Obama (finally) coming to Chicago to ‘talk about the gun violence’
President Barack Obama will visit Chicago on Friday, when he will discuss gun violence as he focuses on his economic message from Tuesday’s State of the Union address, according to the White House.
Obama will “talk about the gun violence that has tragically affected too many families in communities across Chicago and across the country,” a White House official said in a statement.
The president’s visit answers calls from Chicago anti-violence activists that Obama talk about the recent spate of gun violence in the city, several of the activists said.
“This is an important issue,” said Cathy Cohen, founder of the Black Youth Project, which attracted about 45,000 signatures by Sunday night in an online petition that urges Obama to speak up. “We think of this as a victory for all of us.”
The group posted the petition on change.org shortly after Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was shot to death last month at a South Side park. The King College Prep student was slain about a week after performing with her school band at Obama’s inaugural festivities.
Since Hadiya was shot about a mile from the president’s Kenwood neighborhood home Jan. 29, during the deadliest January for Chicago since 2002, pastors, parents and activists have demanded that more be done about the city’s violence.
First lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral Saturday. Hadiya’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, will also attend the president’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, family spokeswoman Shatira Wilks said late Sunday.
Hadiya’s godmother, LaKeisha Stewart, said she hasn’t heard whether the president will spend time with the Pendletons during his trip to Chicago.
Stewart said she’s happy about Obama’s plans. “Any awareness that can be brought to this issue that can prevent any family from ever feeling the pain that we as a family have felt … is awesome,” she said. “This city is in pain right now.”
Nathaniel Pendleton, Hadiya’s father, said his family didn’t know much about the president’s Chicago trip, but “if he decided to speak with us, we’ll be more than happy.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the president’s remarks in Chicago will play a different role than Michelle Obama’s attendance at Hadiya’s funeral. The first lady didn’t speak publicly about the events surrounding the teenager’s death.
“Her being there is very important since it was her neighborhood,” Jackson said. “I think the president’s coming is important because she did not deal with the politics. … She dealt with the calming concern for a broken-hearted family,” he said.
Jackson made a public appeal this month for the president to speak to the bloodshed in Chicago.
Because of the upcoming visit, parents of children who have been shot to death in the city will finally feel heard by Obama, said Annette Nance-Holt, who lost her son Blair Holt in 2007 after he was shot on a crowded CTA bus.
“This sends a message to the parents here that their kids are important too,” Holt said. “It may not have been a big shooting with an assault rifle. But to see (Obama) come and hopefully rally some support here means a lot.”
The White House said the president’s visits to Asheville, N.C., Atlanta and Chicago this week will also press issues that he will raise in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.
“The president will travel to Chicago for an event amplifying some of the policy proposals included in the State of the Union that focus on strengthening the economy for the middle class and the Americans striving to get there,” a White House official said in a statement.
Clergy on Sunday praised Obama’s decision to speak in Chicago, arguing his speech could bring greater attention to the killings plaguing communities here.
“Hopefully and prayerfully, his coming will make a real impact,” said the Rev. Kenneth Giles of Second Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in the South Austin neighborhood. “Now that the nation is focused on (gun violence), maybe they will hear his voice and hear what he has to say.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the South Side’s St. Sabina Catholic Church, said he’s grateful the president is “zooming in” on the issue.
“What better place to address it than his home and a city that has really become, let’s face it, the poster boy of gun violence,” Pfleger said.
Tio Hardiman, director of Cure Violence Illinois, said the president’s visit was an important symbolic gesture that could influence local youth to help fight violence in their communities.
“This will put Chicago on the forefront, and hopefully this will trickle down to the young people involved in a violent lifestyle,” Hardiman said. “Hopefully, by the president coming to Chicago, the guys involved in violence will pay attention.”
Clergy, activists, parents and others agreed that they are eager to hear a plan of action from the president to curb violence.
Nance-Holt said that if the president can set up a task force in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school Dec. 14, he can do the same in Chicago. The Black Youth Project’s Cohen said she hopes to hear a plan on how to get illegal guns off the street and how to get young people working. Jackson said neighborhoods such as Englewood, Lawndale and Roseland need a plan for reconstruction.
Clergy said they hope the president talks about broader factors contributing to the city’s violence, such as a high unemployment rate and a lack of adequate funding for local schools.
Chicago’s homicides in recent years have numbered far below their annual total of more than 900 in the early 1990s. But while Chicago topped 500 homicides last year, the total fell below 500 in New York City, which has about three times the population of Chicago.
Local officials have stepped up efforts against gun violence. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has moved to toughen city gun laws. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has made an effort to tighten loopholes in the law.
While the president’s speech is a step in the right direction, Chicagoans can also play a role in stemming the violence, the Rev. Giles said.
“Some (part) of the problem we can solve ourselves,” he said. “For instance, the no-snitch rule on the street. … You don’t need the president for that. We just need to step up and tell the truth.”
Hardiman agreed that it isn’t solely incumbent upon the president to solve the problem.
“The families have got to challenge their teenage sons and daughters,” Hardiman said. “It starts at home as well. The president should challenge the responsibility of the homes and the families.”
Tribune reporter Dahleen Glanton and Washington bureau reporter Christi Parsons contributed.