You’ve got to hand it to Boston mayor Thomas Menino: not everybody could face a 34 percent rise in shootings, the highest homicide rate in a decade, and a widespread sense of despair in the city, and come up with a plan that draws the ridicule of ultraconservative talk-show host Michael Graham, the American Civil Liberties Union, and local rapper Akrobatik. But that’s just what Menino did last week by declaring a mayoral fatwa against the popular "Stop Snitchin’" T-shirts. According to Menino, the shirts — with the catch phrase inside a red octagon on the front, and YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT imprinted on the back — help foster a culture of noncooperation with authorities, preventing the cops from solving crimes and getting the bad guys off the streets.
It’s been easy to mock the mayor for the shirt clampdown, mainly because it’s so patently idiotic. Most obviously, the "code of the street" pre-dates the shirts, and will long outlive them. Plus, banning the shirts — created several years ago and sold by Boston’s own former Wiseguys rapper Tangg da Juice, CEO of StopSnitching.com; former RSO and Made Men rapper Antonio "Twice Thou" Ennis, and Ennis’s partner, designer Roseanna Ansaldi — only broadens their appeal. (For more on First Amendment issues related to the shirts, see "Shirting the Issue," This Just In.)
But the mayor’s action is worse than silly — it’s counterproductive. It alienates the very people he wants to convince to cooperate with law-enforcement officials: those most likely to witness a shooting or stabbing — teens and young adults, mostly minorities, living or hanging out in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Charlestown, Chinatown, and other city hot spots.
The shirt war might not have come across as heavy-handed and patronizing as it has, if the newly re-elected mayor had not spent most of 2005 downplaying Boston’s public-safety problem — even bragging in his TV campaign commercial of a reduction of crime on his watch.
Meanwhile, in September, October, and November, aggravated assaults were up 12 percent, rapes up 25 percent, and homicides up 27 percent, compared with the same period in 2004. For the year through November, the city had 65 official homicides, more than any year since 1995. Aggravated assaults are up for the third year in a row. Shootings are off the chart. And the arrest rate for homicides is the worst ever for Boston and one of the worst in the country.
Menino’s blinders seemed finally to come off on November 9, the day after the votes were tallied and his re-election was assured. Menino told the Boston Herald he was making gun violence one of his main priorities, and last week he followed up by holding a crime summit with his top public-safety officials.
But Menino and the city have no solutions up their sleeves, having been abandoned by state and federal governments that have slashed funding for police and other vital services — and by a governor who has yet to show the slightest concern about his capital city’s mounting casualties.
So while we don’t know what Menino said at that closed meeting, a fair guess is it was something like: "I need to walk out of here with something I can announce in response to all this violence — but it can’t cost anything. What have you got?" The answer, apparently, was T-shirts.
WHO’S A SNITCH?
Authorities and residents alike agree that the city desperately needs to do a better job of locking up the dangerous thugs who shoot guns at other people. The Boston Police Department has made an arrest in only about one of every five gun homicides since the start of 2004 — leaving more than 70 unsolved (See "Unfinished Business," News and Features, October 28).
Last Saturday, Ennis agreed to remove the shirts from his Dorchester store’s shelves and his Web site. To be fair, this was not Menino’s only proposed solution. In addition, Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole is conducting massive warrant sweeps (at considerable expense in overtime pay), and District Attorney Daniel Conley is asking for a special gun-crime session at Suffolk Superior Court to speed convictions.
But Menino has made clear that he believes the main obstacle to peace is witnesses’ reluctance to cooperate.
The shirt wars, however, obscure the fact that there are different types of reluctant witnesses. There are the bystanders, who fear retaliation. There are the shooter’s crew, who are loyal to their friend. There are the victim’s crew, who often prefer to handle payback themselves.
Finally, there are the liars — criminals who allegedly bargain for lenience on their own offenses by testifying falsely against innocent persons. The shirtmakers claim that this is the type of snitching the shirt condemns. "We were thinking about how the legal system uses people to turn on each other in exchange for plea deals," says Tangg. "How they give people a motive to lie."
That’s also how the shirt was apparently intended when the mother of Joseph Cousin, who was on trial for the murder of 10-year-old Trina Persad earlier this year, infamously wore it into court one day. The key witness in the case, a 15-year-old male, admitted to stealing the car used in the crime, helping to plan the shooting, and acting as lookout. Homicide detectives let him off with no jail time, in exchange for testifying against Cousin. Cousin’s mother believes — rightly or not — that her son is innocent, and therefore that this witness is lying to save his own skin. (A mistrial was declared for unrelated reasons, and a retrial will be held next year.)page 1 page 2
Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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