Sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama at the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendleton solemnly served as symbols of America’s gun violence epidemic. Just three days earlier, the Chicago couple had buried their only daughter, 15-year-old Hadiya. And just weeks before that, Hadiya–an honor student and majorette–was in D.C. performing with her high school marching band at Obama’s second inauguration. It was a tragedy drenched in irony, and one that propelled the Pendletons to speak out.
"I know we need assault weapons because we have an army. But how are they getting on our streets? That’s what I would like to know," Nate Pendleton said in an interview with CNN after the state of the union. "Why can’t we just stop them from being sold in regular stores?"
Today the president will go to Chicago to make a speech about the city’s increasingly deadly gun violence. Although it’s one stop in a tour sparked by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, this address holds special meaning because it connects urban bloodshed that disproportionately affects black and Latino youth to the national call for a coordinated strategy to stem gun violence.
It’s also an uncharacteristic move by a black commander-in-chief who seldom addresses race publicly and who many accuse of being slow to act on issues that disproportionately impact African-American communities.
Chicago occupies a unique place within America’s debate over firearms. Mass shootings like those in rural and suburban Newtown, Aurora and Tucson–in which one mentally ill gunman kills scores of people at once–don’t tend to happen in the city. Chicago is in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and in the city itself it’s virtually impossible to purchase a gun legally. Yet it has one of the nation’s highest homicide rates.
In 2012, the Windy City recorded more than 500 killings, most due to gunfire. This year is on pace to be just as deadly: Pendleton’s death was the city’s 44th in the month of January alone. Most of the lives lost or suddenly altered have been those of black and Latino youth. Despite the carnage, Chicago’s violence is not what political observers euphemistically call a national issue.
So how did Chicago organizers get the president’s attention?
"It’s Not Just a Bunch of Crazy Young People of Color."
Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on January 29th while standing with a group of friends after school in Harsh Park, which is less than a mile away from President Obama’s Hyde Park home. Two young men have been arrested and charged with her murder, and the attempted murder of bystanders who survived the shooting.
That Hadiya was killed just days after performing at the president’s inauguration made her a symbol for the recklessness of Chicago’s gun violence. Yet, according to Aisha Truss-Miller, a 31-year-old organizer, it also provided a narrative that could link Chicago’s gun deaths directly to the president, an opportunity to get his attention.
Truss-Miller is intimately familiar with the loss of a young family member due to gunfire. Last summer her 17-year-old cousin Leonard was killed with an assault rifle as he stood outside of his Chicago home, blocks from where Pendleton was killed. Moved by the national media spotlight on Pendleton’s death, she got got into a series of conversations on Facebook with Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political scientist and the founder of the Black Youth Project, a political organizing group based in the city. Cohen suggested getting elected officials involved.
"Black Youth Project was very supportive while my family mourned my cousin," says Truss-Miller. "[But] I was like, ‘Okay, great, but what are we going to do with or without Obama’s words?’" Ultimately, the organizer related to the political scientist’s desire to push the president to address what she describes as root causes of pervasive urban violence.
So along with her family, Truss-Miller teamed up with the Black Youth Project to launch a Change.org petition to push the president to do just that. It wasn’t so much as a plea as it was a call to action. It name checks several institutional issues that are seldom discussed in the gun debate: living-wage jobs, well funded public schools and mass incarceration. The petition reads, in part:
…My family and I are joining with the Black Youth Project to ask President Obama to come to Chicago and honestly speak on the root causes of gun violence in Black and Latino communities. This speech must be a substantive one, that includes specifics on the policies and programs his administration will initiate to save the lives and improve the futures of our young people.
Youth in my community face specific challenges that lead to gun violence–and these challenges require different solutions than other tragedies commonly invoked in current gun control debates, like Newtown and Aurora. It is time President Obama talked openly and honestly with the nation about all the factors that threaten the lives of inner-city youth; namely gun violence and the illegal distribution and loose regulation of arms, the lack of living-wage jobs, the varied shortcomings of public schools, the disproportionate rate of incarceration for youth of color, the circumstances and culture that propels the cycle of violence, and yes, the misguided choices young people sometimes make.
To date, more than 48,000 people have signed the petition.
"The nature of this crisis [makes us] all feel personally vulnerable," Cohen says about starting the petition. "The spread of violence doesn’t [make us] feel that this is a safe space for black and Latino communities."
The White House did make an initial gesture that fell short of the petitioners’ expectations. Late last week, it announced that First Lady Michelle Obama would attend Pendleton’s funeral in Chicago. In a press release, the Black Youth Project called Mrs. Obama’s appearance an "appropriate response to this incredible tragedy", but added that "Michelle Obama’s presence at the funeral does not in any way address the systemic issues contributing to gun violence in Chicago and other urban areas."
Now expectations are high that the president will offer a substantive plan.
"I’m hoping that [Obama’s speech] will raise the consciousness of Americans nationwide to what creates and sustains gun violence in Chicago," says Truss-Miller. "It’s not just a bunch of crazy young people of color. It’s institutions, it’s broken school systems, the brutality of police, generational trauma. We’re not having those conversations, and if we’re not raising people’s awareness about the root causes of violence, we’ll never get to real strategies and solutions; we’ll always have Band-Aids."
Home Is Where the Hatred ls
For President Obama, Chicago has never been an easy place. Although his experiences as a young political organizer on the city’s South Side have become a central part of his political narrative, he has long been at odds with some of the city’s black political leadership.
Early in Obama’s political career, longtime Illinois congressman Bobby Rush questioned his racial identity by suggesting that the then-congressional candidate wasn’t deeply rooted in the black community. And during his presidential primary run, Rev. Jesse Jackson infamously threated to "cut [Obama’s] balls off" for allegedly "talking down to black folks." Later, former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s support of Obama caused a public rift between a father and son in one of Chicago’s most promiment black political families.
The elder Jackson recently wrote an open letter to Obama, urging him to directly address the city’s gun violence.
After Hadiya’s shooting, more police were pledged to patrol the streets. But as you know from your time on these streets, Mr. President, you cannot police poverty. You cannot police broken dreams or shattered aspirations. Chicago has strong gun laws, but it cannot stop the flow of guns and drugs coming in and jobs going out.
Jackson ended his letter by writing "Come home, Mr. President, your city needs you."
Despite tension between Obama and some of Chicago’s black political leadership, and concern about politicos who Cohen says "might have any number of motivations for calling out the president," organizers forged ahead. "I don’t think any one person secured the president’s return to talk about gun violence," Cohen stresses. "It was a mounting sound of voices across the city and across the country."
It’s unclear how large a role the Black Youth Project played in compelling the president to address guns in Chicago, but the organization’s petition and sustained call for action did help elevate the issue to one of national–and political–significance.
"Friday is an opportunity where [Obama] is not concerned with re-election, but can provide significant moral leadership on the issue," Cohen adds. "This can’t be about politics, this has to be about the value we place on black and Latino young people."