Sunday, January 28, 2007
Giving free cover to nation's criminals
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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
In the late summer of 1955, 64-year-old Mose Wright pointed to a man in a packed Mississippi courtroom and said in his Southern dialect, "Dar he."
There he is.
With those words, the slight, elderly black man risked his life to identify one of two white men on trial for savagely murdering his great-nephew, Emmett Till.
That was then.
This is now: A crime occurs. Everyone knows about it, but no one knows who committed it.
Welcome to the era of "Stop Snitching." The national trend has burst into public consciousness as a semi-organized campaign by the thug element to "out" people perceived as police informants.
The trend emerged recently in Roanoke on a MySpace Web page. The site's creator urged visitors to identify local "snitches."
The page, which opened with the deafening musical drumbeat of an anti-police rap song, has scaled back. It's now private with limited access.
Similar campaigns have frustrated police across the nation. It also has spawned a cottage industry of videos and T-shirts.
In 2004, NBA star Carmelo Anthony appeared in a bootleg video in Baltimore that warned people they could be killed for cooperating with police. Anthony later said he wasn't aware of the DVD's message.
Authorities worry that a national Web site, Whosarat.com, established in 2004 and claiming to identify more than 4,000 informants and undercover officers, has turned witnesses into targets.
I saw a young man in a barbershop recently wearing a T-shirt with a message deriding snitching.
I can't recall whether it was on the shirt's front or back. But I remember the message -- and its likely result.
"Stop snitching" means murderers get away with murder. Rapists, robbers and other criminal low-lifes continue to prey on victims.
The Mafia-like trend jars the sensibilities of honest, hardworking people. They're fed up with crime and the dope boys taking over their block, making them hostages in their own homes. They want to see criminals off the street.
Sadly, "stop snitching" reflects a deeper, warped culture and value system among some youths. These young people think you're a punk if you try to adhere to the common codes of society.
"We are so much in trouble. ... Our standards and values that made [us] proud have been forsaken," said Carl Taylor, a nationally renowned criminologist at Michigan State University who has done extensive research into reducing youth violence.
On the other hand, said the professor, not snitching is the American style.
"We don't like to look at it like that. Folks don't tell on other folks. ... Their perspective is this is a hypocritical society. We have a pedophile in Congress. No one snitched. Police don't snitch. Journalists don't snitch. We are a society that doesn't snitch."
Young people don't cooperate with authorities for a number of reasons, Taylor noted.
One factor is fear. He reminded me that the NAACP immediately hustled Mose Wright out of state after he testified against the defendants. The murderers, who later confessed in a magazine interview, were acquitted.
Wright lived the rest of his life in Chicago.
"They're not up for that," Taylor said of today's kids. "They're just scared."
In past years, Taylor said, people perhaps didn't like the culprit's misconduct but didn't cooperate. Others would cooperate if they felt the police could protect them from retaliation.
The fear factor cannot be downplayed. Taylor shared the story of a family in Baltimore in 2002 that called police repeatedly to complain about a neighborhood drug dealer. He broke into the family's home, doused the place with gasoline and burned it down, killing a woman and five of her children inside. Her husband died a week later from his injuries.
Another factor in withholding information is a misguided desire by young people to thumb their noses at cultural norms. They embrace the thug lifestyle. They don't see themselves as "hoodlums," Taylor told me, but as "underdogs."
"These kids in the culture are twisted," Taylor said. "This society has not played fair with them. Their value system says, 'I'm a thug. I'm an underdog.' Their identity is that makes them somebody."
They have grown up with a distrust, sometimes justified, of law enforcement. They won't cooperate and, in fact, some take a defensive position.
"I'm not telling, and I support Carl," Taylor said defiantly, inserting his name as an example of a suspect. "He should've done that. There's something in youth culture that bands together."
This disturbing sense of value jeopardizes the lives of all people living under the threat of crime eating away at their neighborhoods. So how do we fix it?
First, Taylor said, we have to begin by fixing lives. The task, he concedes, is daunting.
Society -- and the black community -- has to turn the mirror on itself and see the results of indifference.
"We get what we put in," Taylor said, urging people to ask, " 'Why didn't you put more in?' There's no jobs. Our leadership in our community has failed."
We have to insist that young people change their ways.
"You have to draw the line," Taylor said. "You have to tell young people, 'You can be forgiven.' Jesus didn't say, 'Go and sin sometime.' He said, 'Go and sin no more.'
"You've got to put that way [of living] down," he added. "That's what we're asking.
"That's what we're demanding."
Shanna Flowers' column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.