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Targeting 'black wall of silence' in a harmful no-snitch culture

Ignorance can be deadly.

That’s why Minister Dahveed Muhammad wants to clear up misconceptions around the “no snitch” code of the streets that stops many from cooperating with police to solve crimes.

With eight homicides in just the first month of the new year, most of them in East Side neighborhoods where law-abiding residents have no means of escape, he wants to puncture the myths surrounding the no snitch culture.

“I don’t believe in it; people tell,” he said. “Certain people believe it’s a sacred code, and it’s not, really.”

The most obvious example is when gang members roll over on one another to get a better deal in court.

And that, in essence, is the message Muhammad wants to get across to the community: Snitching is when thugs turn on one another to save their own skin, not when residents clean up their own neighborhood.

“The snitch is your partner in crime. You tell on him to get a lesser sentence,” he said. “The grandmother who is just trying to keep her house is not a snitch.”

Muhammad, minister at Muhammad’s Mosque 23, has been thinking about this ever since seeing a teddy bear strung up from a telephone pole with “no snitching” across its chest following the murder of a young man.

“A stuffed animal ... it’s kind of like speaking to the children, to the neighborhood” he said.

He wants to send a different message. His goal is a town hall dialogue with people from the streets to deconstruct “snitch,” its etymology and who the code really benefits.

“It allows crime to flourish,” Muhammad said, noting the irony of residents who complain about police.

“They have a blue wall of silence, but we have a black wall of silence,” he said.

He’s reaching out to anti-violence organizations to enlist support for the community forum and to figure out a way to do it so that participants feel comfortable talking without the fear that their faces will end up in the news – a concern that, in itself, illustrates the depth of the problem.

Part of the solution is education. The concern that police walk witnesses up to the suspect at crime scenes and ask, “Is this the guy?” is unfounded, some activists say, crediting cops with more tact than that.

What is a concern is the mismatch between community expectations and prosecutors’ resources when it comes to witness protection. It’s not like on TV, said Murray Holman, executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition. Instead of instantly getting a new lifestyle in another locale, it can take months and not be all that they expect.

“That presents a major problem when we try to get guys to come with information,” said Holman, who credits police with reaching out to groups like his. He’s all for the forum, as long as it’s not all male in a community he notes is “women-driven,” with mothers and grandmothers raising young people.

Anyone interested in the forum can call Muhammad at 332-3773, ext. 202. His goal is simple but essential.

“I’m looking at us to change the value system of the community,” he said. “You’re not a pariah because you want to have a safe community.”

In fact, if this effort is successful, witness protection will take on a whole new meaning with neighbors standing behind one another.

“The environment will be the protection,” he said.

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