Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s April 6 editorial challenging the continuing demands for justice for Adam Toledo, the thirteen-year-old boy killed by a Chicago police officer in Little Village on March 29 has been roundly criticized by community members, activists, and fellow journalists. What continues to be glaringly apparent is that Chicago police have a disregard for the lives of Latinx and Black people. Far more disturbing is how the mayor, city officials, and prominent voices at institutions such as the Tribune actively denigrate a child in order to protect the police.
Adam’s worth and humanity are not up for discussion. Zorn used a tired, racist trope to dehumanize Adam, so that he is no longer deemed a boy, but vilified in ways that no white child would ever be described. Zorn paints Adam as a potentially bad child who was capable of murder when he compares him to other thirteen-year-old boys and girls who have been accused of committing a crime, implying that the police could have been justified in killing him. While Zorn did not describe the background of these children, the point he is trying to make is apparent: some children are bad. He later apologized for his “chilly, analytical tone,” but the message was clear: whereas white children may be viewed with compassion as they struggle with mental health or behavioral issues, Chicago’s Latinx and Black children are often blamed and shamed for their circumstances.
Zorn is not alone in this effort to blame the victim and deflect attention away from the police. Mayor Lightfoot indirectly extended the responsibility for Adam’s death onto his family. At a press conference with Superintendent David Brown and Alderman George Cardenas, who represents the 12th Ward where Adam lived, Lightfoot suggested Adam’s killing was another tragedy in line with other incidents of gun violence, for which only the adults in Adam’s life can be held accountable—in particular the person who handed the boy a gun, but implicitly his mother as well. Lightfoot said, “This is a complicated story to tell, and it’s not my story to tell,” washing her hands of the matter.
Alderman Cardenas also blamed the schools and the community for enabling Adam and not protecting him from getting shot to death by police.
“Maybe the school probably knew something about this young man or the teachers or the counselors, somebody in the neighborhood knew something that this young man was going through but couldn’t say anything because nowadays in the community there are neighbors, brothers and sisters who are too quiet to say anything because we might offend somebody and I think that has to stop,” Cardenas said at the press conference. “This young man had nobody.”
The mayor called for the police department to create a foot-pursuit policy. But CPD’s disregard for the lives of Latinx and Black people will not be addressed by adding a new policy.
The city neglects Little Village, a primarily Mexican, working-class community when it rebuffs residents’ demands for resources, respect, and dignity. The pandemic has hit Little Village particularly hard. For many residents, working from home is not an option and has led to higher risks of exposure, resulting in one of the highest number of deaths due to COVID in the city.
The mayor has left Little Village families vulnerable to environmental racism when she continues to allow companies such as Hilco to pollute the community. When the mayor and the alderman meet the interests of developers at the expense of addressing the housing insecurity and the stress that it puts on families, city officials condemn the community to strife. When the city refuses to invest in the neighborhoods, the city sets up our youth to a future with little opportunity.
The circumstances Little Village residents confront every day are not unique to the community. They are experienced by Latinx and Black people across Chicago. Within days of Adam’s murder, police killed another Latino youth, twenty-two-year-old Anthony Alvarez, on the far North Side. Police continue to behave as if they are judge, jury, and executioner when encountering Latinx and Black youth, whom they immediately criminalize.
Despite imploring the public not to jump to conclusions, Zorn and our public officials have effectively downplayed Adam’s humanity and innocence. Zorn argued that Adam’s killing received widespread attention only because he was so young. His age certainly makes for a disturbing headline, but just as outrageous is the extent to which City Hall and members of the media are willing to defend the police at the expense of a thirteen-year-old boy.
The murder of Adam Toledo is a matter of a political failure. Lightfoot refuses to rein in the police, who function as an occupying army in our communities and Ald. Cardenas continues to line his pockets with developers’ money while sacrificing the well-being of our families—while people removed from the situation get to loudly speculate and shape the narrative. It’s only reasonable that working-class communities want to take control of the police and ensure that dollars are better invested in Black and brown neighborhoods so that our youth can not just survive, but thrive and be treated with compassion.
Maria Gardner Lara is a Chicago resident working with a collective of organizations calling for justice for Adam and investment in Latinx and Black communities in the city.