that our children can play in front of the house without fear of a stray bullet finding their small vulnerable bodies.
The bottom line is that the US model of justice needs a comprehensive overhaul. It needs to seek a whole new definition of justice because as it stands now, most of the crooks, both in high and low places, are still on the outside of the bars.