Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

I grew up amid drug addiction and gang culture. My socioeconomic status was that of the underclass, meaning that my sister, my mother, and I were impoverished. There was no father in our home because he was shot and killed in a gang fight a couple of weeks before I was born. My mother was a drug addict and couldn’t function without having methamphetamines in her system. I found out after her sudden death that she suffered from mental illness her entire life. 

These factors, among others, caused me to be susceptible to the negative forces present only in the underbelly of our society: gangs, crime, and drugs. My situation was not unlike that of Adam Toledo, who, with his hands in the air trying to surrender, was shot and killed by Chicago police officer Eric Stillman. 

I was once Adam Toledo. When I saw his face on my television, tears came to my eyes. I saw myself in him. When I was 13 years old, I got sucked into the neighborhood gang by the older teenagers who lived on my street. The day I was jumped into the gang I got inside of a car with seven other gang members and was handed a rifle. I sat on the lap of another kid because I wasn’t big enough to shoot out the passenger side window on my own. Being in that car with those other kids made me feel like I was a part of something that mattered. Having that rifle in my hands didn’t fill me with fear and apprehension; the fear of disappointing the other kids by not pulling the trigger did. 

When I watched the surveillance video of Adam Toledo walking beside the 21-year-old man, so eagerly looking up at him like a good student, it immediately took me back to the day I sat on that lap with the rifle. I so wanted to be a part of that brotherhood that, at that moment, I would have done anything to get there. When a boy is 13 years old, he is at his most vulnerable point in life. Bodies are changing with hormones that rage beyond understanding. It can be a tough time for a kid, as they search for an identity in a crime-ridden neighborhood, especially if there isn’t a father in the home for guidance. 

When I was Adam Toledo’s age, my hero wasn’t some abstract character in a comic book or a football star. My heroes were tangible: the man who drove around in an old Impala with gold Dayton rims selling drugs or the muscled-up, tattoo-covered convicts who paroled to wherever it was we were calling home at the time. 

Like Adam Toledo, I was a product of my environment and a citizen of a country structured on a class system. People of the underclass are minorities and immigrants. We live in barrios and ghettos where most funding for policing is spent. Adam Toledo didn’t get to choose where he lived. He was born into a system designed to keep little brown boys caged in their barrios. 

But the moment he posed a threat, whether intentional or not, he was hunted down by a white officer who would use any excuse to fulfill his desire to kill on the ultimate big game hunting ground: the streets of America. 

The hunter need not go to the plains of Africa to hunt game anymore. He just needs to follow in the footsteps of officer Eric Stillman who hunted down 13-year-old Adam Toledo in an alley and executed him.

The fact is society today still chooses to not see a 13-year-old boy as a victim. Not when he is brown and from the wrong socio-economic class. For people like him, guilt is assumed.

There’s no doubt that division impacts the people of our United States of America in many different ways, none more germane than class and socioeconomic status. In our society, class determines the type of car you drive, the clothes you wear, and whether you live in a community where crime occurs on a daily basis. It determines the likelihood of a criminal record. 

In upper-class cities like Montecito, California, or Aspen, Colorado, children of Adam Toledo’s age may not be exposed to the criminal elements and influences endemic to underclass communities. These kids don’t see prostitution, they may not have immigrant family or friends, and their family members, most likely, aren’t writing them letters from the inside of a prison cell. 

They aren’t exposed to these things and many others that are present during the development of children from the underclass. These factors are undoubtedly fundamental to the nature-nurture debate among sociologists and psychologists who study behavior.

But kids like me and Adam Toledo did experience these things. And these experiences helped shape our bad decisions.

On April 16, 2021, Court TV had James Craig on as an expert for the think tank segment of the show. Craig laid the blame for Adam Toledo’s death on his parents, asking host Vinny, “Where were the parents?” 

If only it was so simple. Men like Craig are so far removed from the plight of families struggling to do basic things like pay a light bill or have clean clothes for their kids to wear to school, that he could brazenly attack Adam Toledo’s family without knowing a single thing about who they are as people. He passed judgment based solely on their race because that was all he had to go on. He knew nothing else about Adam Toledo other than he was a brown boy with a gun. 

The reason people like James Craig rush to the bully pulpit of the media is to support the ruling class’ justification for slaying people of color.

The establishment utilizes or creates penal codes in the legislative houses to suppress the conscience of a society teeming with fervor and outrage. To maintain order, they use the fear of becoming destitute or going to jail against us. Textbook capitalism.

Americans are constantly hearing about police training in the news when there’s an officer-involved shooting or excessive force case. On the Court TV show I mentioned earlier, a guest was on to talk about the shooting of Adam Toledo. This guest was the police union representative and vehemently defended officer Eric Stillman’s police training. Poppycock.

Anyone who has ever played video games is familiar with the first-person shooter games available for every gaming console on the market. Nintendo was the first company to sell a plastic gun as a controller. It was used for a game in which characters appeared rapidly on the screen and the player had a split second to determine if the character was a robber pointing a gun at you or an innocent unarmed person. The game’s objective was to earn points by making the correct decision to shoot the robber. You lost points by making the wrong choice and shooting the innocent person. 

Today’s gaming is far more advanced, with video games so realistic that the player feels like they’re in the game. Police officers train in simulators that imitate video games in order to test themselves in life-like situations over and over until they pass the course. Officers go through this training to prepare them for the moment they’ll have to make a split-second decision about whether to use deadly force. 

Similarly, professional welders responsible for welding steel pipes together for the transport of oil practice and apprentice until they reach the level of journeyman. It takes years of experience before being trusted on million-dollar pipeline projects, where one bad weld can lead to an environmental disaster.

But the difference between a welder and a police officer is that if an officer doesn’t do his job correctly, someone’s life is at stake. For this reason, the training they receive is very advanced and designed to test officers’ mental aptitudes in the academy before they’re unleashed into society. 

Officer Eric Stillman had been prepared for the moment we all witnessed through his body cam. He was prepared by an American lifetime of desensitization to violence from seeing it on television and in movies, by his training as a police officer, and by his years spent patrolling the streets of Chicago. However, all of this preparation was not enough to prevent him from executing another brown boy from the barrio, who looked so much like this writer when I was his age. 

I am Adam Toledo.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Gabriel Smutz

Gabriel Smutz is a writer of short stories, and have written two novels. He holds an associate degree in psychology. He is incarcerated in California.