Borgman, D. (1999, July). Snitching. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.
Along with problems of violence and the abuse of alcohol, drugs and sex, there is a truth problem in our world and in youth culture as well. This issue is accentuated, and its consequences more dire, in street culture. Young people who have told the truth are now dead. Others are running for their lives.
Long ago, organized crime established the rule: “anyone who talks to the police, dies.” And sometimes their families died with them. It is understandable that this principle was picked up by gangs and street kids generally. A common term for telling on friends is snitching. Snitches are also called “squealers” and “rats.” Some Latinos use the term “chota.”
In January 1999, 8-year-old Leroy Brown, Jr. (B.J.) and his mother were killed while waiting to testify in a Bridgeport, Connecticut murder trial. A hit man burst into their house, and young Leroy went screaming to his mother: “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” These were his last words. Racing up the stairs toward his mother, B.J. was shot in the back of the head. The web around crack cocaine claimed two more innocent lives.
In Boston the next month, 14-year-old Jason was out with friends. One of them lifted his shirt to reveal a long-barreled revolver tucked into his jeans ([1999, May 20]. The Boston Globe, pp. A1, A14). Soon after, as they walked near the Northeastern campus, this friend unexpectedly confronted a university student and demanded money while another friend threatened with a switchblade and a third with fists. Jason backed off into some nearby bushes to avoid becoming involved in the crime. Unfortunately, he was the one apprehended by the police. Because he had been taught to tell the truth, he let the police know what happened.
Jason had violated a code of the streets: “never cooperate with the police.” Reaction in the neighborhood was swift. His friends promised to kill him; “I’m going to put a cap in you,” one of them said-street lingo for shooting you dead. Soon neighbors from the project who had never spoken to his mother were telling her, “Jason is going to die.”
The police promise protection to young witnesses. Yet news of a confidential confession quickly gets out, and responsible officials admit they do not have the funds to relocate and protect. A spokesman for Boston’s Suffolk County district attorney’s office gave this picture of the way things work:
We can and do put people in protective circumstances if the situation warrants it, but we’re very limited because our budget is limited. If we were to provide a protective environment for witnesses (like Jason), it would be an astronomical expense. (p. A14)
The police did react quickly to the threat on Jason’s life. The two boys are in custody charged with robbery and with intimidating a witness. But friends of the boys have now promised to get Jason.
But Jason’s mother saw she could not trust the system to protect her son. She secretly placed him with a relative without telling even the police of the location. Jason has been forced to drop out of school and cannot go out of the apartment without an adult. He will have to repeat the eighth grade and is very bored with his present situation.
I knew if the policeman asked me, I was supposed to tell the truth. I feel I did the right thing…I do think I’m paying a heavy price for being honest. It’s like being in jail. (p. A14)
Jason’s mother is understandably bitter. She realizes she must move to another city.
The police assured us no one would know. I don’t think they care enough. When they tell you they’ll protect you, you believe it. But now I know it’s different.
Jason is a pretty honest kid. He just tells the truth, even if it means he’ll get in trouble. He’s always been like that. He’s basically been raised that way. I’ve always told him if you lie the truth is going to come out. It’s better to tell the truth.
I feel he did the right thing, but sometimes honestly I feel like he shouldn’t have said anything…I think it’s sad, basically, that a child has to be put under those types of pressures when they know something is wrong and they can’t say anything because they’ll be labeled a snitch. (p. A14)
Larry Meyes, a field organizer for a Dorchester youth agency, knows about this kind of situation. He believes law enforcement must find ways to protect child witnesses:
A civil society cannot function if a child cannot tell the truth. We really need to find place so shelter for children who believe in right and wrong. (p. A14)
Leonard Alkins is president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. He has dealt with cases like this in the past and believes the only answer, if police want to use such young witnesses, is to locate such families outside the city.
This is a small community. If he is in the Boston public school district, he can be tracked down. It’s physically impossible to provide police protection 24 hours a day.
U.S. Representative Michael Capuano said he spent a whole day calling agencies trying to figure out how best to protect Jason. He concluded that a national effort is needed and plans to sponsor a bill to get federal funds into the hands of prosecutors. Norfolk District Attorney William Keating knows even one protection case can put their budget into the red. “If the resources are expensive,” said Keating, “then that’s the way it is. It should be an extremely high public safety priority.”
The challenge of truth and honesty versus survival, silence, or lying will continue. It is a problem for criminal justice and legislators, for parents and youth workers, and especially for young people themselves.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What words, besides snitching, are used for telling on friends, in your area?
- As a young person, how (did) do you and your friends respond to pressures to lie?
- As a parent, how would you instruct your children? Did Jason’s mother do right?
- As a parent how would you instruct your children about violence? If threatened or hit, how should they respond?
- How should young workers instruct young people about violence and honesty?
- What are the consequences of a culture of lying? How do you see lying in our dominant, adult culture and in the subcultures of youth?
- Could this article be useful as a case study for such discussions?
- The issue of honesty is critical for secular society as well as for religious communities. Without honesty there cannot be trust, and without trust both communities and societies will begin to disintegrate.
- Young people will say they trust their friends and can be relatively honest with them, but they do not trust the police and will not cooperate with them. But before peace and justice can come to the streets, the hostile barrier between young people and adults must be broken down.
- Adult society needs help and cooperation from young people and the youth culture. But before that can come, adults and adult society must show themselves trustworthy.
© 2017 CYS