Commentary: Stop snitching culture must change

The Miami HeraldFebruary 4, 2009 

In Los Angeles, there is a park named in honor of Griffith J. Griffith, whose claim to fame is that he made a fortune speculating in gold mining and gave the city a large tract of land.

In Chicago, there is a park named in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, whose claim to fame is that he commanded Union forces in the Civil War and was 18th president of the United States.

And in Miami, there is, as of last week, a park named in honor of Sherdavia Jenkins, whose claim to fame is that she was shot to death in 2006 while playing at her own front door.

Thus do we attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible and sanctify the profane. A 9-year-old girl takes a bullet in the neck in the crossfire between two gutless, brainless, soulless punks, and we put her name on a sign in a park.

I don't mean to disparage the idea. It is a fitting and proper way of keeping that little girl's name alive. It just hurts that we were unable to keep the little girl alive. So we are left making these after-the-fact gestures that are lovely and heartfelt and utterly impotent to stem or even address the violence that wracks our inner cities.

Indeed, even as Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park was being unveiled, her neighborhood was grappling with its latest atrocity: two dead, seven wounded, after some individual with an assault rifle opened up on a street corner craps game. Fifty people were on hand, but police say they have few witnesses.

Apparently, everyone was struck blind at the same time.

The Rev. Al Sharpton came to town last week, part of what he calls a national campaign against the so-called "stop snitching" culture within the African-American community. Speaking at a church rally, he called out those folks who suddenly went blind. "You are traitors to our race and denigrating our community," he said.

Amen. This idea that we as black people owe some debt of silence to the corrupters and killers among us who shoot our babies and frighten our mothers and steal our sons is – pardon my French – bassackward, yet somehow, it has taken root in our community.

You see it in that T-shirt some black men wear, the one with the old Warner Brothers WB logo and the legend that reads, "If you see da police warn a brother." You see it in a street saying: snitches get stitches. You see it in Stop Snitching, a DVD sold in Baltimore a few years back that threatened snitches with death. You see it in the rapper Cam'ron saying in 2007 that he wouldn't snitch even if there were a serial killer next door.

You see in the blind eyes of 50 witnesses.

Yes, some of us have a well-founded and deep-seated distrust of the criminal justice system. But you know what? It's the only system we've got. Does it really make more sense to make common cause with people who are trying to kill you, to be loyal to those who have no loyalty to anything, all out of some idiotic notion of solidarity, or even out of plain old fear?

African Americans have never been a weak and cowardly people. Weak and cowardly people do not risk their lives running to freedom. Weak and cowardly people do not stand against government and guns, dogs and fire, demanding freedom. Weak and cowardly people do not produce Harriet Tubmans, Henry Johnsons, Rosa Parkses, Martin Luther Kings or Barack Obamas.

But this right here, this so-called "stop snitching" culture? It's as weak and cowardly as it gets.

Until and unless we find it in ourselves to confront and roll that culture back, our inner cities will remain blighted places that never see their full potential, places where businesses fear to locate, good people fear to walk, a child is unsafe at her own front door.

And blind people stroll in the parks.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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