Right or wrong, the code of the street in poor, largely black neighborhoods in the Bay Area is never, ever cooperate with police.
To do so, the idea goes, means risking retaliation from criminals. The ethos cuts across generations, even as some who embrace it complain police do little about crime in their neighborhoods.
The mind-set is moving from the streets to the mainstream, carried by rappers denouncing rats and T-shirts declaring, "Stop Snitchin."
The T-shirts have proven popular in Oakland and elsewhere, prompting a debate within the communities where they're worn and frustrating police who say they're another hurdle to effectively policing the neighborhoods that need it most.
"The young men wearing the shirts are putting out fear," said the Rev. Curtis Robinson, senior pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Oakland. "If you see somebody wearing a shirt, you know they are affiliated with a group of people who are not committed to building up the neighborhood, but instead are trying to tear it down."
Such arguments don't carry much weight with some residents who argue the T-shirts -- bearing slogans such as "Ditches are for Snitches" and "Snitches Get Stitches" -- merely reflect the commonsense notion that it's best to mind your own business.
" 'Stop snitchin' ' is a good motto because if you don't meddle in something that ain't your business, you'll live longer," 29-year-old Eric Davis said while shopping at Durant Square shopping center in Oakland, where several merchants sell the shirts. "That's why snitches die, sticking their nose in business that ain't theirs."
The controversy has erupted in other cities. Last week, a judge in Massachusetts barred such T-shirts from state courthouses, saying they intimidate witnesses.
The notion that one shouldn't cooperate with police has been embraced by people of all races, but its roots date to the era of slavery, said journalist and hip hop historian Davey D, who hosts the "Hard Knock Radio" show on KPFA.
"If you were breaking the law and the law was designed to keep blacks contained, say you stole from the master or took something from the 'white' area, you didn't rat out people," he said.
The mentality became institutionalized as distrust of the police mounted within communities of color and people believed that the police did not have their best interests at heart, he said.
Popular culture has carried the idea into the mainstream over the years, through Mafia films like "Goodfellas" and rap tunes by artists including Jay-Z and the Game.
In March, Black Entertainment Television will start a series based on rapper Lil' Kim's road to prison for refusing to "snitch" on members of her entourage believed to have been in a shootout with a rival group.
The appearance of the T-shirts in music videos, on CD covers and hip hop posters has catapulted them into the mainstream. The shirts are widely available on eBay and in shops around the region.
"I don't want to promote lawlessness, but this is what the kids today want," said Fayaz Besmil, who owns two T-shirt shops in the Durant Square mall.
Besmil said he pulled the "Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts off his shelves after he heard they were stirring controversy in other cities. He replaced them with shirts reading "Increase the Peace" and "Stop Violence" but found they didn't sell.
"The youth are not into anything peaceful," he said.
Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker said the shirts undermine efforts to quell violence and do little to improve what city leaders admit is an often shaky relationship between police and some neighborhoods they serve.
"The ethos is self-defeating," he said. "If we want safety in our neighborhoods, people's refusal to cooperate is not serving the community."
Police recognize that some people legitimately fear retribution if they come forward, but also believe many people do not want to help police no matter what.
"If someone is afraid for their safety, I understand not talking to the police, but not the vague disassociation with police," said Lt. Mark Gagan, Richmond Police spokesman. " 'Stop Snitching' allows violence to continue, allows cases to be unsolved. It's your city suffering."
But as much as Sonja Martin of Vallejo might like to encourage her 13-year-old son to cooperate with the police, she can't.
"It's too dangerous," she said. "It's best to keep quiet. They have to keep their safety and their family's safety in mind. People want to say something. They just don't."
Still, she and others who feel that way see the shirts as counterproductive. Austin Thurman, a grandfather from San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point, shook his head in disgust at shirts glamorizing drug dealing and denouncing "snitches" in a clothing store in East Oakland.
"We're trying to get dope out of our streets, and they're selling these shirts," Thurman said. "It doesn't gel."
But he understands the ethos of the street, even if he opposes it.
"You can't be a snitch in the 'hood," said Thurman, a skycap for U.S. Airways. "Sometimes you have to just turn your head."
Many said police would enjoy greater cooperation if they would reach out to the communities they serve.
"The ethos is due in part to the lack of communication between law enforcement and kids," said Robinson. "Police can't catch the criminals because people can't trust them."
As parent Melvin Palmer sees it, the culture of secrecy is not one that is going to die any time soon.
"Growing up, I was told to turn the other cheek," said Palmer, a 35-year-old father of three from Richmond who was raised in San Francisco's Sunnydale housing project. "It's just a fact of life. The police got their 'blue shield.' 'Stop snitchin' is the code of the streets."
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