'Snitching' controversy goes well beyond 'Melo

BALTIMORE -- When Carmelo Anthony was a boy, his mother would come home from work to find something broken from too much roughhousing. Might be a lamp shade or framed family photo. She would ask her three sons and one daughter who was responsible. None of them would ever fess up or point the finger at a sibling.

"So they'd all get punished," says Mary Anthony, smiling at the memory.

At its roots, Stop Snitching springs from time-honored notions about loyalty and discretion. The ethic can be found in many American institutions, from the legend of traitorous Benedict Arnold, to parents who chastise kids for tattletaling, to the way corporations, the military and the White House go about their affairs. It's never easy to blow the whistle, even when necessary, as at Enron.

In high-crime urban areas like West Baltimore, where Anthony grew up, the consequences of implicating peers are perhaps greater than anywhere else.

It all began, ironically, with Len Bias. When the former Maryland forward died of a cocaine overdose after being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986, the most powerful politician outside of the Oval Office was House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, from Boston. O'Neill was a famous champion of the underclass and had directed considerable funds to inner-city programs across the country for decades. But in the '84 elections, Republicans gained more power on Capitol Hill by successfully accusing the Democrats of being soft on crime.

As his constituents raged over the death of Bias, O'Neill sensed a political opportunity to make the Democrats look tough on drugs, according to Eric Sterling, a former counsel to the House judiciary committee, who explained the legislative machinations in a PBS "Frontline" report. Mandatory minimum sentences were introduced, stripping judges of the ability to consider mitigating circumstances. Getting caught with five grams of crack
(25 doses), for instance, meant five years behind bars, and that was that.

The only way to get a prison sentence cut is to become a confidential informant. A snitch. The idea was that government would use neighborhood dealers to rat out the kingpins sitting atop the drug trade. But what has happened in most cases is that little guys snitch on other little guys, often with the goal of taking over turf, and sometimes with bogus information, says Alexandra Natapoff, a former public defender in Baltimore who published a 58-page law journal article on the legal institution of snitching last year.

"It's like a get-out-of-jail free card," she says.

Should a snitch secretly feed information to the cops, he might even get protection and cash, says Natapoff, now a law professor at Loyola College (Calif.). The policy has helped fill up penitentiaries, while inducing a state of paranoia in high-crime neighborhoods that she likens to the former East Germany under the secret police. On street corners and at family barbecues, anyone's a potential rat.

"The point is not so much to say Baltimore is operated by the Stasi but that people in East Germany were afraid," she says. "They felt insecure. Families were torn apart, and the political and artistic communities were destabilized." She estimates that 8 percent of young black male adults in Baltimore are informants. "It's this kind of snitching that lets criminals go at large and turns people in the community against each other," she says.

Anthony never intended Stop Snitching to be his message. He still doesn't, preferring that people focus on his community work that is geared largely toward giving inner-city kids viable options to the street. But he understands, even sympathizes, with the notion of not cooperating with police.

The target of much of the venom in the "Stop Snitching" DVD is Tyree Stewart, a marijuana kingpin who reportedly once tooled around West Baltimore in a $100,000 Mercedes. Almost from the moment he was busted in 2003, he has been arranging drug buys between associates and undercover officers.

"Tyree ran our neighborhood," Anthony says. "Now he's working with the state and the feds. You can't do that. He turned his back on the 'hood."

Police say that with limited resources for surveillance and other investigative techniques, they need to use informants to make drug cases. The chance for criminals to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence gives them that tool.

"That ['Stop Snitching'] video just glamorizes thug life," says Matt Jablow, spokesman for the Baltimore police department.

Jablow says police are winning the fight against crime, even though their ability to convince law-abiding citizens to come forward as witnesses has been more challenging since the October 2004 release of the DVD. In Baltimore and other major cities, people have had their homes firebombed after turning in drug dealers. Some witnesses have been killed. In Pittsburgh, a trial was stopped when a witness in a Stop Snitching T-shirt took the fifth.

The DVD's producer says he regrets if the underground disk, with its raw and profane delivery of a sentiment that is understood on the streets of Baltimore, has contributed to witness intimidation here or elsewhere.

"The message totally got lost," says Rodney Bethea, who is also a Baltimore barber. "The people in this documentary are referring to fellow criminals who snitch. And they're saying, stop doing that. You did the crime, you do the time."

Inevitably, though, snitching gets defined more broadly in any inner city in which the police are seen as an occupying force. And anyone from that environment, not just Anthony, knows the term, Snitches get stitches. Asked how many pro athletes from high-crime areas would help police identify criminals, fellow Baltimore native and NBA veteran Sam Cassell said, "One hundred percent of them would say no. A hundred. If I see five guys doing something [illegal] on the street, I'm going to look the other way and hope I don't see no more. Is that right? No, that's not right. But life's not right sometimes."

Bethea plans to release "Stop Snitching II" later this month. Though he has leftover footage of Anthony on the Baltimore streets, he says he is not using it. He doesn't want to cause the Denver Nuggets star any more trouble.

That sigh you hear is coming from the team's public relations department.

The forces driving the Stop Snitching movement are "a deep, deep story that goes well beyond Carmelo Anthony," Natapoff says. "The video ought to be a wake-up call to law enforcement and prosecutors. They have to decide if this is good public policy for these neighborhoods."

Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com