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
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.
BC Editorial Board member
Jamala Rogers is the leader of the Organization
for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black
Radical Congress National Organizer. Click
here to contact Ms. Rogers.