In Little Village, Adam Toledo’s death spurs reflection on police, gangs, and race

Protesters in Little Village

Mateo Zapata

Hundreds of people gathered in Little Village on Sunday, April 18, 2021, to protest the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

Less than a week after a Chicago police officer killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, Brayham Martinez said he began noticing disparaging comments about the teen on Facebook.

Martinez said the comments came from people posting in one of the neighborhood Facebook groups for Little Village, a predominantly Mexican community on Chicago’s West Side where officer Eric Stillman shot Adam to death on March 29. The commenters asked why the teenager was out so late at night, and many blamed his mother for not knowing where he was.

“They put so much effort to argue that this boy’s life didn’t matter and that him having a gun was all that was needed for him to be executed,” said Martinez, a 24-year-old construction worker who lives in Little Village.

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Many neighborhood residents assumed Adam was a gang member, based on the police description of the shooting as an “armed confrontation” and social media posts of Adam throwing up alleged gang signs. In a neighborhood that has struggled with gang violence, that was enough for some in the community to vilify Adam and his family.

Other residents, like Martinez, pushed back. Since the city released body camera footage last week that appears to show Adam drop a gun and lift his empty hands in the air in the moments before the officer shoots him, Martinez said he has spent countless hours responding to negative Facebook comments about Adam’s death.

The fraught conversations happening online reflect tension on the ground in Little Village. Adam’s death has sparked a string of marches and rallies against police violence in the neighborhood. Still, many community members rushed to blame his family and his alleged gang affiliation for Stillman killing him that night. The mixed response in Little Village highlights a complex relationship between the city’s Latino residents, gangs, and police, according to academics, community organizers, and more than two dozen residents interviewed by Injustice Watch.

Anahi Botello

Carlos Ballesteros

Anahi Botello, 19, a Little Village native and member of an anti-violence organization, said she wanted more opportunities for young people in the neighborhood. “I’m so tired of these kids of my hood not receiving the proper guidance and nurtur(ing) that they deserve,” she said.

The community response might have a lot to do with race, too, experts said. The reluctance from some community members to protest Adam’s death and police violence could be a window into anti-Black sentiments that lie beneath the surface in Little Village and other Latino communities, according to Patrisia Macias-Rojas, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I think there’s a certain degree of distancing from African-Americans, from the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Macias-Rojas, whose work centers on the criminalization of Latinos.

After protests erupted in Chicago and across the country last summer in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some Latinos in Little Village targeted Black people driving through the neighborhood, throwing bricks at their cars and smashing their windows with baseball bats. Within days, Black and Latino community organizers led a peace march through the neighborhood.

Organizers are calling for more solidarity between Latinos and other historically oppressed groups in the wake of Adam’s death. They want more Little Village residents to organize against what they describe as the root causes of gang and police violence: poverty, disinvestment, and systemic racism.

Anahi Botello, a 19-year-old Little Village resident who organizes with the anti-violence group Increase the Peace, said she’s fed up with youth in her neighborhood “not receiving the proper guidance and nurtur[ing] that they deserve.”

“Instead of focusing on whether these kids were bad or good, gang-affiliated or not, let’s talk about the complex system that was built to make us minorities fail in these hoods of Chicago,” Botello said.

‘Está canijo por acá’ — ‘It’s hard around here’

Carlos Ballesteros

Jose Rodriguez, 32, is raising his two young daughters in Little Village. He’s afraid of gangs and sick of shootings he said he hears regularly. ‘There’s nowhere to run,’ he said.

Injustice Watch spoke to more than 30 neighborhood residents last week, many of whom were looking for someone or something to blame for the tragic death of a seventh grader who one friend described as a “happy, fun kid” who “lifted everyone’s spirits.”

Anabel Flores, the single mother of an 11-year-old boy, criticized the officer for firing at Adam when he had his hands up. She also said she was disheartened to see Adam out so late with a gun.

“It’s sad that these little kids are out there being influenced by these gang bangers,” she said. “The outcome [is] that police just randomly think that they can just wipe them out without giving them a chance.”

It’s unclear if Adam was a gang member. But the mere perception of him being one — based on his social media posts, his friends, his clothes, and even his haircut — led many residents to say that his death was a tragic but inevitable consequence of hanging out with the wrong crowd.

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Many residents said gang violence is the largest threat to their immediate safety.

Está canijo por acá” — it’s hard around here, said Jesus Rodriguez, 32, who lives with his two daughters, ages 4 and 8, near where Stillman killed Adam. Gunshots regularly break the silence of the night, Rodriguez said. Three murders have taken place within two blocks of his house in the last year, each marked with an altar, he said. It feels like “there’s nowhere to run,” he said.

Other residents said they were concerned that backlash against Adam’s killing would discourage the police from responding to calls for service. “The police used to take a while before they showed up when people called them for anything,” said Maria Panfilo, a mother of two daughters, ages 13 and 10. “Now they won’t show up at all.”

But Little Village’s gang violence problem can’t be divorced from its history as a community that has suffered from disinvestment, said Xavier Perez, a criminologist at DePaul University.

“When I think about the presence of gangs in those communities, I think about it as a symptom of something else,” said Perez, who studies crime in Latino communities. “It’s a symptom of poverty, it’s a symptom of housing discrimination, racial discrimination.”

Little Village is a neighborhood that was born out of racist redlining, gentrification, and white flight.

Before it was known as La Villita, the mecca of Mexican culture in the Midwest, Little Village was part of the greater Lawndale neighborhood, a white enclave. After Black people started moving into Lawndale’s northern half in the 1950s and ‘60s, redlining and public disinvestment turned it into one of the worst slums in the city. In 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moved there to organize against Chicago’s segregation. Around that time, white business owners and local politicians rebranded South Lawndale as Little Village to further distinguish themselves from their neighbors across Cermak Road.

Mexicans began moving to Little Village in the 1970s, as the city pushed them out of other neighborhoods by expanding the UIC campus. The area soon became a magnet for new immigrants from Mexico. Today, according to the census, more than 80% of its 75,000 residents are Hispanic or Latino. About a third were born outside of the U.S., and 59% are 34 or younger. The median household income is less than $34,000 a year, about $20,000 less than the city as a whole.

Little Village residents are used to fighting to have the neighborhood’s needs met. In 2001, parents staged a hunger strike calling on then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to build a new high school he’d promised them four years earlier. More recently, residents have organized against a well-heeled developer who plans to redevelop the Discount Mall, which would potentially displace more than 100 small vendors. In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Little Village harder than nearly any neighborhood in Chicago, a developer demolished an old smokestack, blanketing the area in a cloud of dust.

Having to fight for basic needs makes lasting systemic change seem out of reach, said Robert Vargas, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who studies the political and geographic causes of gang violence.

“If it takes parents hunger striking just to get the city to live up to its promise [to build a high school], one can only imagine how much harder it is to actually get the city and others to invest more into the community,” he said.

Disinvestment in the neighborhood leads to a lack of opportunities for young people, which is part of what makes gangs attractive, Vargas said. But it also fuels an emphasis on individual accomplishment and failure and leads some Latinos to see gang members as unworthy of sympathy, said Macías-Rojas.

“I think we’re very focused on the success story, and we’re too quick to distance ourselves from the most vulnerable people in our community,” including gang-affiliated youth, she said.

Toward solidarity

Carlos Ballesteros

Irma Morales, a longtime Little Village resident and organizer with Unite Little Village, said Adam’s death highlights the disinvestment and lack of resources in her neighborhood. “Police take up so many resources, it’s an insult,” she said.

Adam’s death comes nearly a year into a resurgent movement against police violence and systemic racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Earlier this week, a jury in Minneapolis convicted Floyd’s killer, a white former cop named Derek Chauvin, of murdering the 46-year-old father. Many Black organizers backing the movement rejoiced at the verdict — while also pledging to continue calling attention to police abuse and institutionalized racism.

Some Latino legal groups have called on the Justice Department to investigate Adam’s shooting. But while Adam’s death garnered national attention, police violence against Latinos has not elicited the same levels of collective outrage among other Latinos, dominated headlines, or spurred the sort of national reckoning the Black Lives Matter movement ushered in.

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However, police violence against Latinos is neither new nor uncommon. Latinos are shot and killed by police at nearly twice the rate of white Americans, according to data collected by the Washington Post. Stories of abuse of power and discrimination from cops abound in Little Village and other Latino neighborhoods in Chicago.

But, despite being victimized by police, many people in the Latino community still view police violence as primarily a Black issue, said Roberto Rodríguez, a professor of Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona. “It’s like, when you think about Latinos, it’s immigration, and if we’re gonna talk about police brutality, law enforcement abuse, we’re talking about the African-American community,” said Rodríguez, who wrote a book about his beating by police officers in Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Macías-Rojas said that “there’s a real opportunity here to link up what’s been happening in Latino communities around immigration and the criminalization of youth with what’s happening around Black Lives Matter” and state violence against Black people. Those conversations could help bridge the gaps both within the Latino community and between Latinos and other groups fighting against systemic racism, she said.

Carlos Ballesteros

People hold a sign with a picture of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who was shot and killed by a Chicago Police officer, during a march in Little Village Sunday, April 18, 2021.

On Sunday, hundreds of people marched through Little Village to honor Adam’s life. Many wore white T-shirts and carried signs with Adam’s round face. Organizers passed out flowers and marchers piled them against the wooden fence where Adam was killed. The fence bears a mural of Adam’s silhouette with angel wings. Friends and family etched messages into the mural. “We miss you,” reads one.

A few hours before the march, a few dozen people gathered in nearby Douglass Park in North Lawndale. They sat in front of Rekia’s tree, named after Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old Black woman fatally shot by off-duty Chicago police detective Dante Servin in 2012.

A handful of community groups led by Black and Latino Chicagoans convened the crowd there to hold a vigil for Adam and other victims of police violence. A flyer for the vigil featured a picture of a smirking Adam wearing a baseball cap, his left hand on his chin. Above him were the first names and photos of others killed by Chicago police, among them Anthony Alvarez, Bettie Jones, and 15-year-old Dakota Bright.

Reina Torres, 16, a youth organizer with GoodKidsMadCity, said the goal was to bring together Black and Latino families and loved ones of those who’ve been killed by the police and have experienced police violence themselves.

“There’s power in numbers,” she told the crowd.

Rey Wences, a 29-year-old community organizer who grew up in Little Village, said young people in the neighborhood are drawing connections between their experiences and what people in Black communities go through. But the Latino community still needs to “have real conversations about how we’ve also played into anti-Blackness,” a pillar of how “policing in the city” looks like, they said.

Wences also thinks it’s time for Little Village to pay more attention to what its young people — including those who are gang-affiliated — have to say.

“I just hope that out of this unfortunate event, we can turn to our young people and listen to them, because they have been neglected,” they said.

Josh McGhee contributed reporting.

Correction: We misspelled Irma Morales’ surname in a photo caption in an earlier version of this story and in social media posts about this story.

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