Comment: Why I’m still here and Adam Toldeo isn’t

We were both youths with weapons, but the only thing that really made a difference was race.

By Gillian Brockell / The Washington Post

In the summer of 1993, a week before my 13th birthday, I went after the kids across the street with a butcher knife. I can’t recall what I was so mad about, but I am sure it was something stupid.

When they saw me coming, they ran into their house, along with one of my sisters, and slammed the door shut. But I was right behind them. Before they could lock the door, I threw myself against it, pushing it open for a few moments and stabbing into the air of the foyer before they could close it again. We followed this rhythm — open door, stab air, door closes — several times. Before giving up, I screamed and stabbed the knife into the metal door, permanently curling the tip of the blade.

I remembered this incident Thursday when Chicago police released body-camera footage of a fatal interaction with Adam Toledo last month. Officers responding to a report of gunshots in the area began chasing Toledo, who ran. The video then appears to show Toledo, who was Latino, complying with officer instructions to stop and put his hands up when he was shot once in the chest and killed. He was 13 years old.

Though Toledo’s case and my own are not exactly alike, there are enough parallels that I couldn’t help but reflect on my different treatment when I was the same age.

By the time the police arrived, I had fled the scene. I believe I had thrown down the knife by then, but I do not remember it clearly. When I returned about an hour later, an officer was waiting in my driveway. He did not pull out his service weapon or shout instructions as I approached, though he had no way of knowing if I was armed or not. His tone was serious, and he was clear that I would probably be charged with a crime, but I was never searched, handcuffed or arrested.

Soon afterward, I was charged with menacing with a deadly weapon, a felony.

Eventually, I had to go to court, do community service, pay a fine, attend court-mandated therapy and receive a strict curfew and a juvenile supervision officer. After two years, I wasn’t caught for anything else, and the charges were dropped. (I say “wasn’t caught,” because I was still deeply troubled and regularly breaking laws — this is not a scared-straight story — I just didn’t do anything else violent or worth calling the police over.)

After five years, I applied for and got my record expunged. The popular assumption that juvenile records are confidential, sealed or automatically expunged when a minor becomes an adult is generally false.

By my senior year of high school, things were looking up for me: I moved out of my abusive household and into a group house with some kind young women in their twenties. I got a job at a pizza shop. I got into college. I did well, transferred to a better college, got another job and ticked the box on applications that says “no record.” Since this happened in the 1990s and the internet barely existed, there really was no record. These days, because of the proliferation of online background check databases, among other issues, it is much more difficult for a juvenile record to disappear completely, according to the Juvenile Law Center.

I got a job as a flight attendant and traveled the world. I did a lot more therapy, got sober after drinking heavily for years and went back to school. I started a new career that led me to The Washington Post. Today, I’m in a great marriage and have a cute kid.

Here’s the thing: That day in court in 1994, as I sat waiting for my turn, the kid ahead of me in line stood before the magistrate. He had the same charge I did: menacing with a deadly weapon. He was 14 and by that time, I think I was, too. We were about the same height, which is to say we were both quite short and still looked like children.

He got sentenced to juvenile detention and probably would have a permanent record. The terms of my deferred adjudication deal were already worked out.

The difference? I suspect it’s because I’m white. He was Hispanic. Although my family struggled financially, my out-of-state father had swooped in right before my court date with enough money to get me a lawyer. The other kid was there with just his mom.

Is it possible my gender made a difference? Perhaps. But it doesn’t account for all of the disparity: Just take a look at the overrepresentation of girls of color, particularly Black and Native American girls, in juvenile confinement. They get longer sentences in stricter facilities and are more frequently transferred to adult court than white girls, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

I have understood since that day in court that my privilege — my whiteness and my family having just enough money for an attorney — allowed me to get a better deal in the justice system, one that would enable me to live a whole full life, good and bad, average and extraordinary. I knew it as a kid in 1994, and I know it now.

Is it possible that the weapon made the difference? The Hispanic boy and I had the same charge, but his weapon was a gun, not a knife. Chicago police have said they found a gun near Toledo after they shot him. I don’t know if it accounts for the disparity, but I do know that a few months before the knife incident, there was another one.

I had been hanging out with the same girl across the street whom I would later attack. She was 16, a dropout, and I desperately wanted to impress her and appear tougher and older than I was. We were playing with one of her family’s guns, and she dared me to fire it. I pointed it toward a back fence and pulled the trigger. A neighbor called the police, and as the patrol car pulled up, the older girl panicked. She couldn’t get in trouble again, she said, and I was too young for them to arrest. She told me to tell the officer I had been snooping around her house without her knowledge, found the family gun and fired it by myself. I think it’s unlikely I had the gun when I came out, though I don’t have a specific memory of where it was at that point. I remember sobbing as I told the cop this lie and the older girl was lying, too. The officer drove me around the corner, made me apologize to the neighbor who had been scared by the gunshot and then let me go.

For a long time, I thought the pivot point for my life fit on the tip of that knife blade. If I had so much as nicked someone’s forearm as I was stabbing the air, the course of my future would have been completely different, I would think. The charges could very easily have been attempted murder, something that not even my whiteness or a good lawyer could overcome.

I don’t believe that anymore. Having now spoken with enough white friends about our juvenile transgressions, I think it is completely possible that even if, God forbid, I had physically harmed someone, I still could have avoided permanent consequences. In fact, several white friends who come from wealthier families have expressed shock that I faced charges at all.

Now, as Toledo’s mother mourns her son, there’s something else I understand. It isn’t just that I got the privilege of moving through the world without a criminal record.

When the cops showed up, they didn’t shoot me.

Gillian Brockell is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s history blog, Retropolis. She has been at The Post since 2013 and previously worked as a video editor.

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