Alvin Chalmers, handcuffed in the backseat of an undercover cop car, closes his eyes and lets out a small moan. "I'm being treated like a criminal for being a victim," he says. "What kind of system is this?" Chalmers, a former municipal worker with a full beard and sad eyes who admits having been a drug addict, has just been plucked off rough-and-tumble Whitelock Street in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, Md. His crime? Being too scared to testify in court against a paroled murderer who robbed him at gunpoint last April. Chalmers began missing court dates three months before he was picked up. So the state of Maryland plans to incarcerate him until it's his time to testify. His biggest mistake, Chalmers says on the way to the same facility where his alleged attacker is being jailed, is ever having told the police the name of the man who robbed him. "That man is a killer," he says. "And now they're putting me in the same building as him. This is so wrong."
This is the treacherous moral ground of inner-city America, where communities from Boston to Milwaukee are looking for ways to combat a rising culture of witness intimidation. Despite a dip in 2004, national homicide rates have increased since 2000, and in some towns it is as difficult as ever to prosecute shootings and murders. Prosecutors say that the nationwide popularity of Stop Snitching T shirts is proof positive that thugs in some parts of the country continue to control the streets. Whether out of fear or a deep allegiance to the code of silence, witnesses simply aren't talking, and cities are increasingly exerting their own pressure on no-show witnesses.
Few cities have it quite as bad as Baltimore. The city's highest-crime areas tend to be close-knit, insular communities where everybody knows everybody else's business, including who's talking to the police. Mix in a high-stakes drug trade and a flood of handguns, and you have a recipe for a pitiless war on witnesses. Baltimore's problems first made national news in 2002 when a family of seven were killed in an arson attack after they helped police identify drug dealers in their neighborhood.
The climate of fear has only worsened since then. In 2004 it even got a slogan--Stop Snitching--with the appearance of an underground DVD with that title. The video, which gained attention around the country in part because of a cameo by homegrown NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony, is both a celebration of thug life and an orgy of threats and denunciations against crime witnesses who cooperate with police. Since the DVD appeared, Stop Snitching T shirts, visors and other apparel have become a fashion phenom in inner-city America. The apparel has been banned from Massachusetts courthouses as of January. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has pressured store owners to stop selling the merchandise, at one point threatening to send city officials into shops to seize the shirts, provoking the American Civil Liberties Union to complain that he was stepping on the freedom of expression.