by Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti
Ethan Brown first hit the scene in 2006 with his book Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler, which rocked the rap world with its graphic depictions of the drug barons and their crews that held sway in the crack era of the mid to late 80’s—The same time that Hip-Hop music and culture was becoming established before it morphed into the mainstream and America’s consciousness. Now Ethan Brown is back with his second book, Snitch.
After taking all the accolades, critical acclaim, media hype, and celebrity like attention in stride, due to Queens Reigns Supreme’s success, Ethan settled down and wrote a serious book about a serious issue; snitching and the “War on Drugs.” Since the late 80’s America has been on a crusade to lock up as many people as they can in the name of justice. But it has become clearer and clearer that the “War on Drugs” is a failure; you can’t incarcerate yourself out of the problem.
The only thing the “War on Drugs” has accomplished is the creation of a 2-million-plus prison population and a snitch culture that has Kingpins snitching and testifying down on their street level dealers, baby-mamas and in some cases even mothers ratting out their loved ones. In his book Ethan dissects the events that led to this and looks at several cases which illustrate why the whole ordeal is wrong. But here’s Ethan’s take on it.
Why did you decide to write Snitch?
The background for Snitch is pretty complex. While I was writing and researching Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-hop Hustler, I made a vast network of contacts in the federal prison system. It seemed interesting that so many of the prisoners I came in contact with were serving decades long—or even life-long—sentences. It seemed particularly interesting to me that most of the prisoners I spoke to were in the feds for drug-related offenses and had not been convicted for committing any violent acts. Simultaneously, as I was working on Queens Reigns Supreme I discovered that Congress passed the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988—which established highly punitive penalties for the sale of even small amounts of crack—in the wake of the killing of NYPD officer Edward Byrne at the hands of henchmen working for Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols. This, too, struck me as interesting: It seemed like the basis for the mandatory minimum sentences of the mid to late 1980s was rooted in panic over specific events in the Crack Era.
Then, I started looking at the hard statistics about the growth of the prison system in this country. Here’s what I found out: Our system of prisons and jails boomed right after these mandatory minimums were passed. As I continued my research in this area, Queens Reigns Supreme was published. It was late 2005 and back then there was a lot of controversy surrounding the “Stop Snitchin’” movement. So I asked myself another question: Was “Stop Snitchin’” purely about sending a message not to cooperate with the cops? Or was something deeper going on—was the root of “Stop Snitchin’” actually anger at the way in which we’ve conducted drug enforcement over the past twenty years, namely incarcerating thousands of people (many of whom are minorities) under sentencing guidelines that are based in Crack Era hysteria?
What is the book about?
The book is about the history of the federal sentencing guidelines for drug-related offenses, specifically section 5K1.1 of the sentencing guidelines which allows for a judge to make a “downward departure” (sentencing reduction) from the sentencing guidelines if a defendant has provided “substantial assistance” to federal prosecutors. This is the essence of the “cooperator game” (or “5K Game”) in the federal system.
Who does it cover?
I examined a number of individual cases in the book in which I believe informants and/or cooperators falsely implicated a defendant, ranging from Brooklyn street hustler Walter “King Tut” Johnson to a young Pakistani immigrant caught up in a big terrorism case in NYC to an Iowa man implicated in a massive drug conspiracy in a small town called Clinton, Iowa.
What went into writing the book?
The writing of Snitch involved tons of research into the history of the sentencing guidelines, dozens of interviews with criminal defense attorneys, former prosecutors and defendants in the specific cases in the book as well as the examination of thousands of pages of court documents such as courtroom and wiretap transcripts.
What do you think of the whole situation that your book covers?
Generally speaking, there needs to be a huge movement for sentencing reform in this country. Currently, there are about 7 million people in the United States under some form of correctional supervision—we are now the world’s leading jailer. Yet, we get very little in return for locking so many people up, particularly when it comes to drug enforcement. Drugs are just as available as ever and they are cheaper and more pure as well.
What do you think of the Urban Fiction genre?
To be honest, I don’t read fiction of any kind, any more, urban or otherwise. I’m not sure why this is, maybe because real life in America has become so strange and horrible that fiction just can’t do it justice.
What is your next project?
My next project is about an Iraq war veteran from New Orleans named Zackery Bowen who came home from the war, went through the hell of Hurricane Katrina and then a had total mental breakdown in 2006 which culminated in him killing—and then dismembering—his girlfriend and then killing himself. The book will be about Iraq war veterans suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the lack of care they receive at home. It is estimated that it will cost nearly $100 billion to treat Iraq war vets with PTSD, so unfortunately this will be a big story for years to come.
What do you think of the success of American Gangster?
The book or the movie? I haven’t seen the movie yet but I think the BET series is very solid. I’ve been interviewed for a couple of episodes and my favorite one so far was about Melvin Williams.
What part do you think your first book Queens Reigns Supreme had in lending to that?
I don’t know. I think that Queens Reigns Supreme was groundbreaking in one sense, that it took Street Non-Fiction to a big audience. And it also married drug policy, hip-hop, true crime, etc. But there was certainly a whole genre of Street Non-Fiction before me, from FEDS to Don Diva.
What do you have to say to all your fans?
I’d like to give huge thanks to my fans. Whether you know it or not, you’re supporting work that just isn’t supported in the mainstream media. And I’d like to encourage everyone to get more involved in sentencing reform—we have an absurdly expensive, failed criminal justice system in America and it is in desperate need of change! Do whatever you can do in this area—write letters to the editor of your local paper, call your Congressman/woman, talk about these issues in church groups.
Seth Ferranti is a contributing writer for The Urban Book Source and accomplished journalist having written articles for Don Diva, Slam, King, Feds and many more. View more of his articles at: www.gorillaconvict.com
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