In other words, the Atlanta gathering brought together bold, well-informed people with strong opinions. That's what it was designed to do, and the differences in perspective were as invigorating as they were enlightening. However, as the DLRP's focus groups and Bill Cosby's well-publicized rants suggest, there is a wide slice of black America (the people who have benefited the most from the Civil Rights Movement) who currently have no particular problem with the drug war, mandatory minimum sentences or the abuse of informant testimony. These people are concerned about the mass incarceration of black males, but there is a tendency to shrug and say, "You do the crime, you do the time."

A Brief Overview of the Anti-Snitch Conference in Atlanta

By Alan Bean

The ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project called their Atlanta roundtable event, "Undercover, Unreliable and Unaddressed: Reconsidering the Use of Informants in Drug Law Enforcement." The invitation-only gathering was a kind of testing-the-waters experiment bringing together a representative sample of academics, media people, grassroots organizers, Hip Hop artists, and people who have been personally violated by dishonest informants.

"Law is just one piece of the puzzle," Loyola law professor Alexandra Natapoff told us, "what needs to be changed is social tolerance for unfair practices."

This statement was reinforced by Anjuli Verma's insightful report on a series of focus groups conducted in Texas earlier this year by a high-profile research organization. If the broad cross section of people questioned in this small study is anything to go by (and I suspect it is) Mainstream America isn't too worried about the criminal justice system in general or the abuse of informant "snitch" testimony in particular. It is generally assumed that appropriate checks and balances are in play and that most "snitches" are small fish used to catch big fish.

None of this is true, of course. In the drug war, most informants are relatively big fish ratting on their small fish associates, girl friends and family members. Ed Burns, an ex-cop and school teacher who now produces HBO's inner city drama The Wire, remarked that "there are very strict rules about using informants and they are broken 99% of the time." Dr. Natapoff cited a report by the California ACLU suggesting that most police departments in the Golden State have no policies to violate.

My impressions of the Atlanta gathering were primarily shaped by a one-hour break out session in which ten Type-A Alpha males told each other what it was all about. While our soft spoken moderator, Graham Boyd, tried to steer us back to the informant issue, we insisted on talking about what I call "the prison problem".

Jack Cole, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, laid out the familiar but shocking facts. Most Western democracies have incarceration rates in the 100-200 per 100,000 people range. In America , by contrast, 717 of every 100,000 white males are currently behind bars-and that's just the white guys. At the depths of Apartheid hell in South Africa , 851 black males were incarcerated. In America , 4,919 black males per 100,000 are currently behind bars.

The Question was Why?

Black participants wanted to talk about "white supremacy" and "white hegemony". Marc Lamont Hill, professor of Urban Education and American Studies at Temple University with a machine-gun, rat-a-tat speaking style, put it bluntly: "I don't want to assume that the law could be anything but malevolent [toward black defendants] given the influence of white supremacy. All the spaces that were open at one time are being controlled. In the hood, there are police officers on every single corner."

Jack Cole, a retired police officer, blamed it on drug prohibition: "We spend so much money on the war on drugs, we don't have any money to help people."

The Wire producer Ed Burns acknowledged the relevance of racism and the drug war but was inclined to blame mass incarceration on the loss of manufacturing jobs. "When the jobs disappear, the drugs come," he said. "We are doing all of this because there are no jobs."

In other words, the Atlanta gathering brought together bold, well-informed people with strong opinions. That's what it was designed to do, and the differences in perspective were as invigorating as they were enlightening. However, as the DLRP's focus groups and Bill Cosby's well-publicized rants suggest, there is a wide slice of black America (the people who have benefited the most from the Civil Rights Movement) who currently have no particular problem with the drug war, mandatory minimum sentences or the abuse of informant testimony. These people are concerned about the mass incarceration of black males, but there is a tendency to shrug and say, "You do the crime, you do the time."

If reformers want to change the minds and hearts of Middle America we need black reformers to frame and deliver the message to a black, middle class audience. If we can't convince Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey we don't have a prayer with the white mainstream.

As I suggested in my PowerPoint presentation, we need to discover and publicize an avalanche of Tulia-style criminal justice horror stories. The recent exoneration of Ann Colomb and her three sons after they had been convicted on the basis of perjured inmate informant testimony is a story still waiting to be told. Financing a massive and coordinated story-telling coalition (supposing we can find the resolve to work together) will require millions of dollars in funding-and that will mean converting a long list of high profile people to our reform gospel.

There was a widespread consensus at the Atlanta gathering that we need to change the national narrative-a daunting task, to be sure. As Ed Burns put it, "When you're going up against mythology you're swatting smoke. Where does the responsibility for changing all of this begin?"

And we are going up against mythology; in particular, the well-entrenched myth that efforts to help poor people create nothing but dependency and a false sense of entitlement. It is widely believed that locking up the poor, the drug addicted, the mentally ill and the ignorant will somehow teach them a lesson. And even if there is no deterrent effect, mainstream America believes that mass incarceration makes the streets safer.

As professor Natapoff suggests, the America mainstream tolerates unfair practices so long as they are believed to enhance public safety. Until we can change that impression we will get nowhere.

The Atlanta gathering probably raised more questions than it answered-but that was what it was designed to do. A follow-up gathering is needed-and soon. This time I would like to hear Alexandra Natapoff, Ed Burns and at least one black representative from the Civil Rights and Hip Hop generations lay out their visions for the way ahead in hour-long presentations followed by vigorous small group discussions. As Dr. Natapoff told us in Atlanta, "This is just the beginning of the debate."

Rev. Alan Bean of Tulia Friends of Justice describing an invitation only gathering of activists in Atlanta, GA sponsored by the ACLU discussing snitching abuses by law enforcement.

Originally appeared in Grits for Breakfast.


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