A Hip-Hop Backlash Against 'Snitching'
ED GORDON, host:
Despite the historical distrust of police in some black communities, the number of police informants is on the rise. But this trend has elicited a critical response from some people who feel that snitching may be a bigger offense than the crime. Commentator Siddhartha Mitter says it's this kind of thinking that has many people worried that coming forward will get them in trouble.
SIDDHARTHA MITTER reporting:
In the HBO series, The Wire, the homeless addict, Bubbles, the police informant, he supplies his handlers with information to penetrate drug gangs and identify murderers. Bubbles, whose cover has yet to be blown, is portrayed as flawed but sympathetic. But hip-hop today is on the attack against people like Bubbles. The informant, better known as snitch, has become a major topic in the music. Stars like Lil' Wayne, The Diplomats, Scarface, Coco Brothers and Camillionaire have made songs with the simple message, If you're real, you don't snitch. If you snitch, you get shot.
Anti-snitch DVDs are circulating. The most famous last year in Baltimore included a cameo by NBA star Carmelo Anthony. Street fashion has echoed the theme with the ubiquitous Stop Snitching T-shirt and novelty items like underwear and teddy bears.
As cultural products, these songs, movies and clothes speak of a major crisis that has infected the justice system and everyday life in urban communities of color. It's often said that art imitates life, but in this case art is life.
Some material refers to specific beefs involving the artists, complicated feuds involving drugs, violence, and music production. The art has invaded the courtroom. When members of the audience are wearing Stop Snitching shirts, it's a message to any witness who dares take the stand.
It would be nice if stopping the sale of the shirts, as the mayor of Boston did last December, ended the plague of witness intimidation. Unfortunately, the connections between the art and the reality run much deeper than that.
Police use of informants is out of control. Law professor Alexandra Nattapoff calls it a government-sponsored market in betrayal and liability with arbitrary unfair results. She estimates that in poor, black urban communities, one in four men are under pressure to snitch and one in 12 are active informants at any given time.
Meanwhile, the barriers between hustling drugs and hustling music have collapsed. More and more youth are unemployable due to criminal records, but all it takes now is a few hundred dollars to buy a beat machine, record music, or cut a stack of CDs. Sure the record labels haven't helped. They pour millions of dollars into music that celebrates a mythologized version of the gangster lifestyle.
But the stop snitching trend doesn't start with the labels nor with the artists. It starts with the justice system that's hooked on imprisonment and incrimination when communities need safety, investment, and healing.
GORDON: Siddhartha Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.
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