Friday, January 11, 2008

Fringe Criticisms of Snitching Tread Dangerous Ground

But if you're talking 'bout destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out.

- "Revolution," The Beatles

Long-time readers know I've never been a fan of the "Stop Snitching" mantra (although I think its popularity portends tremendous political and sociological implications). I don't believe it's possible or wise to 100% eliminate the tactic of "flipping" informants from law enforcement's repertoire.

The problems arise because coerced informants have become a major source of police corruption and the second leading cause of wrongful convictions. To me, a more effective rhetorical and strategic approach would focus on identifying policy changes to reduce or mitigate bad outcomes from police reliance on criminal informants.

Here are two more grass roots political responses to snitching that take approaches toward the problem I disagree with, even if I may share some of the participants' goals:

First, the Whosarat database (discussed earlier on Grits here, here, here and here), has offered a $500 bounty for the "most interesting" informant case:
Who’s A Rat ( is running a contest with a prize of $500 for the “Most Interesting” new informant profile. The contest will begin on January 8th and all new informant profiles posted between January 8th and February 8th will be considered for the prize. In order to be considered for the contest, all entries must contain documentation of their co-operation with the government.
I understand the impetus behind the Whosarat database and even consider it a quite clever activist business model. As I've written before, though, "Whatever the intent, the tactic risks becoming a stalking horse for thuggery -- protected by the First Amendment and existing case law, to be sure, but irresponsible, I think, to say the least. Bottom line, I think we shouldn't stop snitching, but reform it."

I don't mind naming informants who've been revealed in court documents or investigating their background. Not only have I done so on this blog, I think there needs to be a lot more disclosure and transparency about police use of criminal informants. But the Whosarat approach walks and IMO sometimes crosses a narrow line between generating information needed by attorneys, defendants and the media and intentionally creating and marketing a target list that invites retaliation against the people in it.

Meanwhile, I recently ran across another misguided approach to the topic of "snitching" from the "National Hip Hop Political Convention," which adopted as its theme for a political forum last summer in Atlanta: "F**k the Police: Why Hip Hop Does Not Cooperate."

I can't think of a more foolish and harmful message. The Whosarat people, IMO, are behaving more responsibly.

At least you can argue that Cam'ron was caught off guard on 60 Minutes when he gave his dumb as dirt declaration that he wouldn't snitch on a serial killer ... if you can imagine, a group of political activists actually sat down and thought about the "F**k the Police" event before coming up with that title and message! I wonder who they're trying to convince?

Listen to the video for examples of the kind of narcissistic, short-sighted BS that apparently passes for Hip Hop political analysis these days.

Indeed, art and political strategy are two entirely different things. (Though there is surely "art" to political strategy, the tactics, sadly, do not typically translate across media.) I'm not sure Hip Hop has its own "politics" any more than one can embrace the politics of the violin concerto or of barrelhouse piano. But I know for sure the overall political message promoted at this event was destructive.

Thankfully at least one speaker, Dereka Blackmon, had the courage to tell the crowd that the "F**k the Police" theme was "irresponsible," basically selling kids a political message that was likely to get a bunch of them killed. (She got applause for the line, but hers was a minority opinion.)

A real-world political approach must insist on and reinforce the distinctions between a "witness" and a "snitch" or government informant who trades away their own culpability for a crime in exchange for testimony. Failing to report crime harms real people, just as it harms the neighborhood when criminals are allowed by police to ply their trade because they gave information on someone else. In other words, by framing the debate this way, IMO the Hip Hop Political Convention emboldens and empowers their most bitter and disingenuous critics.

And yes, before it's said in the comments, some speakers did make that distinction, criticizing those who don't take responsibility for their own actions in the justice system as "dishonorable" and distinct from typical witnesses. But who would come to the event to hear those distinctions given how they promoted it?

Just telling youth they should "not cooperate" plays directly into reactionary dismissals of the recently publicized "stop snitching" campaigns. Though several speakers criticized Cam'ron's 60 Minutes response, the truth is that organizers of this event made the same mistake he did, and then some.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree. Yes, some of the messages in that video are irresponsible, and yes, the title of the conference is deliberately provocative.

That said, well meaning people have been trying to frame the conversation about this in reasonable terms for years, and where has that gone?

That's not to say that deliberate hyperbole to get attention is the best approach. But at the very least, if they get some attention, even if negative, it might at least draw people to think about the issues. This is similar to, for instance, Al Sharpton - however much I dislike him and consider a lot of what he's done to be self-interested, he has brought attention to civil rights issues closer to mainstream attention; often in a confrontational manner, frequently simply wrong, but effective.

Consider this the flipside of the JPods of the world - making absurd claims about the immediate need to bomb Iran to give cover for "reasonable" neocons. I don't like the tactic from either side, but Overton's Window is real, and it works.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"well meaning people have been trying to frame the conversation about this in reasonable terms for years"

I don't actually think that's true. This didn't really become a big public issue in America until the "stop snitching" movement arose and the recent bout of wrongful convictions showed how commonly problematic snitching can be.

I also don't know that Al Sharpton is particularly "effective." At what? Bringing attention to oneself changes little, in my experience.

Finally, I do consider this the flipside of John Podhoretz, which is precisely why I find the approach wrong, even abhorrent, and certainly irresponsible. Overton's window is nothing but a self justification for demagogues and losers. I realize some people think that's a legitimate way to go, but as the Beatles sang, "you can count me out."

Anonymous said...

"Overton's window is nothing but a self justification for demagogues and losers."

How do you really feel about it, Scott?!