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The front cover of today’s special opinion section of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Kevin Tanaka photos, Bryan Barker cover design

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Trump doesn’t know Chicago, but Chicago knows Trump

With the president set to visit our city for the first time since being elected, this seems a good moment to welcome him with a healthy portion of the truth, served up by the people who live here.

Alice Qiu works in a law firm. Yaraneli Otero is a sixth grader at Thorp Elementary. Roger Green is homeless on the West Side. Desmond Sullivan is a plant operation engineer at the University of Illinois . . .

Four of the 2.7 million people living in Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States. A complicated metropolis that President Donald Trump tries to reduce to a caricature, a buzz phrase for, take your pick: epidemic crime, failed Democratic leadership, unwise immigration, ineffective gun control or some toxic combination of all of the above.

“The city of Chicago,” he once said, whipping up a rally in Florida. “What the hell is going on in Chicago?”

Trump doesn’t wait for an answer. He doesn’t want an answer, batting away any reality in conflict with the comic-book Midwest Gotham City of his imagination.

But with the president set to visit the actual Chicago, our Chicago, on Monday for the first time since being elected — to talk to a police chiefs’ convention and squeeze money from deep-pocketed backers — this seems a good moment to welcome him with a healthy portion of the one thing his administration is most starved for — the truth, served up by those in the best position to tell it: the people of Chicago.

“Chicago is beautiful. I like Chicago,” said Qiu, who came here from China a year ago and hopes to remain. “That’s why I stay here. It’s hard for Chinese people to come here and stay here, now, because of Trump.”

Otero is an 11-year-old girl but knows how Trump could be a better leader.

Yaraneli Otero, 11, at Daley Plaza in Chicago.
“He needs to accept people,” says 11-year-old Yaraneli Otero. “People have emotions and they have feelings. He needs to know that.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

“He needs to accept people,” she says, marching in a CTU protest with her mother. “It doesn’t matter the race. To learn to accept everybody. People have emotions and they have feelings. He needs to know that.”

Good manners keep Green from revealing what he would tell the president.

“You don’t want to know,” he said with a laugh, wishing Trump understood this is a city of “people living, struggling.”

Sullivan, 58, of East Ukrainian Village, has only a few words for Trump, but they’re choice.

“Be a man,” he says. “Men don’t lie. Men tell the truth.”

Desmond Sullivan at Daley Plaza in Chicago
Desmond Sullivan, who works at the University of Illinois, has just a few words for President Donald Trump. Mainly, that “men tell the truth.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

‘We came here to work for America’

Charlene Ayala is a CPS clerk who lives in Dunning. Sandra Nunez waits tables at a Loop restaurant. Bahadin Hawar Kerborani is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is alderman of the 35th Ward . . .

The last time Trump tried to come to Chicago was before the election — March 11, 2016. Faced with the outrage of citizens who showed up to express their rejection of his distortion of our American democracy and values, he turned tail and fled. A similar protest is scheduled for Monday, and attitudes have certainly not changed.

“We don’t want him,” said Ayala, 38, who works at a public school.

Charlene Ayala of Dunning at Daley Plaza in Chicago.
“We are a city that was built on immigrants,” said Charlene Ayala, who works at a public school.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Why? What doesn’t he understand about our city?

“Chicago is beauty,” she said. “We are the most diverse city in the United States. We are a sanctuary city. We are a city that was built on immigrants.”

Immigrants such as Nunez, 55, who stands outside Petterino’s restaurant, watching CTU protesters stream by. She came here from Mexico and has worked at Petterino’s for 17 years. She’d love to become a citizen, but she never married.

“That’s the short way to become a citizen,” she explains. “The other way is to wait for 22 years. Too long. There’s no way to become a citizen or resident for Mexican people. We don’t have that option. It’s unfair. We came here to work for America, for this great nation.”

Immigrants are concerned with both the place they’re at and the place they’re from.

Sandra Nunez outside Petterino’s restaurant, 150 N. Dearborn St. in Chicago
Sandra Nunez came here from Mexico and has worked at Petterino’s restaurant, 150 N. Dearborn St., for 17 years.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

“The decisions and tweets of President Trump not only affect the lives of people in the Middle East,” said Kerborani, a Kurdish Chicagoan who has lived here for nearly a decade. “He should know that the city of Chicago has a large Middle Eastern and Kurdish population who have family members in the region. Every day, unfortunately, videos and pictures of war crimes perpetrated against Kurds by the Turkish army and their ISIS-minded mercenaries can be seen on TV and social networks.”

Chicago was a sanctuary city long before it adopted the official name.

“Chicago is paradise,” says Ramirez-Rosa, the youngest alderman in the City Council. “It’s a place where people of all different backgrounds, all across the globe, have come together to create a better tomorrow, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

“Chicago has such a rich culture, such a vibrant, neighborhood-level culture,” he continues. “Those are things Donald Trump could never understand. Donald Trump believes immigration is harmful to the United States of America. If Chicago proves anything, immigration is our strength.”

‘Instead of criticizing, he could help us’

Tatiana Reese, 30, works at a Chipotle. Roxanne Meyer is a gender-fluid lesbian who works for CNA insurance. Jerwayne Balentine has muscular dystrophy and runs Yo City Dogs, a hot dog stand. Geri Tucker, 54, is studying to get her GED at Kennedy King College . . .

“I like Chicago,” Reese says, hurrying to her job. “It’s not dangerous. The people make it dangerous, but it’s not dangerous.”

“Outside of Chicago, a lot of people’s perception is a lot of gang activity, a lot of violence,” says Meyer, born in Paraguay. ”That simply isn’t the case. We’re not the worst stereotypes that people have about us. Each of us has our own story. The problem with him is, he lumps it all together. Anyone who doesn’t fit his background is disregarded or mischaracterized.”

Jerwayne Balentine at his hot dog stand in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
Jerwayne Balentine has been selling hot dogs at 63rd and Halsted for three years. “I’ve always been greeted with smiles and appreciation,” he says.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

According to the most recent FBI statistics, Chicago is the 17th most violent city in the country, after Minneapolis. The most violent city in the country is St. Louis, followed by Detroit and Baltimore: their violent crime rate nearly double Chicago’s. Yet the president is never going to ask “What the hell’s happening in St. Louis?”

Balentine sells hot dogs at 63rd and Halsted in Englewood.

“A black guy selling German hot dogs in the middle of the South Side,” he says. “I’ve been there three years. I’ve never had any crime happen to me. I’ve never been robbed. I stand here every day. I don’t have a weapon. I don’t need any security. I’ve always been greeted with smiles and appreciation.”

Even in the most distressed spot in Chicago, there is pride and hope.

“If we had the opportunities,” says Balentine. “There’s great people here that’s willing to do great. We just need the same chances as everyone else. If he could just take a second and look at us and realize we want to do better and, given the opportunity, we can. Instead of criticizing, he could help us.”

Geri Tucker in Chicago.
Crime is rough in Chicago, Geri Tucker says, but as for Trump, “he’s not making it any better in Washington.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

“Donald Trump is claiming that Chicago is a bad place to live, because of the crime,” says Tucker. “The crime is rough, but he’s not making it any better in Washington, because he don’t know what the jack he’s doing!”

‘We’re a union-built city’

Lamont Overall is a union ironworker. Sufyan Shaltaf is a political activist, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Percy Sims, 47, lives at 105th and Wentworth . . .

“We’re a union-built city — hard work,” says Overall, 40, a member of Ironworkers Local 63. He has five children, and finds Chicago a good family city. “Me and my family come down here, we celebrate and hang out all the time. We hang out at the 31st Street beach.”

Lamont Overall of Richton Park
Lamont Overall, an ironworker, calls Chicago “a good family city.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

“As a Muslim, as a Palestinian American, I find it frankly despicable, all the things Donald Trump has done, all the negative things,” says Shaltaf, 23, who lives in Bridgeport. “To so many people. These are his constituents, as much as anybody else in this country. How are you going to speak negatively about people you are claiming to represent? His responsibility is to uplift these people, hear their stories, learn from them.”

“I don’t like him. He’s a racist, and he’ll let you know he’s one,” says Sims. “Chicago doesn’t need him to be here. He can just go about his business. He knows nothing about what he’s doing; he knows nothing about how he’s doing it. He just knows what he wants to do, and it’s the wrong way. He stipulated, ‘I can do what I want to do because I’m the president?’ No, you can’t. The president is just a figurehead. You got to answer to the Congress and you got to answer to the people. So no, you can’t do what you want to do.”

‘We know nonsense when we see it’

Michele Rodgers is a high school science teacher. Sunni Ali Powell is a master barber in Englewood. Carol Tarr lives on the 4800 block of South Chicago Beach Drive . . .

”I was born and raised in Chicago. It’s a great city,” says Rodgers, 44, who grew up on the South Side, lives downtown and is active in the neighborhoods. “We are developing our parks in our communities.”

Powell says the president needs to, “if he can, really build the city up. His name is in the middle of downtown. If he can build the city up, through education, he can give these kids a chance to do something greater. We have [many] different neighborhoods. We are separated, in some ways, but we all come together.”

Niki (from left), Dean, Bubby and Carol Tarr at Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago.
Niki (from left), Dean, Bubby and Carol Tarr. Carol Tarr calls Chicagoans “down-to-earth people” who “know nonsense when we see it.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Tarr has three sons: Dean, 14, Niki, 12, and Bubby, 10.

”Chicagoans are proud, down-to-earth people,” she says, while waiting for a bus on Wacker Drive. “And we know nonsense when we see it.”

I spoke to all these people — twice as many, actually — during a relaxed one-day ramble, mostly in person at spots around the city, a few over the phone, trying to get a good mix. I tried to get a Trump supporter — 132,738 Chicagoans voted for Trump in 2016, 12.5% of voters, according to the Chicago Board of Elections — but my efforts, including contacting an official at the Chicago Republican Party, were in vain.

Just as well. They’ll get their say. I always get mine, and truly enjoyed hearing what other people have to say. If I had to use one word to describe the experience, I would say it was “joyous.” Granted a second word, I would say it is “hopeful.”

Donald Trump doesn’t know Chicago in the way he doesn’t know America. He’s shadow-boxing with a hallucination. He does not know where he is or who we are. But we know where we are, and we know who we are, and that is more than enough.

The special opinion section cover of the Oct. 28, 2019, Chicago Sun-Times.
Kevin Tanaka photos, Bryan Barker cover design

Daniel Howard, 59, is an Army vet who lives in Bronzeville and is studying at Kennedy-King College.
“He tweets all the time,” Daniel Howard, 59, an Army vet who lives in Bronzeville, says of President Trump. “He’s constantly bickering with somebody.” Howard, who is studying at Kennedy-King College, added: “I think he’s corrupt. He’ll be impeached. ... He thinks he’s privileged. He thinks he’s the king of the world now.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Anthony LaRosa, 56, a former roofer now on disability, lives in Pilsen.
“Chicago’s getting better,” said Anthony LaRosa, 56, a former roofer now on disability. Pilsen, where he lives now, “changed for the best. ... It’s cleaner; look at all the art on the walls. People come by taking pictures of art.” The president, LaRosa said, needs to get better, too. “Donald Trump has got to grow up. ... He’s more of a businessman, he’s not a president. To run the country, he hasn’t done a good job. To him, it’s all about money.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Yosef Samara near Daley Plaza in Chicago.
“I do not like him,” Yosef Samara, 25, said of the president, advising him to “stop wasting money on bulls - - t.”
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

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