First Lady Michelle Obama returned to her hometown on Wednesday afternoon and delivered an impassioned plea to Chicago business leaders, urging them to take action to combat youth gun violence.
Obama fought back tears as she talked about Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old majorette who was shot and killed in a Chicago park about a week after performing at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
“As I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me, because what I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family,” Obama said. “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her… But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have a career and family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine…And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story,” she said. “This isn’t some war zone half a world away, this is our home. This kind of violence is what young people here face every single day.”
The event, hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and attended by some of the city’s most powerful business leaders, was a lunch and fundraiser for a public-private partnership which hopes to raise $50 million for anti-violence youth initiatives in the city.
But more than just a fundraiser, it offered the First Lady a chance to publicly embrace an issue that’s important to her, one that may very well shape her second-term agenda.
In her self-described role as mom-in-chief, she has presided mostly over efforts to fight obesity and largely stayed away from controversial issues. But following Pendleton’s death, Michelle Obama entered the public discussion about young people and gun violence.
Since the teen’s death on Jan. 29 there have been 36 homicides in Chicago (as of Tuesday), the vast majority of them death by gunfire. Nearly a third of the victims were under the age of 21, according to Redeye Chicago, an online newspaper that tracks the city’s homicides. The First Lady’s return to Chicago was her first since attending Pendleton’s funeral, where she met privately with the girl’s family. And her speech comes as gun control and gun rights issues continue to heat up in Washington, as Congress prepares to debate a package of new gun legislation that includes strict new federal gun trafficking laws and universal background checks for all new gun purchases.
“Right now my husband is fighting as a hard as he can and engaging with as many people as he can to protect our children from gun violence,” she said, to rising applause. “These reforms deserve a vote in Congress.”
The Obama administration this week ramped up its pressure on Congress to pass, or at least vote on, comprehensive gun control legislation. More than a dozen Senate Republicans said they’d filibuster any gun package brought up for a vote. But as public pressure mounts—President Obama, the First Lady, and a host of other surrogates have launched a salvo of pro-gun control events in Washington, Chicago and elsewhere— there seem to be fissures in the GOP wall. Republican leaders including Sen. John McCain have blasted threats of a filibuster and support an up or down vote.
The timing of Michelle Obama’s speech, while obviously personal, is also part of the administration’s larger agenda on the gun control front.
Following the fundraiser, Obama met with students and teachers at Harper High School, where 29 current and recent students were injured by gunfire last year–and where eight were killed.
“My parents were working class folks. There isn’t much distance between me and you,” Obama said as she joined the students, according to pool reports. “In this world today, if you stay focused you can make it happen. The best thing you can do in life is really be serious about education.”
She encouraged the students to ask her anything they wanted to know.
Youth violence in Chicago has long been considered at epidemic levels. “I think the overwhelming thing that I see as a result of all these repeated violent acts, is this overwhelming sense of hopelessness and apathy and desensitization to what’s going on around them,” Marvin Harris, a psychologist with Children Home and Aid, told msnbc.com recently. “Everything about them is full of anxiety and fear and apathy, that this is just the way it is. They were born into this stuff, they didn’t create it. They were born into it and every day of their life they figure that this is just the way it is going to be.”
“It’s like I’m facing it every time I go out the door, even at school, having to worry about being gunned down,” Jamil Smith, 21, told msnbc.com. “Seeing other friends gunned down affects you a lot, like, I’m not fitting to go to school. I don’t feel like getting shot or having to worry about those kinds of things.”
“You try to get away from it but you feel like you can’t,” he said.
During the lunch, Obama talked about her own upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, in a working and middle class community where folks worked as teachers, secretaries, factory workers. She said she had just a few more advantages than her peers, and relied on committed parents and adult mentors who challenged her to succeed.
“Our parents knew that if they did everything right they’d have a chance, but for too many people today that is simply not the case,” she said. “In the end, that was the difference between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother and first lady of the United States and being shot dead at the age of 15.”