Thousands flood the streets of Chicago to protest the killing of Adam Toledo

"This is state violence. We say again to the police, you are not judge, jury, and executioner. Adam Toledo, a 13 year-old boy, he should still be alive.”

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Thousands took to the streets in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, home to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, on Friday to protest the killing of a 13 year-old boy by Chicago Police in March. 

Graphic video released Thursday afternoon by COPA, the Chicago Office of Police Accountability, showed 13 year-old Adam Toledo with his hands raised and empty one second before he was shot and killed by Chicago Police Officer Eric Stillman. The footage of the shooting, which took place on March 29th in Little Village, an immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, was released to the public after Toledo’s family was able to view it privately. 

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Officers were called to the area on the 29th after ShotSpotter, a gunshot location detection system, registered nearby gunfire. Stillman and his partner were the first officers on the scene, and video footage shows Stillman chasing Toledo down the alley after his partner tackled a 21 year-old man identified as Ruben Roman, who was arrested at the scene. In the video taken from Stillman’s body camera, the officer chases Toledo through the alley until the boy stops near a fence. Stillman can be heard shouting “Police! Stop! Stop right fucking now! Hands! Hands! Show me your fucking hands!” Toledo turns towards Stillman and raises his empty hands. The officer fires a single shot to Toledo’s chest, and the boy collapses. Stillman then radios for a medical kit and an ambulance and begins to render medical aid. Video from another angle shows Toledo appearing to toss an alleged gun behind the fence. The scene takes place in just a matter of seconds. A gun was recovered at the scene. 

“Adam during his last second of life did not have a gun in his hand,” Adeena Weiss Ortiz, the Toledo family attorney, said in a press conference after the family viewed the footage. “The officer screamed at him ‘show me your hands.’ Adam complied, turned around. His hands were empty, when he was shot in the chest at the hands of the officer.”

Weiss Ortiz acknowledged that Toledo could have had a gun, but emphasized that if he did, he threw the weapon away. 

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“I’m not gonna deny that it could be a gun, but I can’t tell you with 100% certainty, until I have that video forensically analyzed and enhanced. But it is not relevant, because he tossed the gun,” Weiss Ortiz told reporters. “If he had a gun he tossed it. The officer said, ‘show me your hands,’ he complied. He turned around. There’s a still photo going around on the internet with his hands up, and he’s shot in the middle of his chest.” 

“I don’t know if the officer had enough time or not, all I know is that the officer is trained to not shoot an unarmed individual, to not shoot an unarmed child,” Weiss Ortiz added. 

Toledo’s death at the hands of police left many Chicagoans reeling with grief, anger, and frustration, as the boy is another in a long line of community members shot and killed by police amid continued years-long calls from numerous and diverse groups to either reform, defund, or abolish the police. 

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Friday’s protest, organized by multiple community groups in Chicago, began with music from the Chicago Freedom Ensemble, a collective of local musicians that often give demonstrators a lively soundtrack in the streets. Organizers then led the massive throngs of people circled around the Illinois Centennial Monument in the square in a call and response chant. 

“Adam we love you, we will not stop until there is justice for you,” the crowd chanted. “Elizabeth we love you, we stand with you, we will fight for justice for your son.”

Earlier in the week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, other city officials and politicians as well as the Toledo family called for “calm and peace” as Chicagoans awaited the release of the footage. “Even as our understanding of this incident continues to evolve, this remains a complicated and nuanced story,” Lightfoot said in a news conference after she viewed the video, which she called “excruciating.” Lightfoot added that people should “wait until we hear all the facts” before making up their minds about the case. 

But some city officials as well as local opinion columnists and other pundits began rendering judgement about Toledo long before many of the facts were present, and an all too familiar narrative justifying the boy’s death began to be crafted. According to a WGN investigation, when a prosecutor for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office first gave details about the shooting in a proffer, the proffer stated “The officer tells [Toledo] to drop it as [Toledo] turns towards the officer. [Toledo] has a gun in his right hand.” Though the video does show Toledo with what appears to be a gun in his hand at one point, the proffer did not say that Toledo had dropped the gun and raised his empty hands as he turned towards the officer. 

A representative from the Cook County State’s attorney’s office told WGN that the prosecutor “failed to fully inform himself before speaking in court,” and he has since been put on paid leave. In the week leading up to Friday’s protest however, multiple opinion columns appeared in outlets justifying the shooting. At the rally prior to the march, speakers called out that narrative. 

“It was really really fucked up people published pieces debating the Chicago Police department killing a child,” Karina Solano, an organizer with Únete La Villita, an advocacy group that promotes affordable housing and community development in the Little Village neighborhood, told the crowd. “There are people who are silent, victim blaming, telling lies, or even still calling for reform. It’s disappointing but not surprising a lot of these people are elected officials.”

Many local politicians and officials have expressed support for the Toledo family, and a few attended Friday’s protest along with making calls for reform within the Chicago Police Department. While that support was noted, organizers of the demonstration made it clear that victims of police violence—most often youth of color—should remain at the center of protests and discussions in the wake of police shootings. 

“We are not centering politicians, we are not centering state officials,” a demonstrator named Stefan told the crowd. “I know a lot of politicians and state officials came to us once this action was done and asked ‘hey can we speak?’ And we’re like why, you didn’t do anything. You didn’t do any of the work. We brought our water here, we brought medical supplies. We brought the food here. Why would we have you speak if all you’re going to talk about is reform? We’re here to defund. We’re here to abolish.”

Solano also reiterated the call to center the voices of youth. 

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“Y’all do anything but listen to the youth,” they said. “The youth who’ve been putting in actual work in their communities, genuine care and connection, not just to get a vote or a photo-op. You’re not listening. We’re saying defund the police, abolish the police, fund us, fund our communities.”

The thousands of demonstrators who marched for hours through the neighborhood chanted for justice for Toledo, as well as justice for the numerous other victims of police violence. Chants of “hey hey, ho ho, Lori Lightfoot’s got to go” and “hands up don’t shoot” reverberated throughout the night. Multiple times, demonstrators stopped to circle up in intersections and sit down. People aired their feelings about policing and the lack of community investment in the city, expressed solidarity with those who’ve experienced police violence, and held a moment of silence for Toledo. 

Amid the calls for reform, defunding, or abolishment, a coalition of groups is pushing for major changes to the Department that would give the community much more control over the police. Chicago has had multiple oversight boards that have changed names over the years. All faced major criticism for being slow to act when it comes to discipline for misconduct, as well as criticism for giving too little to no actual civilian control over how the community is policed. 

The Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance, made up of elements of two previous proposed ordinances, has the support of much of the City Council as well as many grassroots activist groups in Chicago. If passed, the body the ordinance would establish would have the authority to set department policy, name the members of the police board and chief of COPA, as well as the Superintendent. 

The coalition also demanded justice for Toledo, saying it was a “terrible irony” that if the body had been created in the first 100 days of the Lightfoot administration, Toledo might be alive today. 

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“Communities deserve to have a say in our own safety,” the coalition said in a statement. “Nobody ever asked us to democratically sanction the police department tactics that led to Adam’s death. Instead, these decisions are made without us, with no democratic representation of our rights. The Chicago Police Department set its own rules, often with little or no public input. The Community Commission envisioned by ECPS, made up of people with relevant expertise and supported by full-time, expert staff, can play that role.”

Better oversight or civilian control however, is only one piece of a large puzzle needed to truly change communities struggling with and impacted by what too frequently feels like a military occupation. 

“We need rent control, good jobs, our COVID relief funds. It’s not right for the police to get so much funding and $280 million of our COVID relief funds,” said Solado. “Even before the pandemic, people’s basic needs were not being met. People don’t have clean air, housing security, food security, equitable funding for our schools. People are not safe from the police. This is state violence. We say again to the police, you are not judge, jury, and executioner. Adam Toledo, a 13 year-old boy, he should still be alive.” 

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