Annette John-Hall | Silence is the enemy of justice

'No Snitchin' ' is part of a wide moral breakdown.

Posted: April 06, 2007

In broad daylight, at least three people fire 40 shots in front of 20 witnesses, killing a mother trying to protect her children on a narrow little street in Southwest Philadelphia. And nobody sees a thing?

In North Philly, a shell-shocked mom tries to point out the person she thinks shot her teenage son and people in the crowd warn her she'd better not say anything or "we'll get you, bitch." And she doesn't say a thing.

The message is clear. No snitching. Or else.

Here in Philadelphia, where the blood drain totals 104 victims, most of them black, we've got public mourning down to a science. Somebody's shot, and up springs a teddy-bear memorial on a chalk outline even before the person is pronounced dead. Marches and candlelight vigils follow.

But when it comes to performing the most basic of civic duties - reporting a crime to the police - we don't know nothing, ain't seen nothing, ain't heard nothing.

Young black men in "No Snitchin' " T-shirts are playing a real-life game of Mortal Kombat with no regard for who is caught in the crossfire, and our silence is perpetrating the mayhem.

But what's most shameful is that on Tuesday, the young mother Jovonne Stelly, victim No. 95, was buried. Of all things, Stelly's brother and husband have been charged with her murder because they pulled out guns and fired. Neighbors say the men were trying to protect Stelly. Whether that's true or not is anybody's guess because the third shooter is nowhere to be found. And nobody's talking.

Some inspiration

"Enough is enough" speeches like the one mayoral candidate Dwight Evans made Monday at a "Men Rise Up" meeting in Stelly's neighborhood may make a dent. "If the KKK was killing as many African Americans," we'd have no problem speaking out, he said.

But try convincing a single mother who's struggling to keep her kids safe and live in peace. She hears gunshots. Her son tells her he saw some kid kill his friend. The mom not only knows the victim, she knows the shooter. And she knows he knows where she lives.

She also knows that the police won't be there when the perpetrator comes knocking at her door. Would you advise your child to tell the cops?

There was a time when a certain kind of snitching was expected. If your neighbors caught you doing something wrong, you'd better believe they'd report back to your parents before your foot hit the doorstep. That was how the village was maintained.

But nowadays the global village is suffering a moral breakdown. Suburban kids won't dime out friends using drugs, corporate and government whistle-blowers usually pay a price, doctors won't tell on each other, and, in a bit of twisted irony, cops begging neighborhood folks to snitch would be the last to break their own code of silence.

In the inner city, where almost half of hireable black men are unemployed, years of segregation, alienation and abuse foster a deep mistrust of authority. An unspoken commandment prevails as folks fend for themselves in an underground economy, trading and bartering by their own rules: You didn't put your business in the street so don't put other folks' business out there, either.

"If you snitch, you buy into the white man's system," a system that "has been so systemically against you," says Penn sociologist Elijah Anderson, who lays it out in his book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City.

Time for change

Janean Williams, mother of a 7-year-old, says the price of silence is too high. Like so many of her neighbors, Williams inherited the house she grew up in. She loves her neighborhood, she says, and is willing to fight for it. If that means telling what she sees, so be it.

"When are people gonna stop being scared?" Williams, 32, asks. "I pay too much in taxes to be scared."

"You get to the point where you become tired. I don't want to live in fear."

There are ways we can anonymously report a crime. Call 215-546-TIPS or report a gun at 215-683-GUNS.

At the rate of more than a death a day from violence, it's delusional to think our silence will keep us safe. Because as long as potential murderers are walking around locked, loaded and strapped, we are all still trapped.


Annette John-Hall |

For more on the city's rising homicide rate, visit


Contact Annette John-Hall at ajohnhall@phillynews.com or at 215-854-4986. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette.

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