President Barack Obama returned to the South Side of Chicago on Friday, bringing a message of hope and resilience in the face of the rising, demoralizing gun violence that has plagued his hometown.
“No laws or set of laws can prevent every senseless act of violence,” President Obama told an audience of hundreds at Hyde Park Academy. “When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill, only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.”
In Chicago last year, 65 children were killed by gun violence: in other words, the equivalent of a Newtown-level massacre occurring every four months. He noted that more than 443 people were killed by guns in Chicago over the last year. “And that’s precisely why the overwhelming majority of Americans are asking for some common-sense proposals to make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun,” Obama said.
“In too many neighborhoods… the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town,” he said. “For a lot of young boys and young men, they don’t see an example of a father or grandfather who are in the position to support families and be held up and respected.”
“And so that means that this is not just a gun issue, its also an issue of the kinds of communities we are building– and in that, we all share a responsibility.”
The speech comes less than a week after the burial of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago honor student who was gunned down by alleged gang members just a mile from Obama’s south side home earlier this month. Obama invoked her memory during his address to the nation on Tuesday, in which he implored Congress to act on gun legislation, saying Hadiya and other victims of gun violence “deserve a vote.”
Hadiya’s family was in attendance on Friday, and the president again acknowledged their loss. “Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique—it’s not unique to Chicago, it’s not unique to the country,” Obama said. “Too many of our children are being taken from us.”
“I pray that my daughter’s death becomes a turning point,” Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Hadiya’s mother, told msnbc.com shortly after the president’s speech, with a button bearing her daughter’s picture pinned to her sweater. “I know President Obama and Michelle Obama care about our community, and care about us. What he said today, it was comforting.”
President Obama largely avoided the issue of gun control during his first term, but with the fervent debate around gun legislation prompted by the Newtown massacre, and growing national attention on the violence in his hometown, Obama delivered what many in Chicago and across the country had been waiting for. Chicago residents have longed for the day when the president would return home and give them the attention they feel they–and the issue–deserve.
“It was unbelievable,” Stuart Taylor said of Obama’s remarks. “It was a very important message, that we as a community need to come together.”
Before the president’s speech, Aisha Truss-Miller, whose 17-year-old cousin was shot and killed last summer, just blocks from where Hadiya Pendleton was killed, said she feared that the president’s visit would be a “grand gesture” but not much more. “Until he speaks openly and honestly about the problems of gun violence and the trauma associated with it, only then will I think he’s trying to hold himself and American history accountable for sustaining the violence and the culture of violence in Chicago and elsewhere in the nation,” Truss-Miller told msnbc.com.
Truss-Miller said she was disappointed that the president did not directly address what she called “the generational trauma” inflicted upon inner city black youth.
“He did his job as the president,” Truss-Miller allowed. “But only time will tell what impact his words had on the young people in the room and those young people who weren’t in the room.”
In the days following Pendleton’s killing— little more than a week after she marched in Obama’s inaugural parade— Truss-Miller started a petition on Change.org asking that Obama come to Chicago and speak on the girl’s death. As the story gained national attention, the number of signers of the petition grew. In just a couple weeks more than 45,000 people signed the petition. Many have credited Obama’s homecoming to Truss-Miller and her petition. “I had to do something,” Truss-Miller said.
Before delivering his speech, Obama met privately with more than a dozen students at the school who are part of a youth anti-violence program, all young black men from the city’s South Side neighborhoods, not far from where Obama said “Michelle and I met, where we fell in love.” The crowd of hundreds, including students, politicians, and clergy collectively swooned in a chorus of “awwwww.”
“We needed to hear from the president up close and personal,” said Corey Stevens, 17, who was one of the students Obama met with. Stevens said that Obama opened up to them about his own mistakes as a young person, including smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. “He told us he went through some of the same things we go through,” Stevens said. “That he’s like us.”
“I told them I had issues too,” Obama said during his speech. “And we talked about what it takes to change.” He talked to the crowd about gun control measures and the ways in which stable homes, families, and communities can help keep youth out of gangs and violence. Obama spoke broadly about the economic proposals laid out during his State of the Union address.
The Chicago event capped a post-State of the Union tour this week that took Obama to Asheville, NC, on Wednesday and Decatur, GA, on Thursday, focused mostly on proposals to strengthen the economy for the middle class through so-called “ladders of opportunity” which include raising the minimum wage to $9 and expanding early childhood education.
In closing his Chicago remarks, the president talked about Hadiya’s trip to Washington just a week before she was killed, to march in his inaugural parade and take in the sites and monuments. He said she and her classmates visited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. monument, and that the monument was a “testament not to work that is completed, but to the work that remains unfinished.”
“His goal was not only to free us from the shackles of discrimination, but from the shadow of poverty that plagues too much of our country,” Obama said. “I cannot do it by myself,” he said, “we are going to have to do it together.”