NEAL CONAN, host:
Right now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.
And we've talked on this program before about snitching and the problem of witness intimidation, particularly in African-American neighborhoods. Murders that never went to trial because of threats to witnesses, other witnesses to violent crimes who refused to say anything at all.
Ronald Moten says it's a code on the street - nobody wants to be a snitch. And in an op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post, he posed the question: What is snitching? Not everybody who goes to the police, he argues, is a snitch.
So we ask you the same question. What is snitching? When should you go to the police and are there times when you shouldn't? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. And you could tell us what you think on the blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.
Ronald Moten is a co-founder of Peaceoholics, an anti-violence group here in Washington, D.C. He's with us here in Studio 3A.
Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. RONALD MOTEN (Co-founder, Peaceoholics; Author, "The Real Meaning of 'Snitching'"): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And this question really came out of a series of meetings at the Peaceoholics. You've had a - well, obviously, I guess it's no surprise to anybody around the country, there's been a lot of violent crime here in Washington, D.C and a number of other cities across the country in recent months.
Mr. MOTEN: Yes. And that was the reason for us to have some forums about what's snitching and what's not, because we know, we don't motivate people to come forward and get involved in a community to deal with violence. We would never stop the problem. The police can't do it alone. The government can't do it alone. It has to come from the community.
CONAN: And you argue - in a line, you say, I'm realistic, you are never going to get black people to snitch.
Mr. MOTEN: To agree to be a snitch. But we have to educate them on what a snitch is. And my definition - our definition of a snitch is somebody - if you commit a crime with someone and then you go to the government and try to get lesser time or make up false accusations so you could get lesser time and go free, and that other person goes to jail.
Mr. MOTEN: And most people in my community will agree with that and they had to be educated like the 95 percent who are not doing anything wrong. The problem hasn't been with the people who snitch, the people who get locked up and tell on friends. The problem has been getting the people who are honest, law-abiding citizens to realize what it is to be a citizen so they can come forward and identify these things that are going on in their community, so that we don't have to be a mini-Iraq, you know.
Like, in some parts of D.C., you have people where there are shootings all the time, and people are scared to let their children to come outside, just like in Iraq. And if we don't address this and educate people about what it is to be a citizen and their rights. Like of Georgetown, if someone is shot in Georgetown in Washington, you had to get metro buses to come and get all the people who want to come forward. So we had to get that same spirit in our communities. And that's what we're working on in these forums, to educate people, what it is to be a snitch, and what, you know, what is not, you know, what is not a snitch.
Mr. MOTEN: And we're getting positive results about this. And I'm not saying that people who get locked up shouldn't snitch.
Mr. MOTEN: Even I don't agree with it...
CONAN: Well, just have this Michael Vick case where...
Mr. MOTEN: Right. Right.
CONAN: ...three of his co-defendants...
Mr. MOTEN: (unintelligible)
CONAN: ...people he goes back to middle school...
Mr. MOTEN: Right. Right.
CONAN: ...rolled over on him, and apparently, he had little choice but to plead guilty himself.
CONAN: And my whole thing with that is there's a difference between you coming forward because you have some remorse and you repent and you just doing it to get a deal with the government because nine times out of ten, a lot of those people who do that will go back to committing crimes again because they're not doing it because it's coming from the heart. They're doing it because they're just trying to get a deal.
CONAN: And you speak of this with some personal experience.
Mr. MOTEN: Yes. Well, I was once locked up myself and I was locked up with a lot of people. And even in prison, where people get locked up and they start rehabilitating themselves and they start going to school, or they start working out, and one realized that they made mistakes and they want to come home to their family.
When some fool comes in a unit and starts stealing or causing chaos, you know what they do? They drop a note on him and get him off the unit. So what's the difference between you in prison as somebody in the community who wants to be safe as well?
So we had to teach people about these things, about these false concessions that they hear in rap music and all these other things that they hear, because this is what training our people to not do the right thing. And we don't call it snitching. We don't call it telling. We call it doing the right thing. And the last time I want to say about that is, what would America be like today if our ancestors, who in the '60s when they called Alabama, Birmingham Bombingham, when they had over, what, 30 bombings in a month, they wouldn't overcome fear to stand up for what was right and say, look, I don't care what they say.
We're going to stand. And just imagine on one block, if you had a whole block saying, we're not going to tolerate it and nobody's going to scare us. Suppose that three people who - you can always intimidate three people in one block, but if everybody stood up and say, we're not going to take this, so it comes to education and letting people know that, you know, fear's going to rise and we're going to have to come together as a community to stop this.
CONAN: And one of the things - I want to get some callers in while you get to this other question in just a minute. 800-989-8255, e-mail is email@example.com. Ronald Moten is our guest, the co-founder of Peaceoholics, an anti-violence group here in Washington, D.C.
Let's talk with Xavier(ph). Xavier's on the line with us from Oakland, California.
XAVIER (Caller): Hi. Ronald, I think maybe - this is my opinion - that there should be a clear separation between due process and getting someone and people who are incarcerated already to root out other crimes, maybe to get other people off the streets that are connected to the crime that they've done. I think we should - you should make a separation between those people, of clear and definite separation between those individuals and the community base.
Mr. MOTEN: Exactly.
XAVIER: I wouldn't want to call them snitches, the community-based people who are taking care of their community. Because when you connect those two together, they're - they mesh and there's no difference. Because I personally feel as a person in a community, if I fear I feel like I was snitching as they do in jail so there's no separation. And the same thing in jail that reaches him could reach me. I firmly believe that there could be and there should be a major separation between the two.
Mr. MOTEN: I totally agree. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm just saying that dudes who tell on each other that's locked up and people in the community who are trying to do the right thing - is a total separation. And once we educate people in my community what it is to be a citizen, that's your obligation to protect and do the right thing about your community and get them to see that these people who commit these crimes are saying these things to try and get you to feel like you're snitching or whatever to protect themselves.
You got people who are teaching our children that if something's - even parents do it. Just think about it when a child is born and you have a brother or sister and your mother say, don't nobody going to cookie jar without asking me. And a brother goes or sister goes in the cookie jar, it's natural for the child to say, stop going to the cookie jar. But when he does it over and over again, the parent tells the child, stop tattle telling.
So we do it in a lot of different ways when we teach children and people not to do the right thing. I don't call it telling, I don't call it snitching. I call it doing the right thing. And once we program our community, there are certain things that are not acceptable and the chaos that it causes our community and how it causes as a nation to go backwards and not forward, I think the education piece is what's really important and I agree what you're saying. There needs to be a separation of the two.
CONAN: Thank you.
XAVIER: Clear and major separation.
Mr. MOTEN: Yes, sir. You're right.
XAVIER: Because we're tax-paying citizens who would begin to, let's say, snitch or communicate with the police who some officers - well, I'm very careful to say this - some of the officers won't even have our best interest in mind. They won't even care if we got caught.
Mr. MOTEN: Right. You're right.
XAVIER: In fact, they may even somehow let that slip who actually done it?
Mr. MOTEN: It's happened.
XAVIER: People in the community who actually, you know, gave this information because across the board and in general, there's no real care at all from the officers and the people in general in our community.
CONAN: One of the things - thanks very much for the call, Xavier. One of the things you mention in your op-ed, Ronald Moten, is the idea that the police need to be more sensitive even if they do care and don't go up in uniform and knock on somebody's door. You can get people killed this way.
Mr. MOTEN: Yeah, you got to be - they had to be trained better. I mean, somebody calls your house - I mean, calls the police department about a crime. Somebody just got killed and you show up in uniform, knocking on their door, you know. All police would slip a note or guess somebody to go drop a note to him, call me at this place or whatever. You know in our community, you can't go and do that. You're putting people's lives in jeopardy so people have to be trained.
And then you got some officers, they go into the community and tell people that a person told on them to get stir up something and get people killed even though they might be in the streets doing what's wrong. So it's just important that we have a lot of good officers in Washington, D.C., a majority of my good. But the ones who are not, we need to weed them out and we also need to train some of the new ones so they all have to learn on the job.
CONAN: Let's get Marilyn(ph) on the line. Marilyn's with us from Cincinnati.
MARILYN (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, Marilyn.
MARILYN: Yeah. I understand the code of the street is that you don't snitch because now, you're all (unintelligible), you know, you're allowed to get it if you do. My question is why has that telling the truth about what happened gotten so negative? And I don't mean just now. When I was a kid, and I'm 80 years old, it was tattle tell, all the words were nasty.
CONAN: Rat was the one I grew up with, yeah.
MARILYN: I don't understand that. What's the worse is to get fired. So, you know, it's, you know, I don't understand. If somebody get them, you know, a kind of explanation for why has that become so negative? And it's been negative for years.
Mr. MOTEN: Well, I tell you, you make a valid point. When I go - because I debate with dudes who are on the streets about this whole issue because I'm from the streets. So I walk a thin line. And one thing that came up when I ask people lot a questions, they say, well, Peter Libby(ph) didn't tell. I mean, Scooter Libby didn't tell.
CONAN: Scooter Libby, yeah.
Mr. MOTEN: He didn't tell on nobody when they tried to force him to tell. He wouldn't say anything. So what's the difference between him and us? So I have to get people to understand that they are the kings and queens of their community and if you don't act like you stake hold in your community for what's right, then we're going to keep on seeing the same things happen over and over again and make up excuses for why things are happening - negativity in our community. So you have to step up.
Mr. MOTEN: As far as that one entail, I don't think nobody wants to be labeled as a snitch. I think we have to educate people once again on it's doing the right thing. It's doing what's right. It's doing what's Godly. And we've gotten so far away from God and was right that we can't hold people accountable to these standards that we're talking about so people going to come up and make a person who's doing something good for your bad. Like with me, even though I changed my life, can nobody make me feel bad about saying somebody needs to go to jail for killing somebody. Nobody.
CONAN: Thanks, Marilyn.
MARILYN: Yeah. Yeah, it's - we aren't into community much anymore. We're just kind of individual stuff.
CONAN: All right. We're losing your phone call, Marilyn. Thanks very much.
CONAN: We're talking with Ronald Moten on the Opinion Page. He's the co-founder of Peaceoholics, an anti-violence organization in Washington, D.C. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's talk with Rob(ph). Rob's with us from Hamilton, Ohio.
ROB (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, Rob. You got to turn the radio down.
ROB: Turn the radio down a little bit. Hi. Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROB: All right. All I wanted to say is that, you know, you witness a murder or something and you go to the police, that's not snitching. But if you make a drug deal, you know, and then you roll over and tell the police who you got your drugs from, that's considered snitching to me. You know what I mean?
CONAN: And that's unacceptable to you?
ROB: Yeah, that is unacceptable, you know. If you get caught buying drugs, you know, you know what you're doing, you don't go and tell on that person, you know. But if you witnessed a murder, then yeah, that would be acceptable. But, you know, if you get caught doing some that you shouldn't be doing, you don't go and say the name because you know what you're doing is wrong in the first place.
CONAN: Even if you've got a family and it's the difference between, say, two years in jail and - oh, eight?
ROB: Yeah, yeah. You know, I have a family and if I got caught doing something I shouldn't be doing, I wouldn't snitch just because, you know, it's not the right thing. Now, if I witnessed a murder, I would go straight to the cops.
CONAN: Even if in a moment of remorse after thinking through your drug problem, you said, wait a minute. This guy that I was buying from is spreading poison in my neighborhood.
ROB: Well, you know, I don't know. I've never been in that situation, you know.
CONAN: Ronald Moten, I wonder if you accept the distinction.
Mr. MOTEN: Well, I think that you can go to a judge and have remorse and repentance for your crime and take, you know, responsibility for what you've done and the judge still will have some remorse for you and maybe give you a lenient sentence. I think that's important. I think that if you commit a crime on somebody, you should do the time.
I think people play games with our system where they fabricate things and make things up on people to get a lesser sentence. And I think that, you know, you got to make the decision what's best for you. But me personally, I think that if you do a crime, you should go and do your time for that crime.
CONAN: All right. Rob, thanks for very much for the call.
ROB: All right.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get - this is G.S.(ph), is that right?
G.S. (Caller): That's right. G.S. in Berkeley. Thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead.
G.S.: Love your show, love NPR, I really appreciate it all the topics you explore.
G.S: I'm a pacifist and I consider that we are a community and we're all in this together, you know, on Earth, but, you know - on a macrocosm there's a microcosm. On the freeway, you know, like when I get a speeder blowing by me at 90 miles an hour, I've developed a habit of kind of photographically, in my mind, catching the license number and then I, getting the color and the make of the car.
And between six and eight times, I'd say in the last year, I've called this in to the California Highway Patrol and they've always said, great job. We'll get them, you know, we'll pull out the cars and catch them at the next bridge. And I feel that that is my honest, ordinary civic duty to be a snitch against people who endanger the lives of themselves and everybody else. I just think that's an honest thing that every ordinary citizen ought to do. It does take a certain amount of time and it does take a certain degree of courage.
Mr. MOTEN: I totally agree with you. I just don't think you're snitching. I just think you're doing what's right. You're being a citizen. That's your duty and obligation as a citizen. If you see some fool risking his life or other people's lives on the highway and driving crazy, I've done the same thing.
Mr. MOTEN: I don't see nothing snitching or bad about that. I think it's (unintelligible) best in our society.
CONAN: Could be described to self-defense.
Mr. MOTEN: Right. Exactly
G.S: Well, it could be. Well, what got me started on this was one time when I got caught off by about, maybe two feet by a lady changing four lanes across from the right in front of me while she was - I was probably going 60 and she was going at least 90 or 95. I decided that deserved some attention.
Mr. MOTEN: Right.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, G.S.
G.S: Thank you, gentlemen.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And the other thing you raised in your article, not just Scooter Libby, which people raised questions about - it's the police themselves. There are bad cops from time to time and there tends to be the blue wall of silence.
Mr. MOTEN: Right, right. I mean, there are some cops out here who did some horrific things that make people not want to come forward and deal with the police department. I think that we have to do a better job of rooting those people out because a lot of people don't deal with the police because there's so connection with the community.
Like when I came up, I knew who the officer was in my community from six years old up. So even if I wanted to do something wrong, I wouldn't do it right here. I would be shamed to do it because I knew he loved me. That has changed in our community. We have to bring that back in our community.
And if we don't do that, what you have is people who have their own personal agendas and they're not doing what's right by the people, for the people and they work for us. We don't work for them and that's why we understand and that's why we having this big forum coming up in October, national forum, on this issue to get us out to the world.
CONAN: Ronald Moten, thanks very much for being with us today.
Ronald Moten is a co-founder of an anti-violence group called Peaceoholics. You can find a link to his op-ed and all the details on how to download all of our Opinion Page segments as a podcast at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.