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'No Snitching' Movement Has Roots in Drug War

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A grassroots campaign to discourage crime witnesses from talking to police is partially a response to the war on drugs, USA Today reported March 29.

T-shirts and hats with the message “Stop Snitching” have proliferated on the streets of cities like Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, and New York. The trend has frustrated police and prosecutors, who say the intent is to intimidate witnesses. 

The no-snitching message also has been delivered via rap songs and by the actions of celebrities; 50 witnesses to the murder of a bodyguard for rapper Busta Rhymes have refused to cooperate with police, including Rhymes himself. The murders of rappers Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and Run DMC's Jam Master Jay have all gone unsolved for similar reasons.

The silence in such cases mystifies New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “Your employee is murdered in front of you … you'd think he might want to talk to the police,” he said of the Rhymes case.

But David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said, “There's such animosity toward the police in some urban communities that even people who aren't afraid, and who hate crime, still feel cooperating is something good people don't do. That's the Busta Rhymes story. He has nothing to fear. He just doesn't want to talk. His reputation would take a dive if he did.”

The no-snitching campaign is partly a response to the proliferation of informers, which in turn is a result of the war on drugs. Police routinely turn minor drug offenders into informers to try to catch bigger dealers: about one in three drug prosecutions involves the use of informants, who typically get reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation. “If a dealer needs to make a deal, he'll tell on his mother,” said Pittsburgh Police Department Commander Maurita Bryan. “It may not be right, but it's all we have.”

Harvey Silverglate, a Boston defense lawyer, says the rewards for informers encourages them “not only to sing, but to compose.”

In some minority neighborhoods, where up to half of young men have a police record, an estimated one in twelve men has worked as an informer, creating intense social pressure on communities and families. Some see the no-snitching campaign as a backlash against people who commit crimes but don't go to prison because they have ratted on someone else.

Rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy has condemned the no-snitching campaign. “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.”

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