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What not to say when police murder a child.
Don’t blame the child. Blame those who shot him—and the society where racism and guns make that possible.
Nearly three weeks ago, Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino boy in Chicago, was shot in the chest and killed by a Chicago police officer. The officer reported that Adam had a gun in his hands. Bodycam footage proves that he did not.
What we tell ourselves about this tragedy matters. It shapes how we understand why this happened, and what we must do to stop it from happening again. This isn’t the first time a child’s been killed by police. But by the responses we’re seeing from people in positions of power, it isn’t likely to be the last, either.
Today, I want to cut into three aspects of the narrative that’s emerging—three things we should never say when one of our children is murdered at the hands of the authorities sworn to protect them. Because in saying them now, we’re failing to prevent the next murder.
1) He was “lost to the streets.”
This was Arne Duncan, former education secretary to President Obama, on Twitter following Adam’s murder.
This narrative, that Adam Toledo was killed because “all of us” failed to “mentor” and “nurture” him, fails on three counts. First, “the streets” didn’t kill Adam Toledo, a Chicago policeman did. This “village” narrative absolves the police officer—and the broader enterprise of policing in America—that killed him.
Perhaps worse, it implicitly blames Adam’s family for his murder by erasing them. Though it's clear that Adam’s family loved, cherished, and cared for him, Duncan’s narrative assumes they simply don’t exist. It’s either “us” or “the streets.”
Third, Arne Duncan is a privileged white man. This narrative has “white savior” written all over it. If only Arne Duncan and people like him would have been there to “guide” him, perhaps things would have been different. Arne Duncan’s narrative centers the Arne Duncans of the world, rather than the Adam Toledos.
It’s one thing when a former cabinet secretary opines this way. It’s another when the current mayor of the city in which this murder occurred does. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot had this to say: “Simply put, we failed Adam. And we cannot afford to fail one more young person in our city. . . . We must do more to help children like Adam before they end up in encounters like this one.” Then she said, “Sometimes, the streets are every bit as seductive and powerful as a narcotic.”
It’s important to appreciate the context in which the mayor decided to reach for this tired narrative. This murder comes on the heels of a consent decree into which the city of Chicago entered in 2019 following the murder of Laquan McDonald. At the time, the decree was hailed as “historic,” intended to stop the murders of innocent people of color at the hands of police. This murder forces us to ask what—if anything—has even changed. Blaming Adam’s family or “the streets” for his murder distracts us from the real culprit: police.
Lightfoot is correct about one thing, though—she and her police department failed Adam.
2) “But he had a gun…”
Adam Toledo did have a gun that night—but it wasn’t in his hands. He tossed it behind a fence just before he put his empty hands up. Just before he was shot.
But in an America that venerates the right to bear arms as if it were the only part of the constitution that mattered, holding a gun shouldn’t get you killed—right?
Well, it depends on the color of your skin. Remember the assault rifle-toting horde of “militia” who stormed Michigan’s capital last year? They didn’t get shot.
What about Kyle Rittenhouse, who brought an assault rifle to a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin? The cops gave him a high five! And then Kyle used that rifle to murder two people. Dylann Roof used his gun to kill nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church. He got fast food delivered to his cell. More recently, there’s still-alive Robert Aaron Long who killed eight people—most of them Asian American women—in two separate spas. Even Ahmad Al Alawi Alissa, who is white passing, was taken alive after killing ten people, including a police officer, at the King Soopers in Boulder, Colorado.
In the end though, it wasn’t Adam’s gun that killed him, it was the policeman’s. Which begs the question, “What is it about a 13-year-old Latino boy that makes him more likely to be shot by a police officer than a grown white man who has just committed a mass shooting?” He’s a person of color in an America that teaches us to fear them.
3) He was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Police were alerted to the scene after Chicago’s ShotSpotter technology picked up the sound of gunshots. No one was hurt, but police arrived within two minutes. Adam ran. Police chased him. Perhaps he was just “in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
But...there is no right place for a police officer to shoot a child. This “wrong place, wrong time” narrative, again, absolves Chicago police of their responsibility.
For me, this narrative is personal. I was once a brown teenager like Adam. When I was 16, I was chased by police in the suburb of Detroit where I grew up...for being out to play basketball with my friends. I wrote about the experience in Healing Politics:
At about 12:30 a.m. we concocted one of those ideas only sixteen-year-old boys could think was good: we decided to head to the local middle school, which had an outdoor court. The other boys were a diverse bunch, their parents hailing from Puerto Rico, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and India. We also had one white friend with us.
None of us had brought any athletic gear, so we had to improvise. Earlier in the week I happened to have lent my friend a pair swim trunks, which he had washed, so I put those on in lieu of gym shorts. On my feet were the Doc Martens boots I had gone out in that evening. I was also wearing a ribbed A-shirt—a “wifebeater” in the offensive early-2000s vernacular—under my sweater.
We were walking down the street on our way to the court, well past a curfew we didn’t even know existed, when a cop car rolled by. My friends, suitably anxious, suggested we should run if the car came by again. Thinking, Running from the cops is the universal sign of guilt, I argued we should stay put and just tell the cops what we were up to.
We hadn’t achieved any consensus when the car rolled by again. My friends booked it. Before I realized what had happened, the Crown Vic had come to a screeching halt about twenty-five feet away. Adrenaline flooding my brain, I booked it, too. Two dogs bolted out of the car. I was deathly afraid of angry dogs, having been chased by one when I was younger. So I put my hands up and turned around, not wanting to know what would happen if those dogs caught me out of view of their masters.
The next thing I knew, I was being thrown to the ground by two cops, both white. I was a wrestler in high school, and the instinct for any wrestler who gets taken down is to get right back up. I did—and that’s when I caught one of the cop’s eyes, cold and dead. Then one of the officers struck me over the head with a pepper spray bottle, knocking me right back down on the lawn of some poor family whom I’m sure we had awakened at that point.
“What are you doing in this part of town?” yelled the cop who had hit me, now cuffing me as I lay facedown in that front yard.
“I live in this part of town,” I said.
“What are you doing in this part of town?” he screamed again, clearly implying that I was lying.
“I was playing basketball with my friends—”
“I’m going to ask you one more time: What are you doing outside of Mexicantown?”
“Sir, I’m Egyptian. I live a mile away, and I was going to play basketball with my friends.” Although I was trying to maintain whatever shreds of dignity I had left, tears started flowing down my face. At sixteen, I wasn’t a boy anymore—not to these cops, at least. But I wasn’t a man, either; they had made sure I understood that.
They took me home. I was still in cuffs, flanked by both cops, when my dad opened the door. He was wearing his galabia. His eyes widened when they caught the flashing lights silhouetting me.
“Sir, is this boy your son?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry for whatever he did. Thank you for bringing him home.” At that point the cop who had rapped me with the pepper spray can began to uncuff me. I couldn’t look up at first. I didn’t want to look my dad in the eye, but I wanted to be loved—even if it was the love of disappointment—so I raised my head to face him. His eyes were brown and warm and sad. After the door closed, I tried to explain, but Baba was already halfway up the stairs.
At the end of my chase, I got to go home—even if in a squad car. Adam was murdered. The difference? I was in a high-income suburb, Adam was in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago.
On second thought, Perhaps Adam was, indeed, in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Adam is growing up in an America that continues to criminalize people of color, in a time when we have yet failed to reconsider how policing and guns makes that systemic discrimination so deadly—even for kids.