Tangg insists the shirt was not intended to intimidate witnesses at a trial. "In no way are we saying that people should not testify," he says, adding that "there are places to wear the shirt, and court is not one of them."
Most teens and young adults in Bostonís high-crime areas questioned by this reporter over the past year define snitching as agreeing to testify against a friend in exchange for a reduced sentence. Few think the shirts are a warning that bystanders will be shot for cooperating.
"That strikes me as a Talmudic distinction," says Menino spokesperson Seth Gitell. "The shirts, taken at their plain meaning, encourage people to remain silent when their voices could be served helping to put a stop to crime and violence that all too often plague neighborhoods in this city."
But this misses the important difference between those who donít want to help the police, and those who want to but either fear the repercussions or simply donít trust the police. "Iíve had people stand up in community meetings and say, ĎWe know whoís doing it, but weíre not going to tell you,í" says Commissioner OíToole. She rightly complains that the state provides absolutely no funds for witness-protection efforts; a bill to do so stalled this year in the state House of Representatives. And OíToole concedes that many residents, particularly in minority communities, have some historical reasons for distrusting Bostonís police.
But neither OíToole nor Menino seems to appreciate the enormous resentment and ill will that comes from the high-pressure deals for testimony that go on routinely inside the BPD walls, which pit friend against friend, and family against family. Individuals guilty of little or nothing get threatened with harsh charges if they donít cooperate, while known criminals work deals that send them back to the streets.
Besides, the mayorís righteous indignation over the "code of silence" in the streets looks awfully hypocritical: the same code exists within his police department, and heís never complained publicly about that.
WAR ON HIP-HOP CULTURE
But perhaps most important, by grouping all witnesses together ó and all of the shirtsí tens of thousands of wearers together (Tangg says roughly 25,000 to 35,000 have been sold in Boston and elsewhere) ó Menino has drawn a line between "us" and "them" in exactly the wrong place. Menino, the Boston Police Department, and the district attorney need those bystander witnesses to side with the authorities against the relatively small number of violent criminals causing the trouble. Instead, Menino has effectively labeled hip-hop culture as the enemy of law enforcement.
If you tell Bostonís hip-hop generation that they have to choose sides between Mayor Menino and Made Men, itís no contest. The BostonRap.com message board has recently seen suggestions for new T-shirts reading "Stop Snitchiní ó Fuck Menino."
According to reports, Menino had no idea that the people selling the shirt are popular local rappers and businessmen, as well as trendsetters of hip-hop fashion who are also responsible for the currently hot faux-bulletproof vests. Certainly nobody expects Tom Menino to have Tanggís "Rap Star (All I Ever Wanted)" loaded on his iPod. But his unfamiliarity with the cultureís leaders only reinforced the distance between city authority and city youth as he rushed to demonize the shirts.
"The mayor no doubt does the best he can for the city, but he has no clue what goes on inside the city, and what goes on with kids in the city," says Rusti, manager of Funky Fresh Records in Dudley Square. "And the people who he supposedly has with their ear to the ground have no clue either."
"If you take the shirts away, it isnít going to change anything.... Boston should embrace hip-hop culture instead of looking at it as a problem," says Tangg. "If itís not our shirts, itís our jeans, our sneakers, the way we walk."
"The mayor is digging a hole for himself doing this," says Rusti. "The people heís trying to reach see the city as anti-hip-hop culture."
And the people heís using to reach them are not people the hip-hop generation listens to. Menino held a second summit last week with a group of ministers, and met with the Black Ministerial Alliance this Tuesday. The plan is to increase their outreach efforts to help stem the tide of violence.
Itís the same names we always see at these meetings: Reverend Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME, Reverend Eugene Rivers of the Ella J. Baker House, Reverend William Dickerson of Greater Love Tabernacle, Reverend Ray Hammond of Bethel AME. Nothing against them or the integrity of their intentions, but these are your fatherís role models. They have long since become symbols of the halls of power.
Nothing drew attention to the divide more sharply than Reverend Bruce Wallís "occupation" of Lyndhurst Street in August. Wall ó and Menino and others who joined the effort ó treated the Codman Square street like a foreign war zone. Which hardly mattered, because most of the young people, particularly the gangbangers, wanted nothing to do with Wall anyway.
There are people in Boston who can talk to these young men and women. A program called True Hip Hop Culture, which works with English High students, does great stuff, as does a similar program in Codman Square. Rapper DL has organized a Christmas hip-hop fundraiser for the Home for Little Wanderers at the Milky Way. The city needs to spend more time cultivating these efforts, rather than trying to tell young Bostonians what to wear and who to listen to.
David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein[a]phx.com.page 1 page 2
Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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