The Real Meaning of 'Snitching'

By Ronald Moten
Sunday, August 19, 2007

A hundred people gathered at Washington's Scripture Cathedral in May, many of them teenagers from the surrounding O Street NW neighborhood, where a murderous street feud had terrorized the community. Our anti-violence group, Peaceoholics, had convened a forum to ask "What's Snitching and What's Not?"

Snitching -- and its sibling, witness intimidation -- is much in the news these days, the result of a series of high-profile killings and shootings both here in the Washington area and elsewhere. But there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about it, not just among people in the community, but also among law enforcement officials and the media.

Trying to break the ice at our forum, I threw out a few questions: If someone shot your mother during a drive-by, would you have a problem with that? Would you want something to happen to that person? Would it make more sense for you to be locked up, or would you like the shooter to be incarcerated?

There wasn't much of a response until a young man came forward. "I ain't no snitch," he said. "But I'll help the community."

Nobody wants to be a snitch -- not even in a forum that's supposed to define what exactly snitching is.

My job is to try to bring peace to the community. But I'm also realistic: You are never going to get black people to agree to snitch. The reasons are rooted in history and culture, and the realities of so many inner cities, where human life is cheap.

But as someone who has been on the other side of the law, what I will say is that if you work at it, you can persuade witnesses to violent crime to come forward.

For those of us who live in high-crime areas, there's nothing new about witness intimidation -- criminals threatening or even killing citizens who could testify against them. But several recent incidents have brought wider attention to this issue.

In Newark, witnesses have fingered the suspects in 14 recent killings, but prosecutors have not charged them for fear that the witnesses who identified them would be hurt or killed. Rap artists and gang leaders in Baltimore and Boston have recently begun campaigns urging city residents to "Stop Snitching." The rapper Cam'ron was interviewed on "60 Minutes" about why he refused to cooperate with police after he was shot in the arm in Washington during a botched car-jacking in 2005.

And last week, Prince George's County prosecutors blamed witness intimidation for their failure to win convictions in two homicide cases. In the fall of 2005, Lakita Danielle Tolson, a 19-year-old mother and nursing student, was killed outside a Temple Hills nightclub. Nine months later, Eric S. Holland, 18, was killed in a crowded schoolyard. Law enforcement and family members believe he was targeted because people (wrongly) thought he was cooperating with police on the Tolson case. Large crowds were at both shootings, but only one witness agreed to testify in both cases.

I've told the young people at our snitching forums that if they see someone killed, it's their obligation to help make sure that the killer is punished. The government works for us, and together we can hold it to higher standards.

But words and connotations are powerful. And to many of us, the word "snitch" brings to mind a distant memory of a house slave telling the master when another slave tried to escape. We're a long way from the days of slavery, but the adversity that those of us trapped in communities with little money, education and police protection share has forced us to create our own codes and coping strategies.

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