This repost from Sept. 14 is the second in a countdown of 10 high-impact 2020 articles, a daily series through New Year’s Eve. A link to Tuesday’s installment is at the end.
Before he was killed by police, Hakim Littleton was trying to get out of Detroit.
The plan, according to those close to him, went like this: When he wrapped up a probation sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile, he and his girlfriend would head for Arizona, where they would marry and start anew.
Littleton, 20, and Malica White, 18, had been together for two years since meeting at her neighborhood liquor store in Oak Park — Malica stopping in to buy snacks and Littleton ringing her up at the register. They were in love, White’s mother said, and would pass hours together on the couch, limbs entwined. He’d all but moved into the family’s home, where he was a father figure of sorts, helping care for Malica’s special-needs siblings and picking up around the house. Despite being drawn to life on the streets, Littleton seemed to be growing up and turning things around.
But on July 10, the streets won out. Back in the northwest Detroit neighborhood where he lived, as gang squad and patrol officers arrested a close friend on a federal drug warrant, Littleton pulled a gun from his cargo pants pocket and shot at a cop standing just yards away. Officers returned fire, hitting him three times in the thighs. One then unloaded a final round into his head while he was on the ground. Littleton's supporters have called it an execution; police claim he was still an active threat.
At a time when the names of unarmed Black people killed by police are shouted through cities across the country, Littleton’s name remains largely unsaid. He was “no George Floyd,” as the perfunctory headline of a Free Press editorial put it — viewed more as a villain than a victim in a city plagued by violent crime.
But focusing on the shooting alone overlooks the more insidious forces that led to Littleton’s demise. Because before he raised a gun at police in what is often seen as a death wish, Littleton was slowly dragged down by the quieter injustices that have come to define life in Detroit — a persistent undertow of systemic failures that leave young Black men with little chance to break free.
Despite being raised in an educated, middle-class family, he was unable to transcend schools and neighborhoods that resembled war zones, the influence of friends from troubled backgrounds, and what loved ones have said was constant harassment by police.
“Instead of looking at Hakim Littleton and asking why he did what he did, we need to look at the situation around him and say what caused him to do what he did,” said Nancy Parker, a staff attorney at the Detroit Justice Center and part of a coalition of civil rights groups that has assembled in his name. “It’s a response to 400 years of denigration and discrimination. He can’t just pull himself up by the bootstraps and make a life for himself when already as a teenager he’s seeing violence, crimes, police. … The mental toll this takes is debilitating.”
Malica’s mother learned of Littleton’s long-term plans with her daughter the night before he was killed. She and others had no idea why the southwestern desert state was his destination; one of his close friends conceding it was “kind of random.” But almost anywhere in the country is, by many metrics, better than Detroit — and that Littleton likely knew as well as anyone.
The wrong family
It wasn’t supposed to happen to them.
Littleton, or “Keem” as friends and family knew him, grew up in the relative promise of Detroit’s Black middle class, in a suburban-style neighborhood of well-kept brick homes at Outer Drive and Livernois.
He was a middle child in a multi-generational family of entrepreneurs and professionals who had built a legacy in Detroit. His great-grandfather was a business owner whose home still stands near what used to be Black Bottom; his grandmother owned a boutique on nearby Six Mile where the famed gospel singers, the Clark Sisters, used to shop. His mother, who has a master's in business administration, ran sales and marketing for a liquor store she owns in Corktown with her two sisters. Littleton was supposed to inherit it.
“He had a normal family upbringing,” said Dawn Fuller, Littleton’s aunt, who shared a home with him, his mother and two siblings. “We went on vacations, stuff like that. We were just very family-oriented.”
And community-oriented, too. “The type of family to always give back,” Fuller said they mentored neighborhood kids and encouraged them to stay in school and find work. Those who came into the store with a report card showing straight As were rewarded with a candy or pop of their choice. Littleton’s mom, meanwhile, had a knack for pairing wayward teens with willing employers.
So when Fuller saw police milling about crime tape in her neighborhood July 10, just up the street from her parents’ house, she was caught off-guard by a sneaking suspicion that made her stop. Littleton had been out with friends that day, but an officer at the scene assured her he wasn’t the victim of the earlier shooting that had taken place.
The officer turned out to be wrong. The family’s worst fears were confirmed by a visit to Sinai-Grace Hospital, where Littleton was still a John Doe.
Likely no family expects their child to be killed by police. But as Fuller and another aunt and uncle of Littleton’s sat in the back of a Livernois bakery reflecting on what happened three weeks later — the women wearing shirts depicting assassinated civil rights and Black Power leaders — they conceded maybe they weren’t all that surprised.
Family members have described the household in which Littleton grew up as “revolutionary” and, according to a cousin, he was the progeny of Black Panthers. Littleton’s aunt, Noloyiso Maat Bey, recruited Fred Hampton, Jr., the son of the party's slain leader, to speak at her nephew’s vigil.
She won’t say much about the family’s ideology — aware of how they could be perceived — but she is willing to share that Littleton was taught about slavery and disenfranchisement from a young age. “He understood we were kidnapped and branded as animals,” added her husband, Miguel Geronimo.
“When we have family functions, we don’t play Monopoly or things like that,” Maatbey explained. “We have these conversations. And now Hakim is added to that conversation.”
The lessons appeared to stick. In social media posts, Littleton expressed shock and outrage over deadly racist incidents involving Black people across the country — including an alleged lynching in Oklahoma and the murder of Botham Jean by a Dallas police officer who got just 10 years in prison.
As is typical when discussing the deceased, there’s a tendency to smooth over the more complicated aspects of one’s story. Loved ones remembered Littleton almost exclusively in a positive light — loving, loyal and upstanding, a young man who “never walked around with his pants down,” or sagging, and would “give you the shirt off his back.” He was also said to be deep and insightful, an avid reader with an interest in history.
“We as older people can forget that the young people in this world have their own minds,” said his girlfriend’s mother, Janobia Pankey, who Littleton would have long conversations with as she cooked meals. “But Hakim had a mind of his own. He was a very smart, bright young man and it showed in pretty much everything he said to me.”
She and Littleton's family couldn’t make sense of the turn his life took. A neighborhood mechanic who took him on as an apprentice a few years ago said his shooting at police represented a “total 180,” as Littleton had been a good kid who followed direction.
“He was a quiet guy — he wasn’t a tough guy,” said his uncle, Geronimo. “I can’t figure out what happened to him.”
The quiet, neat streets of Bagley begin to give way to decay near Six Mile — a once-vibrant commercial strip where vacant buildings now sit like hulking tombs. To the south, in the Fitzgerald neighborhood, many houses are boarded or recently demolished, giving its blocks the appearance of mouths with punched-out teeth.
Under the orange glow of sunset on a late-summer Saturday, a dozen or so young men, crisply dressed in white T-shirts and flat-billed baseball caps, stood on the front lawn of a shabby house near the intersection where Littleton was killed. Hip-hop blared from a newer model Corvette convertible. The men stepped out to meet drivers idling in their cars, blocking traffic.
It’s on this side of Six Mile — in the shadow of the University of Detroit Mercy, a private college that requires students to have at least a 3.5 GPA and $20,000 for tuition — that Littleton began to go astray.
At age 12 or 13, he started hanging out with a group of guys about five years older than him, playing basketball outside a transitional independent living home for foster kids aging out of the system. He was a good kid then, an old friend, Roze Knox-Townes, recalled; he hadn’t yet started smoking weed like other kids his age in the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, he became acquainted with police.
The area south of Six is rife with crime and gang activity, a place where Knox-Townes says “you have to stay on your toes because anything can happen” — and part of the reason he left Detroit as an adult. But in his view, police were also a threat, racially profiling young Black men and boys because they couldn’t decipher who the real criminals were. More than three-fourths of Detroit police officers don’t live in the city and, as such, can have limited knowledge of and sensitivity toward the communities they serve.
According to Knox-Townes, officers would harass the group, breaking up their street games and confiscating hoops they’d pooled more than $100 to buy. They’d ask for their IDs when they were simply walking through their neighborhood and shine flashlights on them when hanging out on a porch.
“They were assholes,” said Knox-Townes. “They were aggressive, they would swear at us … they would never treat us like kids. At no time were they ever lenient.
But if you’re in the area where everything is going on, and it’s hot out there and there’s a lot of criminal activity, they’re just gonna look at you as one of them, that’s how it happens.”
Littleton’s experiences with officers ranged from annoying to outright traumatic. Once, within the past year, his girlfriend’s mom recalled he arrived at her house in Oak Park visibly shaken, having been stopped on his several-mile walk from Detroit and asked where he was going. She said he told her, “I could have lost my life tonight, mom.”
A childhood best friend said Littleton frequently expressed fear he would someday be killed by police.
“He was just always going around saying it. He just knew it was gonna come one day,” said the friend, Okey, who declined to give a last name. He chalked it up to, “just the way (Littleton) lived and how he looked at the police’s racism.”
School War Zone
Littleton found no refuge at school. Replete with metal detectors, guards and the threat of violence, Mumford High School had many of the trappings of jail and, for some students, served as a direct pipeline to it.
A few years before Littleton entered in 2014, a student shot a 14- and 16-year-old classmate near school following an argument that began there. Last year, a 15-year-old student was sent to juvenile detention when he showed up with a gun in his backpack. The district responded by reminding parents to please “randomly check your child's bags before school.”
A former teacher of Littleton’s, Peter Cunningham, said numerous students had been charged with crimes, including assault, deadly weapons, and drug offenses. It was another place to “stay on your toes,” Knox-Townes said, because just like in the neighborhood — “something could always happen and always did happen.” Fights and robberies were common and, for some, weapons were a necessary form of protection.
“If you’re in a position like that and you live in the hood, you don’t want to die,” Knox-Townes said. “People around you are dying all the time. And so when you’re young and you wanna live to see 21, you just get a gun. That’s just what you do.”
As Cunningham explained, the school was ill-equipped to deal with the needs of students from troubled backgrounds.
“It’s a low-income area that deals with a lot of kids who have trauma coming in,” he said. “Poor home environments, a lot of single parents or grandparents raising kids. And it usually comes to that scenario because of something unfortunate that happened. So when you have a classroom of 30 kids and 80 or 90 percent of them are dealing with tough family situations, the trauma comes out.”
The environment was not conducive to learning. Mumford was among the bottom five percent of academic achievers in the state when Littleton was there and saw significant leadership and staff turnover. The first in a cycle of principals, Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp, went to prison for taking a nearly $60,000 bribe from a tutoring vendor. Crime paid before it no longer did: Wilbourn Snapp reportedly pulled up to school each day in a Maserati with a Gucci vanity plate.
Whenever he sees news of a shooting in Detroit, Cunningham says he braces himself, fearing it will involve a former student. When he saw Littleton’s name, he says he was dismayed, but not entirely surprised.
Littleton “got in a lot of trouble” in his algebra class, Cunningham said, and “was very confrontational and borderline violent toward me.” He recalled an episode in which Littleton threatened and backed him into a classroom wall for taking his phone. The experience stuck with Littleton too, who relayed it to his girlfriend’s mother years later, saying he lashed out because he felt disrespected by how the teacher snatched the phone when he’d only been listening to music through his earbuds.
Littleton told Pankey that Mumford was full of teachers who “didn’t care,” and some of whom “weren’t even qualified.” But Cunningham saw it differently, saying he and many of his colleagues tried their best to make a difference, and could succeed if kids let them in. The wrestling team Cunningham coached offered a lifeline to those with anger issues, for example. Teens who stuck with him through the program tended to graduate on time and go on to college, he said.
Seeing Littleton’s hostility and smaller frame as assets — he was always looking for lightweights — Cunningham invited him to join the team, but Littleton never came out.
Black male Detroiters brought up in similar circumstances as Littleton explain that, as youth, they’re faced with a choice of whether to live inside or outside the law. Those who choose the “wrong” path are often lured by its seeming ease as a viable alternative in a landscape largely devoid of quality jobs and educational opportunities. But in the long term, stiff consequences can render this the more difficult decision. Consider that one in every three Black men in the U.S. was expected to go to prison within their lifetimes as of 2003, the last year for which data is available. Nearly 300 are killed in the city each year, most of them around Littleton's age.
But the choice of which direction to take can be unconscious, as minor transgressions give way to more severe ones. By then, Knox-Townes explains, it can be too late: The paths have diverged so rapidly it becomes virtually impossible to change course.
“If you don’t want to legit better yourself because you’re already programmed like, ‘this my life, I’m on the block’ — then that’s what it’s gonna be, honestly,” he said. “You’ll just get caught up in so much stuff.”
Knox-Townes, now 25, left Detroit for Royal Oak as an adult. He faced nearly impossible odds, having effectively been born into the foster system, separated from an adoptive mother, then shuffled between multiple group homes and high schools before managing to graduate. But because he was committed to getting out of Detroit, he says, he tried to avoid some of the more harmless mistakes that could lead him astray. Today Knox-Townes works two jobs as a bouncer.
Littleton seemed to want it both ways — inside and out. He was often willing to play by the rules, but also couldn’t appear to give up life on the streets.
His downward trajectory started with normal reckless kid stuff — the occasional fight, casual drug use. But by 17, he owned a gun, and was arrested for an alleged armed robbery on the same block where he would be killed nearly three years later.
That day, Littleton, along with two others, robbed a longtime friend of his brother’s for a pair of headphones and a cellphone, a police report shows. Littleton allegedly gave one of his accomplices the gun to hold up the victim, who’d let the trio in his house.
The case was open and shut: The victim, whose first name is Rayquan, ran about a mile-and-a-half to Littleton’s mom’s, the police showed up, and she called Littleton to find out where he was. The police got him and Rayquan got his stuff back. Littleton, who was charged as an adult, pleaded guilty to a lesser robbery charge and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
It’s unclear what led Littleton to steal from a family friend, but the crime may have been retribution. Rayquan told police Littleton had recently accused him of stealing his gun.
(Rayquan, 22, now has a warrant out for his arrest. He was convicted of retail fraud the following year and has since failed to meet the terms of his probation.)
According to the statement Rayquan gave police, Littleton’s brother didn’t want to hear about what happened, saying Littleton was “always doing stupid stuff.” One week later, court records show he was charged with felonious assault for allegedly hitting Rayquan with a dog chain for reporting the initial crime.
In a perfect world, Littleton’s brush with the justice system would have helped him chart a new course. Instead, he was put in a 90-day military-style boot camp designed to “challenge participants mentally, emotionally and physically” and taught lessons that apparently did not stick. One returning citizen familiar with the Special Alternative Incarceration Facility said it doesn’t rehabilitate so much as it deters, making some people go straight only because “they don’t want to go through it again, not because they’ve seen the light.”
A spokesman with the Michigan Department of Corrections said the agency does not keep track of how many graduates of the program go on to re-offend.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig has argued Littleton’s death could have been prevented had he been dealt a harsher punishment for the initial armed robbery, rather than permitted to plead to a lesser offense and avoid prison. The vast majority of criminal proceedings in Wayne County result in plea deals.
Photos posted to Instagram within weeks of Litteton’s release from boot camp suggest he wasn’t rehabilitated. June 15, 2018: “I’m out on parole under investigation and I still don’t give a fuck,” he said, pictured holding several hundred dollars in 20s. July 3, 2018: “Yeah I got my GED from MDOC but I’m still gonna be on the block.”
The account is primarily populated with pictures of Littleton smoking blunts and fanning hundreds of dollars between fingers. A gun appears in February 2020.
The social media accounts of two of his closest friends have the same vibe.
Darnell Sylvester, who was arrested on a federal drug warrant in a case out of North Dakota during the incident in which Littleton was killed, poses with cash and calls himself “Nell Chapo,” an apparent reference to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious Mexican drug lord now behind bars in the U.S. The other young man appears in Facebook photos with a MAC-10 submachine gun in his waistband. His profile includes a string of tributes for the people he’s lost: “RIPMOM #RIPCARRIETA #RIPAUNTLOU #RIPBEVERLY #RIPBARBARA #RIPZACH” and, the latest addition: “#RIPKEEM.”
But Littleton also seemed to be making an effort to go straight. He was meeting the terms of his reporting probation — on paper, anyway — and holding down a steady job. Within the past year-and-a-half, he shared numerous selfies in front of the shelves of the liquor store where he worked, photos of his girlfriend — "baby here to stay," and a photo of his mother and grandmother — “the two most important women in my life.”
He also reposted a quote reflecting on the harsh realities of a life of criminality. “(Prison) is the last place you wanna wake up ... believe me," it said. "All these n*ggas in this pic have life or murder, never going home, that’s the reality for a lot of n*ggas, wake up, put the same pants on, same sweater, same shoes, walk the same track ... People fall off leave yo ass stucc in there after so long family stop fuckin with you ... Now you laying in the bed an realize u fucc ur life off for some mother fuccas who don’t give a fucc about you.”
But the undertow was strong. Six months later — blunt in mouth, cash in hand — he wrote, “I be getting this cold feeling that the streets where I belong.”
Littleton’s fear that he would someday be killed by police came true just after noon on July 10.
It began with another questionable stop. Craig said officers were in the area looking into a deadly block-party shooting that had happened the weekend before when they saw Sylvester and arrested him on a separate warrant. They “went to investigate” Littleton after they “observed him walking toward them” and “were notified this person was an associate of the person being arrested.” He was not suspected in any crime at that point.
Littleton shot first as police approached, firing off two rounds, according to Craig. They fired back and he fell to the ground.
What happened from there is not completely clear. Craig has said Littleton continued firing from the ground as an officer straddled and attempted to restrain him. Video released by the department does show Littleton’s torso turn upward, but it’s unclear if he’s still shooting. The department has declined to provide body camera footage from the officer who was on top of him.
Five seconds after he hits the ground, three seconds after his body turns upward and two seconds after the initial barrage of gunfire, an officer pops a final round into Littleton's head at close range. Another officer then appears to kick a gun away from his lifeless body.
Family, activists and civil rights attorneys have argued the killing was unjustified because Littleton was subdued after he hit the ground. The police investigation of the shooting, led by Michigan State Police with help from Detroit officers, is now under review by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. It will also be reviewed by the office’s Public Integrity Unit.
But Kristine Longstreet, an attorney with the nonprofit Neighborhood Defender Service, cast doubt on whether Littleton should have been stopped in the first place. She declined to speak to Littleton’s case specifically, but said the reasons the Detroit Police Department gave for the stop do not meet the standard for probable cause.
“There’s an unfairness in the system and it comes down to Black and brown people — often young men,” she said. “In general, the police don’t have an automatic right to engage with a citizen ... But in reality, what happens in a lot of these encounters, is the police do what they do and make (up reasons for the stop) later.”
The department did not reply to a request for comment.
Littleton’s mother, Heather Fuller, declined to be interviewed for this story, concerned it would represent another one-dimensional take that flattened her son into a villain.
“You’re not gonna say what I say,” she said at his vigil. “You guys slice and dice things.”
In the wake of the killing, family members say it was the media and Chief Craig’s embellishment of Littleton’s troubles that allowed the public to demonize him and render his killing justifiable. In addition to having shot first at officers, his criminal history was highlighted, he was dubbed a “gang member” (friends and family insist he was not), and his name was said so many times in relation to the words “block-party shooting” that people started to believe he had something to do with it.
To loved ones and advocates, a lifetime of being treated like a criminal sealed his fate. He was scared that day, they suspected, and, acutely aware of recent police killings of even unarmed Black men, reacted impulsively to protect himself. Or, perhaps, the treatment created a self-fulfilling prophecy that is now his legacy.
But the Coalition for Police Transparency and Accountability, a consortium of more than a dozen civil rights and community organizations assembled in Littleton’s honor, hopes to change that perception. They’ve called for Attorney General Dana Nessel to open an independent investigation in addition to a review by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, and plan a public tribunal.
The group has faced pushback from Detroiters who say Littleton’s killing was warranted and questions from within its own ranks of whether he’s the best victim to defend. But for Parker, the Detroit Justice Center attorney on the coalition, Littleton is in some ways the perfect victim.
The complications and contours of his case bring the issue of police defundment into focus, she said, arguing that had his community not been starved of resources, Littleton could still be alive today. And they challenge the public to imagine a new reality, one where police don’t view shots fired as license to kill, but to apprehend and try in a court of law.
“Society is so ingrained in the way that we are policed today, that it’s hard for people to understand and recognize that it’s not supposed to be this way,” Parker said. “We do not live in a just society. We live in a country where Black people are killed for the most minute things, so if Littleton is on the other end of the spectrum, then people can say he should have known he’d be killed for shooting at a cop.
"But we’re not stepping back to ask why police can kill us at all," she continued. "What we’re doing (as Black people) is not worthy of a death sentence — we’re living our lives according to the conditions that have created them.”
Littleton and his girlfriend, Malica White, wanted to settle down in Arizona after traveling to France and Greece. They envisioned themselves buying a house, building a family, and working — though this was a point of contention, as Littleton wanted White to be a stay-at-home mom and White plans to become a nurse.
The 18-year-old says she’s had difficulty making sense of why Littleton was taken from her. Sure, she said, he made some bad choices, but she never anticipated they could have such grave consequences. Losing him to violence, let alone police violence, was not a thought that crossed her mind.
With her dreams for their future snuffed out, White, who was the driving force behind the plan to move away — Littleton was adamant about only the destination — has resigned herself to staying in metro Detroit, at least for now.
“I just want to be near his family. It’s a comfort,” she said. “I feel like I can't really even leave too far from the street where he took his last breath.”
Top 10 articles countdown