`Stop Snitchin' shirts have people talking for different reasons in city

April 30, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In shopping malls around the city, young people are buying T-shirts with statements that would make any parent, police officer or community leader cringe: "Criminal minded." "Let's get blown." "Ready to Die."

But one in particular has some city officials particularly stunned: A T-shirt that warns boldly across the front, "Stop Snitchin."

Coming on the heels of the Stop Snitching DVD that began circulating in Baltimore last year, the T-shirts are disheartening to those who say they aggravate an already chronic problem of witness intimidation. While shops that sell the shirts say the tees are not connected to the DVD, city officials say the message remains the same - and it's a damaging one.

"It's incredible that anyone, particularly a business owner in Baltimore City, would try to make a buck off this while our police officers are on the streets every day working to make our city safer," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We need everyone to join us in this effort and not work against us."

Baltimore prosecutors have said that witness intimidation hampers their efforts to convict criminals - about one-quarter of last year's gun cases, for example, were dropped because direct or perceived threats created problems with testimony. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy pushed, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for legislation last session to crack down on witness intimidation but had to settle for what she called a "toothless" law.

The popularity of the Stop Snitching DVD and now the emergence of the T-shirts, though, suggest it will take more than legislation to change the pervasive street sentiment that "snitching" on suspected criminals is wrong and could, at least in some cases, draw retribution.

`Very disappointing'

"It's very disappointing," said police spokesman Matt Jablow, when told of the shirts, which he had not seen.

But those who buy such T-shirts - and those who make or sell them - say the shirts are just fashion.

"I don't take it to heart," said Larry Smith, of Essex, who recently bought a "Stop Snitchin" T-shirt from Changes, a jeans and urban wear store in Eastpoint Mall. "I just like the shirt. It's just a figure of speech."

The shirts, some of which simply say "Stop Snitchin," and others that are more graphically embellished with shotgun targets or other images, sell for about $19 to $28.

Changes officials said the shirts - one of a variety of urban T-shirts depicting rap lyrics, hip-hop artists or definitions of common street sayings - have been extremely popular. Changes Enterprises - which owns nine Changes stores throughout the region - had ordered hundreds of "Stop Snitchin" T-shirts and hats. Antonio Gray, a buyer for the chain, said the stores are nearly sold out of them.

Smith, 28, found it laughable that some might consider his wearing a "Stop Snitchin" T-shirt tantamount to witness intimidation. After all, he doesn't have anyone to warn about keeping their mouths shut, he said.

"I work at a rental car company," Smith said.

"This shirt ain't about the Dawsons and all that," he said as he left the mall with his new T-shirt in a bag.

One vocal resident who called police about suspicious activities, Angela Maria Dawson, was killed along with six of her family members when a suspected drug dealer firebombed her East Baltimore rowhouse in 2002.

Similarly, in January, a Harwood community leader, Edna McAbier, who had complained about drug trafficking in her neighborhood, saw her home firebombed by suspected gang members.

One T-shirt maker, Reginald Diggs, owner of Prince George's County-based Citywide Promotions, which makes one version of the "Stop Snitchin" T-shirts sold in area malls, said the message of his shirt is meant to encourage young people to stay away from crime.

He had never even heard of the Stop Snitching DVD, Diggs said.

Diggs' shirt, produced under the label Introspect Graphics - reads this way, in part: Stop Snitchin'. You can be convicted of drug charges on the sole testimony of a snitch with no physical evidence. The average snitch got their sentence reduced by almost 50% or more for telling on others ...

"The point of that shirt is when you are living that life, when you are out in the streets, eventually it's going to catch up to you, and it may not even be a scenario where you yourself did something," Diggs said. "It seems like the court system revolves around the testimony of snitches, not physical evidence. So you could have turned your life around, given your life to Christ, and that old life can still come back to haunt you."

A fashion lesson

Diggs said his shirts send messages that young, black men can understand - using their language, in their own style.

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