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Breaking the taboo of ‘snitching’

on September 24, 2010

Two-year-old Efren Johnson sat on his father’s lap in the driver’s side of their car, his small hands on the wheel, mirroring his dad driving. It was noon on a weekday in Richmond and they were about to leave for his grandmother’s house.

Two men, brothers in their 20s, drove by and opened fire, hitting Johnson’s father. Then the shooters, who had been pursuing a man hiding behind Johnson’s car, came back and shot Johnson in the face. The bullet pierced his left cheek, passed through his throat, hit his spine, and came out his right shoulder blade. A helicopter airlifted Johnson and his father to a hospital, where Johnson’s father, 25, died. “He never made it through the doors,” Johnson said. A young cousin told Johnson that paramedics pulled the sheet over his father’s head just before the gurney passed through the hospital doors.

At the hospital, Johnson fell into a coma for half a year. He woke up paralyzed from the waist down. He’s regained some sensation in his lower body, but remains unable to walk. He also suffers from asthma, seizures, arthritis, and chronic pain. “I missed my life,” he said. “I never had a father or a young life.”

Johnson told his story at a Contra Costa College forum about how to face down intimidation and pressure not to snitch. The term is used to describe informing the police about a crime. “I wish there was a snitch in my situation,” Johnson told the crowd of about 100 people.

Richmond, which has had 105 unsolved homicides (out of a total of 178) since 2006, suffers from a strict street code of no snitching. “It plays a huge role in homicide investigations,” said Sgt. Bisa French, a spokesperson for the police department. “Most of the time, someone knows what’s happened, but doesn’t say anything from fear of snitching.”

Rev. Shumake during an anti-violence rally in March.

The discussion featured a seven-person panel made up of police officers, students and community activists, including Rev. Andre Shumake, president of the Richmond Improvement Association and an anti-violence crusader, and Dr. Intisar Shareef of the college’s early childhood education department. A student club, “Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Leaders,” organized the event. The club’s president, second-year student Charity Edmondson, is a survivor of rape.

With a diverse mixture of people, the discussion was lively and heartfelt. Rev. Shumake implored the audience to think of each victim of violent crime as a family member. “What if it was your mother?” he asked. “Or your daughter or sister?” And he insisted that telling the truth isn’t snitching, but reporting. “Reporting,” he said. “Repeat after me: Reporting.” “Reporting,” the crowd called back.

But Joanne Watts, a student at the college, said she saw a woman come forward and speak out for her community. Now, Watts said, that woman is dead. Watts asked, “How can you tell us that reporting is good, with the outcome that you see?”

“What if it leaks out that I snitched?” asked another crowd member. “Is there anything you can do?” Panelist Javon Sanders, an officer of the community college district police department, looked around and replied, “I don’t have an answer to that question.”

Charity Edmondson, 32, is on the Dean's List at CCC and plans on getting her master's degree in global economics.

Tonya Lett, a recruiting officer with the college police department, acknowledged that countering the pressure to stay silent is not easy. “People have genuine fear,” she said. “That has to be understood.”

Shareef, the early childhood education specialist, says that the fear of speaking out against wrongdoing often begins early in life. “It starts in our own homes,” she said. Children, she said, have been taught to be silent—to keep family business in the family. That code of silence can easily be shifted to the streets. “They are reflecting who we are as adults.”

“We need to listen to our children,” said Dr. Shareef. “You can go home and look at that child who looks up to you and say, ‘I’m going to be a better person.’ It can start right there.”

Efren Johnson echoed the sentiment. If he saw a violent crime, he said he would speak out without hesitation. “I’m gonna complete their story,” he said,  “because my story was never complete.”

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