From Ernest Withers to Riley Freeman: How Informants Seeded the Stop Snitching Campaigns

"Granddad, Stop Snitchin'!" said little Riley Freeman as Granddad protested the arrest of his marijuana grower. For Riley, not snitchin' and reppin' the streets is what separates the real n*ggas from the fake n*ggas. Riley's dilemma, to snitch or not to snitch, finally came to a head in the Boondocks episode "Thank You for Not Snitching" in which Riley chose not to rat out Ed and Rummy when they stole Granddad's car.

It's not difficult to understand why many in the African-American community loathe informants, those casually derided as rats, narcs, and turncoats. When it came to light a few days ago that famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers was an FBI informant, Julian Bond, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee , said "I grew up in a political culture in which an informant -- somebody who told on his friends -- was the lowest form of life."

In the 1960's, becoming an informant was the equivalent of selling out a movement. During the civil rights revolution, members understood that if the seeds they were planting had any chance of sprouting and reconstructing a world free of racist tyranny, it must be done in secret.

Since then, selling out someone inside your community and turning them over to those outside your community has morphed into an act akin to treachery. During the civil rights movement, not snitching was part of an overall strategy, but the aversion to snitching later became an element of the African-American collective code of conduct.

Today, "stop snitching" campaigns have lead to a form of tribalism whereby African-American communities forfeit their right to police protection in favor of a tenacious defiance to authority. Our nostalgic impulse whereby we look to the past for our moral bearings is only reinforced by the number of police officers who exploit the very communities which they're paid to serve, often treating urban communities as their own personal playgrounds. The so-called God complex to which so many police officers are pre-disposed is resurrected each time a dirty cop brandishes a badge.

The problem, though, is that the stray bullets that ring out in the black of night and glow of day to snatch the lives of toddlers, bystanders and other innocents are not always from cops, but often from street thugs who operate with impunity. So those trapped in communities where violence runs rampant have seemingly exchanged one despot for another. The lack of clear options has caused a deadening in urban centers where desperate city dwellers have nowhere to turn for help.

What those in urban communities saturated with violence have yet to grasp is that all behaviors are relative to your goal. They must loosen their grip on the idea that there is always repudiation in speaking up and always strength in silence. It's just as foolish to suggest that citizens call the police in all instances of criminality as it is to suggest that they all remain silent in the face of wrongdoing. Taking back your streets does not require that you hand over your community to the police or to the gangsters. Living life within a paradigm where you're unsure whose friend and whose foe requires a bit more nuance.

The first step in navigating this maze requires direct action, as opposed to the passive and aloof approach expressed by many who are only indirectly affected by street violence. Taking a risk in your community also entails taking a personal risk. But if one doesn't willfully resist the dastardly elements which encroach upon his life day in and day out, wherein lies the freedom to which every living being is entitled?

The two men at the forefront of the American civil rights revolution, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, were both slain by an assassin's bullet. Although there's much good to be said of those who closed in ranks behind the two men and remained silent in the face of overwhelming opposition, there's even more to be said for the courage it took for Malcolm and Martin to look death in the eye and not blink. If we're to take back our streets, we'll need a bit more of this brand of courage, and not just some flimsy commitment to stop snitchin'.

Yvette Carnell is a political analyst for the African-American business and politics new site, atlantapost.com.