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In Chicago, Brutal Killings by the Police Keep Coming

Anthony Alvarez was shot in the back five times by a Chicago police officer on March 31. A Chicago teacher who knew Alvarez as an elementary student reflects on his life, his tragic and violent death, and the desperate need to stop Chicago cops from killing again.

A protest sign demanding justice for Anthony Alvarez, who was killed by Chicago police on March 31, 2021. (screenshot from CBS)

In late March, two young people were killed by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) within a span of forty-eight hours: thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo and twenty-two-year-old Anthony Alvarez. I did not know Adam, but I had met Anthony several times.

Anthony was a student at the first school where I taught, an elementary school in the Northwest Side neighborhood where he lived. My last memory of Anthony was at the eighth grade dinner dance. Earlier in the week, I had had a seizure at school, and shortly after, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I was absent for several days afterward to rest. When I showed up at the event, Anthony gave me a huge hug, telling me, “I’m so glad you’re back, Mr Friedberg.” I was taken aback by this kindness from a kid I barely knew.

I talked to a number of my former coworkers and students about “Ant,” as his friends called him. He was “kind, caring, humble,” one friend told me. “He was a very bright, inquisitive kid,” my former coworker said. Anthony “did not gangbang,” as a former student put it. “All he cared about was providing for his daughter, who he loved more than anything.”

Several weeks ago, I attended a vigil at the corner of North Laramie Avenue and West Eddy Street, where Anthony was killed. Footage on Instagram shows Chicago police taking down the altar on April 1, claiming that the candles could start a fire. A family member told me that, at first, the police respectfully requested that the family blow out the candles. They did so, members of the family told me, but the altar was destroyed nonetheless by the police. The current altar, complete with flowers, pictures, and candles, is still standing.

Earlier this month, I attended a rally and march for Anthony through the Portage Park neighborhood. At one point, Roxana Figueroa, Anthony’s cousin, asked me to speak. I was taken aback. She told me that it would mean a lot to Anthony’s dad if I spoke. I couldn’t say no to that.

I told the marchers that every student and teacher told me he was kind, caring, and helpful. One teacher described him as “extremely inquisitive.” I shared the story of my return to school and him hugging me. I said that I was proud to stand for Anthony, because I know he would stand for me.

Anthony’s case has not received enough attention. The CPD released parts of the body camera footage from the officer who killed him. In the video, Anthony is chased by the officer and shot five times in the back. Anthony’s dying words to the officer were, “Why are you shooting me?”

While a gun was found at the scene, the details from the video are murky. Only by stopping it frame by frame can one even see that Anthony was holding an object. He appeared to be holding a plastic bag and was walking home from a nearby gas station. And the footage that hasn’t been released is what happened before. We still do not know why Anthony was pursued by the police.

We do know, however, that the police officer who shot Anthony had eleven complaints of excessive force in a four-year period. And we know that the presence of a gun alone does not permit a police officer to use lethal force. As one civil rights attorney asserted, “An officer has to be presented with an imminent threat of bodily harm or injury to himself or a third party. The presence of a weapon alone is not justification for an officer to shoot a suspect in the back or anywhere else.”

A group of Latino community leaders have called for a moratorium on foot chases. Other city leaders are calling for massive police reforms. We know that police trainings are increasingly rooted in what Dave Grossman calls “killology,” operating out of the assumption that police will and must kill suspects. We also know that police have become increasingly militarized over the years. This policing form of counterinsurgency has further divided police from citizens.

As historian Stuart Schrader asserts,

Counterinsurgency does not target only the rebellious. It targets “the people” or “the community,” or, better put, it constructs the community as an object adequate to counterinsurgent intervention . . . Crime is not just a pretext for exclusion from the community but evidence of disloyalty to it, which is why counterinsurgency is policing, and criminality becomes tantamount to insurgency.

The counterinsurgency creates conditions where the police’s seemingly “proactive” approach often ends in death, as we saw in Adam Toledo’s and Anthony Alvarez’s cases.

While I marched, I saw Anthony’s two-year-old daughter in her stroller with a sign that read, “I miss my daddy.” Her father is gone. Chicago police have robbed children like Adam Toledo from their mothers and fathers like Anthony Alvarez from their children. The justifications for their killings are exhausting. As an educator, I can’t bear to keep watching my students murdered by the police.