When 'Don't Snitch' Is A Matter Of Survival

From a very early age, John Fountain learned not to "snitch." After all, coming forward with information about a crime could get you killed. In an article for the Chicago Tribune, Fountain says he understands why people in terrorized neighborhoods are reluctant to testify about crime.

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The cell phone video shows a crowd of young people on a street in Chicago, witnesses to the savage beating of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert. Police arrested four young men but say they want to talk with others who were there. So far, there's been little cooperation. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appealed to witnesses to come forward.

Mayor RICHARD DALEY (Chicago, Illinois): People have their moral conscience. Isn't enough is enough - another child gets killed? Don't look the other way. Don't film it. Do something about it.

CONAN: Well, we'd all like to think we'd do the right thing in those circumstances, but John Fountain says that's not always easy to figure out. In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, Fountain writes that in some neighborhoods, talking to the police can cost you your life and that the cops cannot be relied upon for protection.

Are witnesses who refuse to come forward complicit in the crime, even if they face possible retaliation? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Fountain joins us now from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. He's a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and grew up on Chicago's West Side.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor JOHN FOUNTAIN (Journalism, Roosevelt University; Author, "Snitch And You're A Dead Man"): Thanks so much. Good to be here.

CONAN: And you wrote: It isn't that people don't want to tell. Many who live in the city's most murderous neighborhoods, who have also witnessed police and political corruption and a trail of broken promises, simply don't trust the authorities enough to come forward.

Prof. FOUNTAIN: That's true. I think - I wrote that piece in part because I had heard so many people, whether it was politicians or pundits or simply folks who are outside the community, lambasting the good people of those neighborhoods. And I certainly, having grown up on the west side of Chicago in a high-crime, high-poverty neighborhood, I have seen so much violence throughout my life, growing up.

And I think I have a different perspective and know that from my experience -both from growing up in a neighborhood like that and as a reporter who's covered crime and homicide over the course of a 20-year career - that it isn't that those folks don't want to tell what's going on. You know, the truth is, there are two worlds. One in which I live now in my suburban world that is safe and nice with a tidy lawn, and the police come when I call. And I don't have to worry about my children being shot as they are playing in the front or back yard. But it's a different world than where I come from, the world I know about, the world in which Derrion lived - and so many children that I've written about over the course of my career.

And so, to think that these folks are less feeling, less concerned about their neighborhood, is so farfetched. They want to tell. They want solutions. But the truth is, in some neighborhoods - not just in Chicago but across this country -to dare step forward is to put your life on the line.

CONAN: You're right. But I've seen some shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders, essentially blaming those unwilling, at least, reluctant to tell, as being in some way complicit. Well, as you suggest, people may have their reasons for not coming forward. But to suggest that they're not complicit, well, that's not right either. They are.

Prof. FOUNTAIN: I don't know that I agree with that. I think that, you know, certainly we can talk about moral responsibility. And it's easy for folks to look through their own lens, their own perspective. But if you've not lived in those communities where - I know of cases where gunmen come with ski masks on. And so, who are they? Who knows who they are? Or they come in the middle of the day in broad daylight and take a known gang member who has bodyguards, and they are at the mercy of the bad guys with the better guns and who have the draw on them.

And so, you know, it's easy for us to say that. It's easy to say, you know, that they are complicit. And maybe, in some way, if you don't step forward, maybe, you know, some way, you are. But - and I'm not trying to make excuses for them. But the truth is, we tuck our children in at night and we lock our doors, and we put on our ADT alarms, and we feel nice and snug and safe and secure. That is not the case in neighborhoods that are terrorized, under siege by gangbangers and thugs.

And I think the truth of the matter is, if we could - if people could trust the police to do their jobs, if they could trust that if they step forward, they would not lose their lives or their mother wouldn't be robbed or shot on the way to the currency exchange or to the store, or someone wouldn't shoot up their house or firebomb their house - I mean, that is the reality of it and nobody is talking about that. You know, God bless Chicago and Mayor Daley, but the truth is, it's easy to make those kinds of statements when you don't have to go home to that community.

CONAN: Our guest is John Fountain, a journalism professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. His op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, "Snitch and You're a Dead Man." 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Ken is on the line. Ken calling from Beverly, Massachusetts.

KEN (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I'm calling - last night, I was involved in a - an attack when I was coming out of work in Lynn and someone was injured. I had a weapon pulled on me. I drew the attacker away from the person that was injured, who couldn't defend themselves. And we need - I don't know if I hit the person when I was pulling away in the car. It was very violent. And we found out this morning who the person was, but I have to put it in perspective. He didn't make any physical contact with me. The other person is not going to press charges. And for maybe $100 fine or a probation, he's going to know where I live and he will come and burn down my house, just like someone got their house burned down in Lynn that I know who had an altercation. And I have to put it in perspective - a murder, yes, I'd come forward. But for $100, I'm not going to trade $350,000.

CONAN: And Ken, what do you say to the family of the next person who gets attacked by this person?

KEN: It's hard to say because I know there's nothing can happen to this person. The police explained it to me. He didn't make physical contact. It's just an assault.

CONAN: So he would not go to jail?

KEN: He would not go to jail. They said - they've just minimized it. Now, the other person who was assaulted is not willing to come forward. I can't do more than the person who actually got physically hurt.

CONAN: Well, I understand your dilemma, Ken. It's an awkward situation to be in. But what do you do? How do you make the neighborhood better if you're - I'm not talking about you particularly in this circumstance - but how do we make our neighborhood safer or better if we're not willing to come forward and take some risk?

KEN: The one thing that I do to make the neighborhood better - and it doesn't apply to this situation - but I refuse to not walk in areas where - just because someone says it's unsafe, because I refuse to give up the neighborhood. I'm still going to go out there and walk and be there and take the risk because if I don't go out there, then I leave it to them.

CONAN: OK, Ken. Thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

KEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And that raises the question, John Fountain, if everybody refuses to come forward, well, nothing is going to improve.

Prof. FOUNTAIN: I agree with that. And I will invoke the old adage that it takes a village. And so, you know, it isn't just the people in these communities that have a responsibility, but it is also the police. It is - the community certainly is the justice system. It is the mayor. It is the president of the United States. And it is, I think, all of us working together. The truth is, I was attending Derrion Albert's funeral and put away my camera and was packing up and went down one of the blocks that - of the neighboring streets. And a gentleman looked over at me and he said, why is everybody here today? And I said, they're holding Derrion Albert's funeral at the church. And he says, man, I never see this many police. I wish we would see the police. They are welcome.

And so the truth is - I think there needs to be higher visibility. I think we can turn this around in part by working to create a safer environment, where people in actuality aren't placing their lives on the line by testifying. You know, I say in that piece that when the federal government is interested in taking down Mafia families and dealing with mob bosses, they offer at least federal witness protection because they understand what's at stake, and understand that the threat to someone who would dare testify against someone like that or a crime family is in jeopardy. And in Chicago and across this nation, where there are gangs in cities, they are organized crime. And they use the same devices to create this fear and terrorism that is largely at the root of people not wanting to testify.

So we can blame the people who live in these neighborhoods all we want. The truth is that that very real threat is coming from some very real criminals. And we need to offer - we need to begin to think of ways that we can offer protection. And that - and part of that begins with greater visibility of police, and increasing the sense of security that people have in their homes.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Ben(ph). Ben with us from Ithaca.

BEN (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

BEN: Okay. Yeah. Basically, I'm - I just want to make it clear. I'm calling from Ithaca, but I live in Pittsburgh. And I, one time, experienced an organized fight club on my block. And I really didn't realize what was going on until a couple weeks into it, when they were having these big fights with lots and lots of people. And I snitched. I called the cops and they came and, you know, they basically broke it up. And nothing really happened. And you know, I had talked ill of some of these people in the - previous to that about it and how I, you know, didn't like it. About three days after the cops came, well, first, my car was vandalized and...

CONAN: And Ben, if you could keep it quick.

BEN: Yeah. It was - my car was vandalized. I had my house broken into. It basically was so bad I had to move.

CONAN: And did the police do anything?

BEN: No, nothing happened. As far as I know, they still have that fight club once every Friday night. So, I don't know what to say about it.

CONAN: Well, Ben, thanks very much. And I'm sorry that happened to you.

BEN: Yep. All right. Have a nice day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Interesting, the New America Media, a collaboration of 2,000 ethnic news organizations, after the death of Derrion Albert, they asked young men who also went to that funeral, John Fountain, what they thought of the person who shot the video of the beating on his cell phone. Was he a snitch, a hero or a coward? I recommend that people visit that Web site. We'll put a link to it on our Web page at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And the responses are fascinating.

Prof. FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, it's interesting. I was out today at the Altgeld Gardens housing complex on the South Side, where students are now taking the bus to Fenger High School, a bus to give them safe passage. And I asked one young man who was 15 years old, what's your greatest fear? And he said, after some contemplation, that I won't come home at night. And he said, you know, it is fine that we're getting all of this publicity with Derrion Albert's death, he said. But the cameras won't be here after a while. And the community leaders and the preachers will go home or indoors. And the question is, what's going to happen to us then?

CONAN: John Fountain, a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University. There's a link to his op-ed "Snitch and You're a Dead Man," again, at our Web site, npr.org - with us today from Chicago Public Radio. Thanks very much.

Prof. FOUNTAIN: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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