“Our voices are only heard when we lose a life’” youth organizer Esme Gonzalez cried. She stood on stage in front of the sea of people wearing white. Just feet away, people laid flowers and candles at a memorial for 13-year-old Adam Toledo.
“We wanna stop that. Adam didn’t have a chance. He was just starting his life. Say his name!” Gonzalez shouted into the mic.
“Adam Toledo!” the crowd responded.
The fatal shooting of Adam Toledo, a Mexican-American seventh grader from Chicago, has raised a nationwide movement against the use of police force on children of color.
On March 29, 2021 Chicago Police Officer Eric Stillman chased Toledo down an alley during a foot pursuit in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
Body camera footage released by COPA, Chicago’s police oversight agency, shows the teenager tossed what appears to be a gun behind a fence. Toledo then turned around and put both of his hands up in the air. Less than one second after Toledo complied, Stillman fired a single bullet into the boy’s chest.
According to The Washington Post’s database on police shootings, at least 112 children have been shot and killed by police in the U.S. since 2015. About 67% of those kids identified as people of color. A nationwide study by the National Children’s Hospital found that Black children are six times more likely to be shot by police than white children. That risk of death is almost three times higher for Latino kids.
“Black and Latino kids are at higher risk of being killed by police because of over surveillance and over policing in our communities,” national organizer Carmen Perez told Jorge Ramos.
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Perez leads The Gathering for Justice, which has led campaigns for victims of police brutality. “Racial bias is also why those interactions are more likely to be fraught.”
“The people that I’ve met and the community that knew Adam tell me that they’re in pain,” said photojournalist Mateo Zapata, who regularly documents the city’s immigrant neighborhoods like Little Village.
Zapata wrote a viral op-ed in The Chicago Tribune about Adam’s life trajectory.
“Ask yourself, what led up to a child being killed by a police officer while running through an alley near a one-way street in between a church and a school — the two institutions our children traditionally depend on for guidance and safety.
We need solutions that begin with telling our own stories so that we can take back control of our narratives and defend the humanity of Adam and all the other kids like him.
We Are Adam.”
The statement has become a rallying cry for people online and at protests.
“‘We are Adam’ means that a lot of us grew up like him in similar environments and are faced with the same situations that he was that evening and the life that was surrounding him at that time,” said Zapata.
Police say Toledo was with 21-year-old Ruben Roman the night he was killed. Surveillance cameras captured Roman shooting several times at a car passing by while Toledo stood by. A chase ensued when police responded to those gunshots. Roman is now facing charges of child endangerment, unlawful use of a weapon, and reckless discharge.
“I myself was a 13 year old boy, too, who was raised by a single mother who didn't have the resources that I needed to be able to to thrive. And I joined the gang when I was 13. And I did it because I didn't have that sense of belonging, that sense of opportunity. And unfortunately, for many people in the south side of Chicago, street gangs fill those voids,” said Berto Aguayo in front of a mural for Toledo.
Aguayo serves as the Executive Director of Increase The Peace, an anti-violence group that promotes peace by working with young people in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood through community organizing and advocacy.
“I think as a Little Village resident it’s quite sad but I became quite numb to the violence in my hood.” But this specific predicament with Adam was not something I was able to ignore. I grew up with kids like Adam. They were my friends,” Anahi Botello, one of ITP’s youth leaders, said at a peace walk organized by the group. “Instead of focusing on whether these kids were bad or good, gang affiliated or not, let’s talk about the complex system that was built to make us minorities fail in these hoods of Chicago!” Botello added as the crowd erupted into applause. “I’m tired of seeing our communities get the short end of the stick. So defund CPD and fund our hoods!”
Aguayo and other organizers say deep disinvestment is among the root causes of violence in Chicago’s Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“You look at communities like Little Village where 71% of young people are unemployed. We have communities that have gotten their schools closed, but cop academies open,” said Aguayo. “Adam loved art. You know, he had great penmanship. His teacher said he could have been a great artist, but he didn't have an art class at his school because it was cut. We’ll never know if he had an after school program, maybe he wouldn't have ended up in this alley and that dangerous encounter.”
In the weeks following the 13-year-old’s death, an investigation into the shooting is underway and his community is still seeking answers and solutions.
“You look at mass shooters, the many Caucasian mass shooters that have been in this country. They are apprehended and rarely is lethal force an option. Why don't young people of color specifically get the same treatment and the same compassion?” asked Aguayo. And so ultimately, I think that's a question that we need to ask ourselves and we need to figure out.”