This morning I woke up to headlines from the New York Post and the New York Daily News that could very well have been written by Tony Soprano himself.
The local NYC tabloids derided Rev. Al Sharpton as both a “rat” and a “snitch” for his alleged cooperation with the FBI-NYPD in the 1980s.
According to a report from TheSmokingGun.com, the civil rights leader and MSNBC host was informant “CI-7” who wore a wire during his interactions with leaders of the infamous Genovese crime family.
The report claims the FBI gathered information through Sharpton which ultimately led to law enforcement bringing down America’s largest and most feared mob organization.
In a press conference at his National Action Network office in Harlem Tuesday afternoon, an indignant Sharpton confronted what he called “old news” and a misrepresentation of something that he wrote about in his 1996 book, Go and Tell Pharaoh.
According to Sharpton, he went to the FBI after his life was threatened by the mobsters working in the music industry following his attempt to get more jobs for African-Americans in the business. Sharpton says that he was never considered an informant but a civilian who worked with the FBI in going after the individuals who threatened him.
Full disclosure, Reverend Sharpton is a friend and colleague of mine. For the past five years I’ve been featured as a weekly guest on his nationally syndicated radio program and his TV show PoliticsNation a property of MSNBC, which is theGrio’s parent company.
Reverend Sharpton has been a personal hero of mine and even if the report from theSmokingGun is 100 percent true it only deepens my admiration for him.
It’s no surprise that the reverend has no shortage of enemies. But what’s disgusting about the headlines calling Sharpton a “snitch” and a “rat” is that it feeds into the idea that to cooperate with police in bringing down criminal activity is somehow dishonorable. Sharpton addressed this in his press conference today.
“It is interesting to me as we deal with the whole criminalization of many in our community is that the premise of a lot of this media is that I should have been working with the mob.” he said.
Many of us who live and grew up in the inner city know the dangers of creating a stigma around one’s cooperation with law enforcement.
In the mid-2000s “Stop Snitching” could be seen on shirts in the inner city and heard in hip-hop with the idea that cooperating with police carries consequences. Rapper Lil’ Wayne’s song “Snitch” promoted the code of silence with lyrics like “don’t let your mouth open up ‘cause you don’t wanna see the handgun open up.”
It’s an unfortunate mentality that continues to discourage witnesses from talking to police even after young children have been struck down by gun violence in a crowded schoolyard or playground.
“Stop Snitching” was a reaction born out of decades, if not centuries, of injustice and brutality for blacks at the hands of law enforcement. No one in modern times has been more outspoken against police brutality than Rev. Sharpton, but conversely, few have been more visible on the need to end “Stop Snitching.”
In 2009 he even launched the “Start Snitchin’ Campaign” with families of slain teenagers who were just as much a victim to gun violence as they were of the lack of community cooperation with police.
“We tell people to speak and they are afraid of being called a snitch and I think that is a disservice to the community and that is stereotyping,” Sharpton said in his press conference today.
In 2011, the New York Daily News wrote an op-ed titled “Stop snitch copout” regarding the story of Zurana Horton, a mother of 13 who was shot and killed while picking up one of her kids from school:
For all its efforts, the NYPD needs the cooperation of citizens who recognize that the Finest have their interests at heart, not the gangbangers who claim false ownership of the streets.
Thus, while the city grieves for Horton, it can take comfort in the call that came over the streets of Brownsville: Snitch away.
I wish the Daily News‘ editorial staff would have read that piece before going with today’s headline.
Perhaps if they did they’d consider Rev. Sharpton’s actions in the 1980s worth praising. Working with the police — even in self-defense – against the mafia in the 1980s took some courage.
The same courage we hope people will have in talking to police the next time gang violence claims another one of their own.
David Wilson is the founder of theGrio.com. Follow him on Twitter at mrdavidawilson.