Adam’s Innocence Isn’t Even the Point.

Article by Jaunita Benson originally published on the Rampant website.

A Chicago cop put a bullet in a thirteen-year-old child, and many are spinning narratives laced with typical racist dehumanization in an attempt to obscure this fact. It’s the cops who should be under the spotlight, disbanded, and abolished.

Adam Toledo was only alive for thirteen years. Just about three weeks ago, he was shot in the chest and killed by a Chicago police officer around 3 a.m. in the Little Village neighborhood. Yesterday, the city released the video of his murder. It shows us what everyone already suspected: that Adam was unarmed and had his hands up when officer Eric Stillman murdered him. It shows us that cops always lie. It shows us what we already knew—that the institution of policing is rotten, murderous, and vicious.

The circumstances surrounding his murder are fraught with tragic irony. Ruben Roman, the person with Adam before his death, was charged with “reckless endangerment of a child”—the same child that police literally killed. And in the wake of Adam’s murder, three mainstream responses have surfaced, all insufficient to this horrifying execution.

“CPD needs a foot-chase policy”

Shortly after his murder, Lori Lightfoot and others quickly diagnosed this crisis as an issue of procedure. Adam was murdered after allegedly being pursued on foot by a police officer. Foot pursuits have been widely recognized as a dangerous and often unnecessary police practice. Last week, Lightfoot stated at a news briefing in Little Village in response to Adam’s death, “Foot pursuits present a significant safety issue. Officer safety, but also community safety—for the pursued and for bystanders. . . . We cannot and will not push the foot pursuit policy reform off for another day.”

On the same day, Lightfoot made this declaration for reform, an expert witness testified to Derek Chauvin’s excessive use of force against George Floyd on May 25th of last year. Recall that George Floyd’s death sparked one of the largest uprisings in US history and was the result of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he suffocated, an illegal practice in the Minneapolis police department. Also recall Eric Garner, the victim of a fatal and illegal chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo.

Police break their own “rules” all the time, and considering how few officers are punished for excessive force, they have very little incentive not to. In fact, calls for police reform in the wake of misconduct more often than not lead to increased police resourcing to train officers on new practices and equip them with new technology. The obligatory reformist response to police murders are not only ineffectual but counterproductive and violent.

“Children need more support”

Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist Eric Zorn published a profoundly heinous yet purportedly neutral take on Adam’s life and murder. He asks Chicagoans not to make Adam into a “martyr” before seeing evidence of his innocence (i.e., body-camera footage). He goes on to impress on readers that “13-year-olds aren’t inherently angelic,” and attempts to further his point by listing five murders allegedly committed by thirteen-year-olds across the United States between October of 2020 and March of this year. He concludes the article by asking readers to consider “how we can better support young people—all people—in our most disadvantaged, crime-riddled communities. What employment, educational and recreational opportunities can we offer? What treatments and interventions will reduce the number of such shattering incidents?”

Zorn’s concluding sentiment is a common response to youth crime. We “keep kids out of trouble” by occupying their time with education, oversight, and structured activity. We demand resourcing and after-school events and community centers to curb mischief and gang membership. The problem is that this conclusion implicitly blames Adam for his death. Zorn and other spectators have decided that if Adam had not been out on the street that night, he would not be dead. But Black and brown youth do not have to be breaking the law (or curfew) to be considered a violent threat. Recall Tamir Rice.

The more urgent truth of this moment is that if Adam hadn’t been shot in the chest, he would not be dead. If the primarily Mexican neighborhood of Little Village wasn’t heavily surveilled by police and police technology, if officers hadn’t literally hunted him down that night, if police were not sanctioned and given the tools to kill, Adam would not be dead. Support and recreational and educational opportunities are a privilege that every person should be afforded. But they do not stop police from killing.

“There is no justification for killing a child”

Someone put a bullet in the chest of a thirteen-year-old boy, and it’s almost unspeakable. But, of course, Black and brown people are not afforded human dignity in US society, so it should come as no surprise that we are also not afforded childhood or its associated innocence. The same way Black and brown women are, in many ways, considered to be less woman-like than their white counterparts, Black and brown children are considered less child-like—older, more dangerous, more malicious in their intentions. It should come as no surprise that Adam’s memory has been disrespected by the inevitable “he was no angel” narrative. Recall Mike Brown.

Unfortunately, Black and brown children are not apolitical figures. They are “youth.” And “youth” get violated by police, sent to prison, and targeted by the state all the time.

In fact, young people are currently under attack in Chicago. City officials, with the help of UChicago Crime Lab, are bolstering a narrative that the city is experiencing a “spike” in vehicular hijackings led by people under the age of eighteen. A “vehicular hijacking” is a subcategory of robbery that does not require the use of a weapon, injury, verbal threats, physical contact, or any contact with the victim at all. Evidence demonstrates that this is not a Chicago-specific phenomenon (a number of specific types of crimes have been driven up nationwide as a result of the pandemic). Additionally, in 2020, police only arrested 103 youth for 1,416 carjackings (7.2 percent). Still, the fear-mongering surrounding this class of crime has been employed to justify an increased police presence and increased aggression toward Black and brown youth specifically on the South and West Sides. Alderpeople have urged prosecutors to “crack down on those offenders so young people think there are significant consequences.” The state is all too eager to blame, punish, and disappear young POC.

Adam’s story reminds us once again that we have to abandon the innocence/guilt framework of the white supremacist state. Black and brown babies do not get to be innocent in an empire that demands Black and brown death. It is an insidious narrative and we must be diligent in our unlearning because demanding innocence as precondition for survival not only does not serve us, it justifies our continued execution by failing to recognize that certain bodies (e.g., Black and brown youth) are automatically associated with criminality and guilt.

I hope we can respect Adam’s memory by releasing him from our projections of childhood virtue and fantasies of who he was. Let’s stop interrogating his brief existence and turn the spotlight toward the perpetrators of unrestrained violence. Jackie Wang, author of Against Innocence, offers this prescient note, “Framing oppression in terms of individual actors is a liberal tactic that dismantles collective responses to oppression and diverts attention from the larger picture.” The larger picture here is systemic state violence carried out by police.

We didn’t need to know if Adam’s hands were up or if he was facing police or if he had a gun. We didn’t need any insight into Adam’s actions at all that night. Demand abolition now and always.

Published in solidarity with the memories, families, and communities of Adam Toledo, DeSean Pittman, Roshad McIntosh, Michael Westley, Pierre Loury, Dakota Bright, Stephon Watts, and all other young people killed by cops in Chicagoland. Come take to the streets tonight, Friday, April 16th, at 5:30 p.m. in Logan Square

Jaunita Benson is a Black anarchist and social science researcher living in (so-called) Chicago.

Join the discussion