Is This Meme About Adam Toledo and Kyle Rittenhouse Accurate?

Some social media users drew comparisons between two high-profile incidents involving teens.

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Person, Human, Poster
Image via Instagram user @path2progress

Claim

A meme comparing the treatment Adam Toledo received at the hands of police to that of Kyle Rittenhouse accurately lists the facts pertaining to both incidents.

Rating

What's True

The basic biographical information about the boys and key details about Rittenhouse's actions in Kenosha are generally accurate. However...

What's False

Key details about both boys' precise interactions with police are not supported by evidence or missing important context, as are claims about the extent to which police praised and supported Rittenhouse.

Origin

In mid-April 2021, when Chicago officials released police body-camera footage showing a white police officer fatally shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo, social media posts circulated comparing Toledo’s treatment by police to that of Kyle Rittenhouse — a teen from the same state who is accused of killing two people and injuring a third during a protest against police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, months earlier.

Among such content was this meme (the featured image for this report) that made the following claims in an attempt to highlight race-related discrepancies in how law enforcement officers handled these two separate incidents:

  • Toledo was Latino and Rittenhouse is white.
  • Rittenhouse was 17 years old and Toledo was 13 when they emerged in national news headlines in the summer of 2020 and spring of 2021, respectively.
  • A cop fatally shot Toledo.
  • Toledo “stopped and complied” with police orders and put his hands up moments before he was killed.
  • Toledo never killed anyone before his death.
  • No member of law enforcement asked Rittenhouse to comply with laws governing public safety during the demonstration over racism in policing on Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha.
  • Rittenhouse carried an AR-15-style rifle and killed two people during that protest.
  • Police officers “praised” Rittenhouse’s actions.

In other words, by contrasting the purported circumstances of the two cases, the viral meme (posted by the progressive group Path to Progress) portrayed Toledo as a victim of police brutality and Rittenhouse as the beneficiary of police officers’ empathy and praise.

While the post’s format stripped away important context and attempted to draw comparisons between two very different incidents (a teenager’s death at the hands of Chicago police and a case in which a 17-year-old civilian allegedly shot and killed two people at a Wisconsin protest) some of its assertions were rooted in fact. Other claims in the meme, however — such as the point about Toledo’s raising his hands and complying with officers’ orders before his death — were misleadingly asserted without important context.

What’s True

First, the meme’s assertions about both teenagers’ identities and Rittenhouse’s actions at the Kenosha protest are accurate.

Rittenhouse, who is white, was indeed 17 years old when he traveled from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, where a demonstration against the police shooting of Jacob Blake was taking place on Aug. 25, 2020. Prosecutors allege Rittenhouse made the trip after a local militia group posted a message online seeking help protecting businesses from vandalism.

It is also true that Rittenhouse carried an AR-15-style rifle (or had his “hands on” the gun, as the meme stated) while supposedly patrolling downtown Kenosha during the Aug. 25 protest.

Also, he indeed fired the rifle, and was accused of killing two people— Anthony Huber, 26, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36 — and injuring a third person, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, with the gunfire.

As of this writing, Rittenhouse faces multiple felony counts, including reckless homicide and reckless endangerment, for allegedly causing the deaths and injuries. A Kenosha County judge set a. Nov. 1, 2021, trial start date with a May 17 status hearing, according to the AP.

Next, we considered what’s true about the meme’s statements regarding Toledo, a Latino seventh-grader. He was indeed 13 years old when a Chicago police officer fatally shot him in the city’s Little Village neighborhood during a foot chase on March 29, just as the viral post claimed.

Also, the evidence cited below largely substantiates the claim that Toledo “never killed anyone before his death.”

According to our analysis of Illinois court records, as well as his mother and family’s attorney, the 13-year-old did not have a criminal record — a fact that proved he was never accused, nor convicted of, causing anyone’s death.

While it was possible that he killed someone without law enforcement knowing and documenting the homicide, we considered that possibility unlikely because homicide suspects often commit less-severe offenses first, before killing someone.

Furthermore, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said at an April 5 news conference that medical investigators scanned the boy’s fingerprints on multiple separate occasions after his death to see if they matched those of anyone in their system. “There were no matching records in any database,” he said.

(See here for our in-progress investigation into allegations that Toledo associated with members of the Latin Kings.)

What’s Unproven

The meme’s remaining claims about Rittenhouse — that no cop asked him to comply with the law before or during the chaos on Aug. 25, and officers praised his decision to open fire on the protesters — are impossible to rate “true” or “false” based on evidence available to us. That includes criminal complaints, cell phone videos, witnesses’ testimonies, and news stories detailing the shooting and law enforcement’s reactions to it.

According to those records, we do know that after the city’s mandated curfew of 8 p.m. and before the gunfire, police tried to clear a crowd of people a couple of blocks away from Rittenhouse’s location at an auto shop. It was unknown whether officers directed those orders at the armed teenager or the group he was part of.

There is proof, however, to show that police officers praised Rittenhouse before the shooting took place for supposedly helping them monitor public safety. For example, video footage recorded moments before Huber, Rosenbaum, and Grosskreutz were shot showed officers tossing bottles of water to Rittenhouse and other armed white people, telling them, “We appreciate you guys.”

Additionally, The New York Times reported that “police vehicles remained stationary during the gunfire,” a piece of evidence that showed law enforcement’s attempt to apprehend the shooter was not immediate, and the AP said officers let Rittenhouse walk through their lines just moments after the gunfire with his rifle slunk over his shoulder.

As medics attempted to treat Huber, Rosenbaum, and Grosskreutz, Rittenhouse drove back to his hometown, about 20 miles from Kenosha. Authorities arrested him in the fatal shootings the next day.

All of that said, it is possible at some point on Aug. 25 in Kenosha that Rittenhouse was “asked to comply” with a law of some kind, though there is no currently available evidence that he was or was not asked by police to comply.

What’s Misleading

Conservatives across the nation indeed rallied around Rittenhouse, who was painted by some as a patriot exercising his right to bear arms and protect property during violence, and that group of supporters included current or former police officers, based on reports outlining the sources of donations to cover his legal expenses.

Furthermore, in spring 2021, a transparency advocacy group called Denial of Secrets shared with journalists the contact information of people who donated money to help Rittenhouse’s legal defense via a Christian crowdfunding website, GiveSendGo. Among the donors were several email addresses traceable to police and other public officials, according to The Guardian

For instance, Lt. William Kelly, of the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia, attempted to make an anonymous $25 donation with the comment, “God bless. Thank you for your courage. Keep your head up. You’ve done nothing wrong,” according to news reports. He was later fired.

However, the exact extent of support for the teenager among local law enforcement agencies, whether via monetary donations or public statements, remains undetermined. There appears to have been no coordinated effort on behalf of rank-in-file officers across the country to “praise” him or underwrite his legal expenses.

In other words, we have no way of measuring the extent to which law enforcement officers commended Rittenhouse’s actions, or condemned them.

What’s Subjective or Possibly False (As of This Writing)

While it is true that body-camera footage showed Toledo stopping and starting to raise his hands in the split-second before his death, it is problematic to present that fact on its own, without additional context.

For instance, the attorney representing the police officer who fatally shot Toledo — Eric Stillman, 34 — highlighted the fact that the above-mentioned body-camera video showed the teen disregarding police orders and attempting to evade arrest, conceivably in the moments before Stillman opened fire.

Let us elaborate on the facts of Toledo’s killing:

According to Stillman’s body-worn camera footage, which officials released weeks after the police shooting, the officer chased the teen down an alley and yelled, “Police! Stop! Stop right fucking now!” 

Then, as Toledo slowed down, Stillman yelled “Hands! Hands! Show me your (expletive) hands!”

At that point, Toledo turned toward the officer’s body-worn camera, and Stillman yelled “Drop it!” In the middle of repeating that commend, Stillman opened fire and Toledo fell down, according to the footage.

According to our frame-by-frame analysis of the video, as Toledo turned toward Stillman, he indeed dropped a handgun that he’d been holding and started to raise his arms, like the meme implied.

In an email to the AP, Stillman’s attorney, Tim Grace, alleged that the teenager left Stillman no choice but to open fire. (We attempted to reach Grace ourselves for the above-linked investigation into Toledo’s alleged gang ties, but he did not answer our request.)

“The juvenile offender had the gun in his right hand … looked at the officer which could be interpreted as attempting to acquire a target and began to turn to face the officer attempting to swing the gun in his direction,” Grace wrote. “At this point the officer was faced with a life threatening and deadly force situation. All prior attempts to deescalate and gain compliance with all of the officer’s lawful orders had failed.”

Chris Burbank, a former police chief in Salt Lake City who is now with the Center for Policing Equity, told that news outlet it takes the brain about three-fourths of a second to react to a perceived threat, and most police can then draw a gun and fire two accurate rounds in 1.5 seconds. Put another way, the pivotal portion of a killing like Toledo’s can be over in less than three seconds.

This fact is also important while considering the split-second before Stillman shot Toledo: A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said a police officer may legally use deadly force if they encounter someone who appears to be threatening their life in the heat of the moment, even if in hindsight (like after viewing body-camera video) it turns out they weren’t in danger.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office has the authority to decide whether Stillman, who was placed on administrative leave for 30 days after the fatal shooting, should face criminal charges in Toledo’s death. It had not made a decision, as of this writing.

In sum, the meme comparing Rittenhouse and Toledo presented a “mixture” of true, false, and unproven claims.