Damned If You Do. Damned If You Don't.

by Marc Lamont Hill

Stop Snitching photo from Antoniosaldi.com 

Over the past year, the hip-hop community has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for the wildly popular “Stop Snitching” campaign. The movement, which has been accompanied by a flurry of t-shirts, songs, websites, and DVDs, is ideologically grounded in the belief that people should not cooperate with law enforcement authorities under any circumstances. In addition, Lil Kim’s 2005 conviction and one year prison sentence for obstruction of justice, Cam’ron’s refusal to help police find the person who shot him during an attempted robbery in October 2005, Busta Rhymes’ and Tony Yayo’s refusal to speak to police about the February 2006 murder of Rhymes’ bodyguard Israel Ramirez at a video shoot, and the now infamous “Stop Snitching” DVD featuring NBA star Carmelo Anthony, have all increased the recent amount of public attention paid to the centuries-old politics of snitching. In response to the “Stop Snitching” campaign, community organizations, politicians, and law enforcement agencies have mounted a full-fledged counter-movement, informally titled “Start Snitching”, designed to encourage the hip-hop generation to cooperate with authorities when criminal acts are committed.

To be certain, the issue of snitching is neither restricted to nor rooted in hip-hop culture. Within most American communities, reporting other people’s bad acts is a practice that is strongly discouraged. Judaic, Islamic, and Christian laws all speak negatively about backbiting and gossip. Mantras like “don’t be a tattle tale” and “snitches get stitches” serve as early childhood reminders for many Americans, irrespective of race and class, of the moral and pragmatic consequences that accompany snitching. Prominent white Americans like New York Times writer Judith Miller, who recently came under attack from her neo-conservative comrades for failing to expose Lewis “Scooter” Libby, have paid dearly (multi-million dollar book deals notwithstanding) for their commitments to secrecy. Even the police, who are among the strongest opponents of the “Stop Snitching” movement, have a ‘blue code’ of silence that protects them from internal snitches. Nevertheless, the hip-hop community has absorbed the brunt of the public attack on snitching, with little effort given to examining the unique significance of snitching within urban communities.

While critics dismiss the “Stop Snitching” campaign as a rejection of civic responsibility that further verifies dominant public beliefs about the moral incompetence of the hip-hop generation, a closer analysis reveals a much more complicated set of issues that have gone unaddressed. In its a priori dismissal of the “Stop Snitching” campaign, the general public has failed to acknowledge the moral complexity and legitimacy of an anti-snitching position. In all fairness, this is partially the fault of the hip-hop industry itself, which has marketed “Stop Snitching” in ways that undermine any claims to moral authority by not placing any conditions or caveats on its pleas for silence. While it is certainly problematic to condemn all acts of communication with authorities, it is equally shortsighted and irresponsible to advocate an absolute pro-snitching position.

The act of snitching necessarily creates a social and ethical quagmire in which an individual must sacrifice one set of loyalties for another. More specifically, the potential snitch is forced to choose between competing ethical codes and social commitments when making their decision. Often, this process entails deciding between locally defined rules and larger, more official ones. For example, Lil’ Kim’s refusal to identify her crew members as assailants during a shootout at the Hot 97 radio station was an anti-snitching gesture that privileged her friendship bonds and street ethics over the established laws of the land regarding obstruction of justice. While it is tempting to condemn all such acts on moral or ethical grounds — in this case, arguing that Kim should have protected the interests of the assaulted and not those of the assailants — it is necessary to consider the validity and value of the particular rules and issues at stake on a case-by-case basis. It is also important to understand the various ways that snitching is considered and discussed within the context of hip-hop culture.

Dry Snitching
Dry snitching is one of the most common practices within contemporary hip-hop culture. The term emerged from prison culture to describe an inmate who, in an effort to avoid a confrontation, would talk loudly or otherwise draw attention to himself in order to attract a nearby correctional officer. This is done as a way of “snitching without snitching”. Dry snitching also refers to the act of implicating someone else, intentionally or unintentionally, while speaking to an authority figure. Dry snitches are typically considered to be weak, naive, passive aggressive, or self-centered, all of which present ethical and practical dilemmas that must be weighed when discussing the practice of snitching.

For example, before channeling Tupac and becoming America’s thug de jour, 50 Cent was a struggling rapper attempting to make a name for himself on the underground scene. In a 2000 song “Ghetto Quran”, 50 named and described many of New York’s most notorious drug dealers, including Pappy Mason, Rich Porter, Fat Cat, Prince, and Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff. The song earned 50 many enemies in New York’s crime underworld, who were angry at the precarious legal position in which they believed 50’s public disclosures might have placed them. It was this anger, according to the federal prosecutors involved in Chris and Irv Gotti’s recent trial that led to 50’s May 2000 shooting. To many observers, 50’s sonic, dry snitching revelations undermined the very ghetto authenticity that the song was intended to evince.

Another example of dry snitching occurred in 2003, when Kobe Bryant was arrested on rape charges. While being interrogated, Bryant freely disclosed potentially embarrassing aspects of teammate Shaquille O’Neal’s personal life in order to gain favor with Colorado police. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kobe reportedly told the officers that he should have followed Shaq’s example and paid the woman not to say anything, adding that Shaq had already spend over one million dollars for those purposes. While some attributed this slip-up to Kobe’s inexperience in such situations — one of the reasons that the suburban bred Kobe will never reach the ghetto superstar status of his generational peer, Allen Iverson, despite his extravagantly calculated gestures — others saw it as a passive aggressive act against his not so secret rival.

More recently, Karrine “Superhead” Steffans released her bestselling memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen (Amistad, 2005) in which she exposes the underside of the hip-hop industry. In offering her self-proclaimed “cautionary tale”, Steffans also names numerous celebrities with whom she engaged in sexual encounters. While many people expressed disgust for her exploits — unfortunately, few people expressed similar disgust for the promiscuity of the men with whom she shared the trysts — others were more disturbed at the embarrassment that the book caused in the lives of her former partners, many of whom were married.

The motivations and morality of each of these acts of snitching are debatable. Did Kobe “out” Shaq out of innocent fear, or was it a disturbing display of schadenfreude? Was 50 ratting out the underworld elite, or merely paying homage? Is Steffans confessing her sins, or selling out her former running buddies? If we assume that all three of these people were not attempting to harm anyone else, is it okay for them to report someone else’s misdeeds? Even if each of them were to admit that they had the worst intentions at heart, do they have any commitment to the people with whom they shared implicit or explicit compacts? Does this commitment change if they now believe the agreements to be immoral? While these questions are not easily answerable (if at all), they suggest that an anti-snitching position can be a legitimate and sophisticated response to dilemmas such as these.

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