CHICAGO – We have seen police needlessly kill people before – but rarely a child.
I don't know what anyone else sees when they watch the video of a Chicago police officer shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo in the chest. But when I look at it, I see a brown baby who will never have the chance to grow up and become a man. I mourn for him and all that he lost.
Every child deserves the opportunity to pass from one phase of life to another. They should be allowed to make all kinds of mistakes and given the chance to learn from them. They should be nurtured, protected, loved and understood. They should be children for as long as they can – even though they are imperfect.
Adam's life ended last month in an alley in Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Police officials initially said an officer killed him during an "armed confrontation" around 2:30 a.m. We knew from experience, though, that the truth would be more nuanced than they let on. Sometimes they lie. The video is the only thing that tells the real story. Thank goodness Chicago police officers are required to wear body cameras.
From what we know about Adam, he was typical of many young boys growing up in neighborhoods where violence is a way of life. The seventh-grader was supposed to be in bed that night but, according to his mother, he slipped out of the house and into the streets. There aren't many people who didn't try that in their youth. If you were lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where trouble wasn't always lurking outside, you could slip out and back in again without your parents ever knowing.
But in neighborhoods like Adam's, there is too much temptation out there. It can overwhelm a 13-year-old kid, whose adolescent brain isn't developed enough to fully understand the consequences of his actions. Adam did know this, however. He seemed to realize that Blacks and Latinos who don't do exactly what a police officer says could end up dead.
So, when Officer Eric Stillman told him to stop running, he stopped.
When Stillman ordered him to "show me your (expletive) hands," Adam turned around and raised both hands in the air. When Stillman told him to "drop it," he appears to toss a pistol on the ground. The child did everything the officer told him to do, but it couldn't save him. Stillman raised his firearm and shot him in the chest.
It's likely that Adam's story will become as familiar as that of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot and killed in 2014 by police who mistook his pellet gun for a dangerous weapon. Just as they did Tamir, some will try to make Adam into a martyr. There's nothing wrong with that.
Modern-day martyrs are symbols of systemic social injustice. Their tragic killing, often by police, becomes the impetus for a movement that unites people behind the common pursuit of justice. In death, they inspire us to fight for change.
We're in dire need of change across this country right now. Police are killing too many Black and Latino people. Every day or so, there is a fatal or potentially deadly encounter. This must stop, and each of us has a responsibility.
The first step is to understand that what happened to Adam that night was not his fault. He is a victim – not just of a police shooting but also of the societal failures that send vulnerable children into the streets in the middle of the night.
It doesn't matter that Adam and a 21-year-old man allegedly were firing a weapon in the alley – the incident that brought police there in the first place. What matters is that a child was killed by the very policing institution that is supposed to protect them. The officer responsible must be held accountable. So must the young adult who allegedly gave Adam the illegal gun.
Too many children like Adam are victims of their circumstances. By no one's fault, they weren't born in a neighborhood where kids inherently are expected to thrive and are given the resources to become the best they can be.
They live in a place where kids sometimes learn to hustle at an early age to stay alive. They long to fit in somewhere – anywhere. When there is no one to guide them, gangs step in to fill the void.
Some people look at children like Adam and see hopelessness. They don't realize that there's a child beneath the tough veneer these kids learn to adorn as soon as they are old enough to walk out the front door alone.
They see a man-child, much more streetwise and menacing that his young brain can process. But it doesn't have to be that way.
It's our responsibility to figure out how this killing happened – not just what went down in that alley but how this child managed to end up there in the first place. It's too late for this child, but that's what will save other children like him.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. ©2021 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune News Service.