Last year, the CBS Television program 60 Minutes asked several Americans whether they would call the police if they witnessed a crime. Most said yes, of course they would.
But the answer in inner cities is often quite different. There, helping the police can be considered snitching, a violation of the so-called Code of the Streets. Those who snitch, even more than criminals, are condemned and can face deadly reprisals.
In 2004, a rap musician from Baltimore, Maryland, produced a controversial music video called "Stop Snitching." In it, young men claiming to be drug dealers threatened violence against anyone who, to use another street expression, ratted out – or identified – a criminal to the police.
This video got nationwide attention because a professional basketball star, Carmelo Anthony, also appeared on it. Anthony said he was only hanging around and had let a friend put him in his video.
Stop Snitching T-shirts that looked like they were riddled with bullet holes soon became fashionable among urban youths across the country.
Those who defend the notion that people should keep their mouths shut about crimes they witness say that police are often the enemy – harassing or falsely accusing minorities. They say snitches looking for reward money often finger innocent people.
Reacting to the Stop Snitching furor, the Baltimore police created their own video and T-shirts with the message, "Keep Talking."
And last month, in an impoverished Washington, D.C., neighborhood that had been rocked by a recent wave of street killings, residents held a mock funeral for what they called the myths of snitching.
A murderer is someone to be feared, not respected, one citizen said. Another told the Washington Post that people who will not stand up and protect their communities lose the right to complain about neighborhood violence.