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Snitch: A Review of the Book by Ethan Brown

originally published April 14, 2008 / Ebony magazine

Boston based Antonio Ansaldi designed his Stop Snitching tees in 1999 because, he said at the time, prosecutor’s offices had fallen into the murky practice of using drug dealers testimony to trade their freedom for their co-defendants’, or just as common, using the police department to shut down competitors by informing. The shirts became a hood staple for the next five years, infuriating police, some community activists and dividing the hip-hop community, where pro and con essays were published on various hip-hop sites, blogs and in urban mags. The New York Times got involved and an unfortunate interview with Harlem rapper Cam aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes, where he insisted on sticking to the code, even if a hypothetical “serial killer” were his neighbor. Ethan Brown’s Snitch; Informers, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice released early this year, raises the phrase from baggy Hanes tees and gives the complicated subject the serious treatment it deserves.

In his prologue Brown lays out his central thesis: the stellar investigative work the networks propagate with no less than a dozen police dramas (the Law & Order series, CSI et al) is more fantasy than fiction. Since the beginning of the disastrous War on Drugs, police work and consequently prosecutions, have relied not only heavily but often exclusively, on cooperators and informants. If the past decade and a half were a Law and Order episode we’d skip the first quarter, where the dicks rifle through garbage, bounce around the city’s neighborhoods interviewing ancillaries, until, like Hansel and Gretel, they end up at the doorstep of the criminal. Real life scenarios would cut straight to the interview room, where police who barely need step foot outside the station, threaten suspect after suspect (no need to lay out the criminalization of black youth and their suspicious births here, right?), until they “flip.”

Two powerful tools have acted as incentives for both prosecutors and the cornered suspect, Brown argues. One is the “5K” motion from a prosecutor which acknowledges “substantial assistance” was given by the accused. To be considered during sentencing it’s an incentive to suspects facing mandatory sentencing and skewed drug laws. The other is the Federal Rule of Evidence or Rule 404(b), which stipulates that prosecutors can introduce uncharged evidence relating “other crimes, wrongs or acts” to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident” behind a crime. Brown points out “…that “under Rule 404(b) prosecutors can introduce uncorroborated evidence relating to even serious crimes like murder.

“One result of punitive criminal justice policy such as mandatory minimums and prosecutors who’ve grown accustomed to relying on cooperator testimony is a high rate of wrongful convictions; a study by the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions found that 46 percent of wrongful death penalty convictions can be attributed to false information provided by ‘incentivized witnesses.’ The anticrime bills have also created a skyrocketing federal inmate population.”

Brown traces the highly consequential practices to a single policy, The Anti-Drug Abuse Act OF 1988, which created a cabinet-level drug czar and improved upon its 1986 predecessor with five year mandatory minimums for possession of five grams of crack. Followed by a succession of anti-crime bills (where Bill Clinton convinced middling Republicans that he and the Democratic party were capable of cowboy tough), Brown goes on to prove that the present, privatized prison industry was the “anti-crime” policy’s inevitable future. “Perversely, the great achievement of the anticrime bills is the sprawling federal prison system itself. Direct expenditures on crime at the federal level doubled from 1990 to 1999 (from $10 billion to more than $20 billion) according to the Bureau of Justice statistics…. As the cooperation process is shrouded in secrecy by the feds, it’s difficult to discern the number of defendants who have struck cooperation deals.”

Brown progresses from policy and stats supported by hard facts to the anecdotal evidence of a half dozen narratives. These stories run the gamut---a Vietnam Vet in Iowa who trades in a Chicago bar owner when he is caught with a few kilos of cocaine; a guileless, small time ecstasy dealer who runs into an undercover DEA agent who sets him up to make the biggest buy of his career; a bookstore bust and even a patsy in the murder of slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Not the same jailhouse snitch that LA Times reporter Chuck Phillips relied on to implicate Sean Combs in Shakur’s non-fatal shooting, a story the paper had to officially retract two weeks later. But another cautionary tale that could just as well have served as an appendage to Snitch.

Combs slain superstar rapper, the late Notorious B.I.G. once rhymed “If you ain’t getting bagged/stay the fuck from police.” It seemed at the time a criminal code of conduct, a weak imitation of a glamorized Omerta or code of silence that may have only ever existed in movies about the mob. But with Snitch, Brown makes a case for the paranoia of the streets. In many ways it is an inherited position. While Brown keeps his argument tightly book ended by the crack era it wouldn’t be a reach to go back a generation. In the late sixties, after the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared war on Black revolutionaries in the shape of COINTELPRO. He vowed to “neutralize” the Black Panthers, whom he described as the “greatest internal threat” to national security.

Like a post 9/11 CIA desperate for Arabic speaking agents, counterintelligence was dependent on black spies, either sent in with an agenda, or “flipped” during the height of Hoover’s campaign. Using informants’ information, Panthers were being prosecuted across the country, or in the case of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, murdered by police in his own apartment in the middle of the night as he lay sleeping with his pregnant wife. William O’Neil, the snitch who provided the police a layout of Hampton’s apartment was paid $300 for the lives of Hampton and his comrade Mark Clark. Conversely, grand jury resistors, affiliated with the Black Panther Party and later groups like the Black Liberation Army, refused to testify or cooperate in any way with the “state” and many spent years in jail for their silence. Huey Newton talked about setting up areas in the community that were safe spaces, free of prostitution and drug dealing. Fred Hampton brokered truces with Chicago’s most violent gangs to reduce the killing of innocents.

But the generations most affected by today’s police practices are not a generation with a movement. The so-called hip-hop generation got paid from selling mock resistance, from the myth of action. But it doesn’t make the assault on the community any less real and the human collateral damage, laid out plainly and unemotionally by Brown, is itself an indictment on the current criminal justice system.


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