President Barack Obama came to Chicago Friday to push for solutions to the city’s epidemic of violence, saying the steady flow of murders here is “the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.”
Pushing again for gun legislation while stressing the violence plaguing the nation “is not just a gun issue,” the president paid homage to 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the North Kenwood girl who has become a symbol of street violence.
“Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique,” Obama said. “It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us.”
Obama spoke at Hyde Park Career Academy on the city’s South Side just three days after he delivered a State of the Union speech imploring Congress to allow a vote on gun-control measures, even if it meant voting “no.”
He repeated that Friday, saying he recognizes that not everyone agrees with what he called the “common-sense” gun-control proposals he wants to become the law of the land.
“But these proposals deserve a vote in Congress,” he said. “They deserve a vote.”
Obama said the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was “profound and uniquely heartbreaking and tragic,” but he ticked off Chicago’s shooting statistics for comparison.
“Last year, there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under,” the president said. “So that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months.”
But the problem is complex, he said.
“This is not just a gun issue,” Obama said. “It’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building. And for that we all share a responsibility, as citizens, to fix it. We all share a responsibility to move this country closer to our founding vision that no matter who you are, or where you come from, here in America, you can decide your own destiny. You can succeed if you work hard and fulfill your responsibilities.
“Now, that means we’ve got to grow our economy and create more good jobs.”
He again said the minimum wage should be raised.
And the president offered details on what’s been called “Promise Zone.” Obama said he plans to partner with 20 hard-hit communities to “get them back in the game.” He said the program includes giving tax breaks to business owners who “invest and hire in those neighborhoods.”
Obama also touched on his own childhood, saying he was raised by a single mother with the help of grandparents.
“I wish I had had a father who was around and involved,” he said.
Before speaking, the president met with a group of young men involved with the Becoming A Man — Sports Edition program, or B.A.M.
“But what I explained to them was I had issues too when I was their age,” he said. “I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving. So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me.”
One of the teens, James Adams, was exhilarated after meeting with Obama.
“I feel like I could just walk out of this school right now and become president of the United States after him,” Adams, 18, said. “It’s awesome to know someone came from the same background as you [from a] single parent [household]. Man, it’s overwhelming.”
Hadiya’s parents and other relatives were among the hundreds packed into the school gym.
“It sounds like the president definitely wants to make some changes around Chicago and everywhere else,” Hadiya’s mother, Cleopatra Pendleton, said after the speech. “Any attempt to make a change helps. It definitely helps. I know that’s helpful not just to me but to the other mothers, fathers and families affected by the unfortunate fact that there are guns that are easily accessible by people that aren’t supposed to have them.”
Also in the crowd were others who had lost loved ones to gun violence. Many of them had lined up hours before the president was to speak.
Tonya Burch, whose son Deontae Smith was gunned down in 2009, said the president’s remarks are a good start.
“I think it makes a difference he came home,” Burch said. “It’s good that he touched base, and he addressed it, but the community needs to come together. It starts at home.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger said the president speaking in Chicago puts a spotlight on the issue.
“Violence in America is an epidemic,” Pfleger said. “There’s a genocide of our children going on in urban America. And so I think wherever he has to go to put attention on it and to draw attention to it and focus on it, we got to do it.
“I think this, today, is a turning point.”