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.

So often, even law-abiding residents try to close ranks and deal with our problems on our own instead of working with law enforcement, which many of us consider the enemy. It's a code, just like the one some think Scooter Libby upheld at the White House, or the one police adhere to when they cover up for crooked cops.

As someone who was once part of the problem, I have some insight into this issue. I grew up in the Petworth neighborhood in the 1970s and '80s. Before I turned my life around, I was incarcerated several times for selling drugs. I believe that jail saved me.

Once, during those days, I was accused of being a snitch. In 1990, I found myself at the apartment of an older associate who'd been set up by some Colombians. The police raided the place, found drugs and locked us both up. I posted bail and was released on bond. The old head wasn't. When I got out on the street, rumors flew that I had told on him and that's why I'd been freed. It wasn't until the guy was released and set the record straight that my name was cleared. I did not and would not snitch -- not then, not now.

This is the true definition of a snitch: someone who commits a crime but then blames an accomplice so that he can negotiate a lighter sentence or even go free. Often he tells lies and incriminates the innocent. People like that are the real snitches and they are cowardly. Snitching is a way for criminals to game the system.

But not everyone who talks to police is a snitch. If you're a victim of a crime and you or someone you trust cooperates with them, you are not a snitch. If you try to get rid of negativity in your community, you are not "hot" or a snitch.

I blame the hip-hop industry for spreading confusion about the definition of snitching. I also understand that the artists are just trying to sell records by glorifying a criminal and prison culture they often know nothing about.

At the O Street forum, I broke it down for the young people: Say that a group of dudes are serving time peacefully, with workout and other privileges. If some knucklehead comes into the unit to mess up their peace by violating prison rules, what do they do?

"Kill them," the audience replied.

No, I told them. They drop a note -- some might say snitch -- to get that person out of their unit. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but most people who have never been locked up don't understand this. You do what you have to do to keep your own peace.

Understanding snitching is not just a theoretical exercise. It is critical to the survival of our communities. As I was writing this, I received a call from a woman who lives in a District housing project. She was active with youth and outspoken about crime in her neighborhood. Thugs broke into her apartment and shot her son, a college student, in the legs. Where is the discussion about this in the community? Why is this behavior allowed to continue?

Just as we have a right to be safe from drive-by shootings, murder, intimidation and disrespect, we have an obligation to uphold the laws that ensure public safety. When a citizen witnesses crime and decides to be civically responsible, this doesn't constitute snitching; it's doing the right thing.

Police also need to be more sensitive to the culture of the streets. Showing up in uniform and knocking on someone's door could get an innocent person killed. If police are clumsy in their investigations and let word out about who is cooperating, that can also lead to more bloodshed, something Eric Holland learned the hard way.

The Peaceoholics plan to conduct many more forums, not only on snitching, but also on what it means to be a responsible citizen. In previous forums we asked participants to answer several questions in an anonymous survey. "If someone killed my brother or sister I would [fill in the blank]."

Among the responses: "Kill them." "Cooperate." "Retaliate." "Go tell the police." And something that I have seen all too often: "Already happened. I would go look for them and talk to them face to face and ask them why."

People in the community want peace, and they want justice. They just don't want to be anybody's snitch.

Ronald Moten is co-founder of Peaceoholics, an anti-violence organization in Southeast Washington.

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