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Bad-taste T-shirts target suburbs

| Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In Pine, where Nate Benz makes his home, there isn't much problem with police cooperation.

Pine has no known street gangs. And the sort of homicides that leave Pittsburgh police searching in vain for eyewitnesses are as rare in the northern suburbs as stores selling Louis Farrakhan posters.

But Benz is determined to bring one aspect of inner-city culture to the 'burbs: The notorious "Stop Snitchin' " T-shirts.

The shirts first surfaced in hip-hop videos about seven years ago and instantly became popular among urban gangstas and people who don't mind being mistaken for such. Their unambiguous, in-your-face message is meant to warn people against cooperating with police investigations.

The shirts often are decorated with silk-screened bullet holes to enforce the point.

So just what does this have to do with Benz, 24, a white Robert Morris University graduate?

"It's the phrase itself that I'm drawn to the most," he said. "I don't condone murder, naturally, but I like they idea of people not acting like babies and (tattling on) every little thing that happens to the police."

The young entrepreneur has made the shirts available on the Web site for U-Wear, his 4-year-old T-shirt company. They sell alongside less-provocative shirts of the sort you would see at a spring break keg party.

U-Wear thus far has steered away from controversy, printing shirts for several local political candidates and providing novelty T-shirts for Robert Morris.

Benz is aware of the controversy surrounding the "Stop Snitchin'" gear. He researched the various protests by NAACP chapters across the country and efforts by police departments and community groups to discourage their use.

But Benz, who thinks police forces are disruptive in many communities and a drain on taxpayers, sees gold in his latest venture.

"Let's say you're causing grief with a friend and he keys your car. There's no need to get the police involved like people tend to do," he said. "It's a matter of manning-up and settling things like real men, instead of snitching."

This is far from the first time an entrepreneur from outside the city devised a means of profiting from the worst elements of urban culture.

When tobacco companies realized that hip-hoppers were rolling their pot with flavored tobacco from cheap cigars, the business community answered back with those foul-smelling, flavored blunts you see at convenience store checkout counters.

After learning that many black drinkers enjoyed mixing hard liquor with beer for an extra wallop, high-powered malt liquors began appearing in city markets faster than you could say permanent liver damage .

And with the largest consumers of rap music today being white, suburban teens, somehow it is predictable that the hardest edge of urban fashion inevitably would make its way to the 'burbs -- where someone always is willing to profit from bad ideas.

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