Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hip Hop, Snitches, and Witnesses

I've often said I like both kinds of music: Country AND Western. Hip Hop has never been my thing. As a political and cultural phenomenon, though, its influence permeates today's youth culture. So I perked up last year when hip hop artists and advocates began publicly criticizing the practice of "snitching," a subject in which I'm keenly interested. But I've been waiting for hip hoppers promoting the "stop snitching" meme to start making this important distinction proposed by Temple Prof. Marc Lamont Hill on
Snitches vs. Witnesses

In order to fully understand the legitimacy of the "Stop Snitching" movement within hip-hop, it is important to make a distinction between snitching and witnessing. While witnessing can be rightly considered a necessary civic practice in order to create and sustain safe communities, snitching is itself an act of moral turpitude. While a witness is an asset to truth and justice, the snitch is motivated primarily or entirely by self-interest. While witnesses are committed to upholding social contracts, snitches inevitably undermine them. Given this distinction, it seems that the bulk of the public outcry in favor of snitching is actually a plea for witnesses.
That's a really important point, and the failure to make it has been my main concern about the whole "stop snitching" movement currently thriving in black communities across the country. As I wrote last year, "the reason I consider the 'stop snitching' meme on t-shirts an ill advised message isn't that I think criminals should tell on others for reduced sentences -- it's that gangbangers and drug dealers are busy equating 'snitches' with all witnesses in popular culture." Truth is, there are a lot of good reasons not to snitch beyond the fear-based motive that "snitches get stitches." But none of them justify witness intimidation by criminal thugs.

Hill's article examines several cases of prominent hip hop artists who snitched, or like Lil Kim, who refused to do so. Following the lead of Professor Alexandra Natapoff, whose excellent work Grits has hailed previously, Hill identifies ways in which snitching erodes social relationships and cultural norms in the black community:
At a moment when civil liberties are in jeopardy for all Americans due to the Patriot Act and sophisticated forms of domestic spying, the proliferation of snitches creates a new set of problems for ghetto denizens. Increased violence, sustained crime rates, growing distrust of fellow citizens (imagine going to the basketball court, barbershop, or the local bar knowing that one in twelve people in your community — and possibly that guy sitting right next to you — is a government informant), destruction of positive community-police relationships, and the invasion of privacy for law-abiding citizens are all consequences of the ghetto snitch industry. Instead of merely enabling the drug culture's foot soldiers to "flip" on big bosses (the expressed governmental intent of wet snitching), the current system often allows everyone to trade information for leniency, not least because the government is drowning in overstocked dockets and the criminals are masterful manipulators of the truth.
Hill fears that critics of the stop snitching movement "ignore the moral dilemmas that are part and parcel of the [snitching] practice. Also, we ascribe a level of unearned trust and moral authority to formal institutions, such as the government, despite its consistent indifference to the well being of its most defenseless citizens." He also worries, though, that by promoting the "stop snitching" message uncritically, "the hip-hop community creates the conditions for a fundamentalist reading of a 'don't talk to cops' social text. Surely this can lead to the type of moral irresponsibility and social decline that snitching advocates believe already exists," he writes.

Hill's piece is an interesting, needed contribution to the debate surrounding informants, and I hope he's following up in his scholarship. See
Grits' prior posts on snitching.

1 comment:

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