Michelle Obama, accompanied by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is scheduled to attend the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton on Saturday. Pendleton, an honor-roll student who had performed as a majorette during the presidential inauguration ceremony, was fatally shot in her home town of Chicago on Jan. 29. Reports that the first lady was “heartbroken” to learn of Hadiya’s death, remarks from the White House press secretary and a phone call President Obama placed to Pendleton’s family signify that the White House has taken the matter to heart.
But, truth be told, these efforts fall short.
With 506 homicide victims in 2012, and with 2013 threatening to outpace last year, Chicago is facing a crisis of safety that demands Obama’s immediate attention. America’s current debate on gun-violence prevention is a prime opportunity for the president to prioritize urban casualties in the same way that he has victims of rural mass shootings. Since he has not yet done so, it has left many, including myself, with a host of questions: Why has President Obama been nearly silent on Chicago’s haunting epidemic of gun violence? What value is there in him speaking up at this point? What course of action should he take? And what does it signify if he says or does nothing?
Obama has rightfully been praised for his thoughtful and compassionate responses to the horrific shooting tragedies that have plagued his presidency. He has been present, hands on and outspoken. His response to the Sandy Hook shooting, in particular, was evidence of his ability to move beyond rhetoric toward swift action and meaningful public policy. Unfortunately, Obama has not demonstrated the same type of bold leadership as it relates to his home town, and many are challenging him to begin to do so.
A Change.org petition calling on Obama to come to Chicago to publicly address the violence has been started and has already gathered nearly 5,000 signatures. Community organizer Aisha Truss-Miller started the petition in partnership with the Black Youth Project. It was just last summer that Truss-Miller’s 17-year-old cousin was killed by an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in Chicago.
Cathy Cohen, founder of the group and a political science professor at the University of Chicago, says there are three primary reasons why the president is being petitioned to address the violence on the south and west sides of the city.
“First, through the use of the bully pulpit, the President has the ability to command the attention of the country, raising their consciousness about the life and death issues facing young people in Chicago,” Cohen said. “Second, we believe the President . . . can provide needed resources for programs that have been shown to be effective in combating violence; programs such as summer employment programs for youth.
“The executive branch can also help to coordinate the work of the different entities in neighborhoods and in the mayor’s office attempting to address this issue,” she continued. “Third and most important, the President needs to signal to the world that we as a country value the lives of young Black and Latino children in Chicago.”
Cohen makes it clear that this would not simply be a symbolic gesture but that they are hoping that Obama will work with city and state officials as well as community groups “to map out a course of action that can stem the violence.” She lists the following as top priorities: (1) removing illegal guns from the streets, (2) putting first responders in place who have their pulse on the community and are able to deescalate violence, (3) providing support to youth through mentoring and mental health resources, (4) providing summer and long-term employment opportunities for youth, and (5) improving the quality of education that black young people receive.
Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a community organizer, hip-hop artist and self-described “raptivist” who ran for alderman in Chicago’s 20th ward in 2011, challenges those who argue that this is simply a local issue that requires a local response. “Local activists and organizers are reaching out to local politicians as well as working to reach solutions on the ground, but this is a national security threat,” he says. “Forty-two people were murdered in 30 days in January. The president can bring resources and national attention that will assist local politicians and community leaders on the ground.”
This is the least Obama can do, considering black youth, and African Americans in general, turned out in record numbers to vote him into office in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
As the president, Obama sets the tone for what is recognized as a national crisis, a tragedy and a priority. He does this through speeches that greatly shape public opinion and help set the country’s collective agenda. He also does it through his physical presence, marking sites as significant and worthy of national attention. We must not forget, however, that the president’s silence and absence also speak volumes to the American people.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .
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