In shopping malls around the city, young people are buying T-shirts with statements that would make any parent, police officer or community leader cringe: "Criminal minded." "Let's get blown." "Ready to Die."
But one in particular has some city officials particularly stunned: A T-shirt that warns boldly across the front, "Stop Snitchin."
Coming on the heels of the Stop Snitching DVD that began circulating in Baltimore last year, the T-shirts are disheartening to those who say they aggravate an already chronic problem of witness intimidation. While shops that sell the shirts say the tees are not connected to the DVD, city officials say the message remains the same - and it's a damaging one.
"It's incredible that anyone, particularly a business owner in Baltimore City, would try to make a buck off this while our police officers are on the streets every day working to make our city safer," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We need everyone to join us in this effort and not work against us."
Baltimore prosecutors have said that witness intimidation hampers their efforts to convict criminals - about one-quarter of last year's gun cases, for example, were dropped because direct or perceived threats created problems with testimony. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy pushed, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for legislation last session to crack down on witness intimidation but had to settle for what she called a "toothless" law.
The popularity of the Stop Snitching DVD and now the emergence of the T-shirts, though, suggest it will take more than legislation to change the pervasive street sentiment that "snitching" on suspected criminals is wrong and could, at least in some cases, draw retribution.
"It's very disappointing," said police spokesman Matt Jablow, when told of the shirts, which he had not seen.
But those who buy such T-shirts - and those who make or sell them - say the shirts are just fashion.
"I don't take it to heart," said Larry Smith, of Essex, who recently bought a "Stop Snitchin" T-shirt from Changes, a jeans and urban wear store in Eastpoint Mall. "I just like the shirt. It's just a figure of speech."
The shirts, some of which simply say "Stop Snitchin," and others that are more graphically embellished with shotgun targets or other images, sell for about $19 to $28.
Changes officials said the shirts - one of a variety of urban T-shirts depicting rap lyrics, hip-hop artists or definitions of common street sayings - have been extremely popular. Changes Enterprises - which owns nine Changes stores throughout the region - had ordered hundreds of "Stop Snitchin" T-shirts and hats. Antonio Gray, a buyer for the chain, said the stores are nearly sold out of them.
Smith, 28, found it laughable that some might consider his wearing a "Stop Snitchin" T-shirt tantamount to witness intimidation. After all, he doesn't have anyone to warn about keeping their mouths shut, he said.
"I work at a rental car company," Smith said.
"This shirt ain't about the Dawsons and all that," he said as he left the mall with his new T-shirt in a bag.
One vocal resident who called police about suspicious activities, Angela Maria Dawson, was killed along with six of her family members when a suspected drug dealer firebombed her East Baltimore rowhouse in 2002.
Similarly, in January, a Harwood community leader, Edna McAbier, who had complained about drug trafficking in her neighborhood, saw her home firebombed by suspected gang members.
One T-shirt maker, Reginald Diggs, owner of Prince George's County-based Citywide Promotions, which makes one version of the "Stop Snitchin" T-shirts sold in area malls, said the message of his shirt is meant to encourage young people to stay away from crime.
He had never even heard of the Stop Snitching DVD, Diggs said.
Diggs' shirt, produced under the label Introspect Graphics - reads this way, in part: Stop Snitchin'. You can be convicted of drug charges on the sole testimony of a snitch with no physical evidence. The average snitch got their sentence reduced by almost 50% or more for telling on others ...
"The point of that shirt is when you are living that life, when you are out in the streets, eventually it's going to catch up to you, and it may not even be a scenario where you yourself did something," Diggs said. "It seems like the court system revolves around the testimony of snitches, not physical evidence. So you could have turned your life around, given your life to Christ, and that old life can still come back to haunt you."
A fashion lesson
Diggs said his shirts send messages that young, black men can understand - using their language, in their own style.
"We like to do things to educate people," Diggs said. "But the fact is, a lot of times, people don't read. Even though the shirt may have a really powerful message, the message isn't what gets the people to buy the shirt, it's the graphic. And if we're beating people over the heads with something like, 'Being in the drug game is wrong,' then no one's going to see our graphic or our message."
Gray said in an e-mail that, by selling the T-shirts, Changes is only providing the latest in popular apparel, whether it involves music, movies or street lingo.
"Changes simply provides our customers with the fashion they request to remain competitive in our market," Gray said. "Changes specializes in fashion and does not encourage or support any behavior associated with any of these images. We trust our customers to make responsible fashion decisions true to their personal lifestyle and taste."
The T-shirts have been spotted elsewhere, too: Last fall in Suffolk, Mass., two suspected gang members wearing "Stop Snitchin" T-shirts were escorted from a courtroom when they showed up at a murder trial.
Snitching - and the antipathy toward it - is about as old as crime itself. Cooperating with authorities is one of the only ways to reduce a prison term under tough federal sentencing laws. From old black-and-white shoot-em-ups to the 1970s' The Godfather to the 1980s' Scarface and countless other gangster films, though, snitches have come to untimely ends.
Los Angeles sociologist BJ Gallagher said young people have always looked to push the societal "acceptability" envelope by wearing outrageous fashions.
"These days it's fashionable to be pro-violence, anti-cop, street-smart and savvy. Just listen to the hip-hop and rap music that the kids are listening to," said Gallagher, author of a new book, Who Are 'They' Anyway? "They reject the values of their parents and society at large, just as their parents did, and their parents before them. ...
"What's disconcerting is that each generation has to push the limits further to get the shock value they need to say, 'I'm autonomous, and you can't tell me what to do.' Their music and fashion has to get more extreme to top the generation that went before," Gallagher said.
City Council President Sheila Dixon said that may be true in some cases. But "Stop Snitchin" may be taking shock value too far.
"People have their constitutional rights to put whatever on T-shirts, but we need to really monitor what we're trying to sell to young people," Dixon said. "It's fine to sell T-shirts, but we need to be on the positive note, particularly in getting our young people to understand what's going on in our communities.
"You could look at it two ways. You could look at it like it's just a T-shirt," Dixon said, "but I think that it sends a bad message to young people in particular. By saying 'don't snitch,' it sends a message not to be involved, and that ultimately doesn't help."