I have kept my mouth firmly shut over the past few days about President Obama’s upcoming visit to Chicago. I was taught that if you can’t say something nice, it might be a good idea to say nothing at all. I am informed through the press that the President intends to speak about gun violence and other issues while he’s here. He’ll be speaking this afternoon at Hyde Park Academy, a Southside high school.
If you know anything about Chicago, then you understand why he would speak on the Southside. First, most of the public shootings and death happening in the city are concentrated there and on the Westside. Also, one of the most recent high profile homicides to have occurred in Chicago, the killing of Hadiya Pendleton, took place on the Southside. If he is going to address gun violence, the Southside of Chicago is a good place to do so.
It wasn’t a given, however, that President Obama would come to speak in Chicago. It took local organizing to get him to come. An organization called the Black Youth Project started a petition at change.org after Hadiya’s death calling for President Obama to make a comprehensive speech about gun violence in Chicago. The petition focused on the experience of Aisha Truss-Miller, a committed young organizer who is well-known to many of us who address violence in the city. She shared the story of the killing of her cousin, Leon Truss, and then asked the President to act on his and other young people’s behalf:
“[M]y family and I are joining with the Black Youth Project to ask President Obama to come to Chicago and honestly speak on the root causes of gun violence in Black and Latino communities. This speech must be a substantive one, that includes specifics on the policies and programs his administration will initiate to save the lives and improve the futures of our young people.
We know that President Obama cannot solve the issue of gun violence alone. However, he can call the nation to consciousness about the need for a response to this specific crisis that is affecting youth in cities like mine.”
By the time the President announced his decision to speak in Chicago, the petition has garnered over 45,000 signatures. The Black Youth Project issued a statement after the President agreed to come to Chicago which read in part:
“[W]e urge the President to make his speech a substantive one that addresses the underlying factors that perpetuate violence in Black and Latino communities.
We hope his speech will detail how he will work with community groups, city and state officials to address the underlying issues leading to gun violence in the Windy City, and other cities across the country.
Namely, the illegal distribution and loose regulation of arms, the lack of living-wage jobs, the varied shortcomings of public schools, the disproportionate rate of incarceration for youth of color, the circumstances and culture that propels the cycle of violence, and yes, the misguided choices young people sometimes make.”
I can predict right now that the President’s speech will be a profound disappointment to almost every constituency in Chicago that cares about ending violence. I say this not because I am cynical or despairing but because the President, at his core, seems to embrace the tenets of neoliberal policy and thought. Here in Chicago, the laboratory of educational privatization under the guise of school reform, the Mayor (who is one of the President’s best friends and advisors) is overseeing the closure of perhaps as many as 129 public schools. These proposed school closures are overwhelmingly
concentrated in the same South and West side communities where homicides are at their highest. Parents, educators, students, and community members have been packing CPS-sponsored meetings for weeks now to push back against these proposed closures. They have eloquently explained that closing their neighborhood schools will exacerbate the violence rather than reduce it. Their pleas are sure to fall on mostly deaf ears. It is impossible to imagine the President speaking up in favor of these community members’ concerns. It is impossible to imagine that he will stand in solidarity with us against the privatization of our public institutions. Instead it is much more likely that we’ll hear him praise his friend the Mayor for his “commitment to education.”
In anticipation of the President’s visit, the Mayor and his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy have already rushed out proposals for new gun laws including an increase in mandatory minimum sentences. The Chicago City Council has already, in record time, approved a new ordinance to impose more penalties for gun infractions. In Chicago, black and brown youth are already disproportionately targeted by gun laws. There is no reason to think that President Obama will mention the disproportionate minority contact with the criminal legal system in his remarks. If anything, I expect that he will “talk tough” on crime. It’s what sells. Damn the consequences of such rhetoric even if it serves to dramatically increase the numbers of black and brown youth in jails and prisons.
In a city where the relationship between the police and communities of color is one of hostility and mistrust, I would not be surprised if the President makes a pitch to put more law enforcement in “hot spots” across Chicago. There will be no mention of the rampant corruption in the Chicago Police Department in the President’s speech. I also don’t expect that he will mention the 57 people shot by law enforcement in this city in 2012. For good measure, I expect the President to chastise Southside and Westside residents for the “no-snitching” code. The local and national media have devoted countless words and hours of airtime to dissecting the “pathology” of community residents who refuse to cooperate with law enforcement to “solve” open crime cases. This behavior is portrayed as curious and aberrant. “What is WRONG with these people?” almost every report that I’ve seen implies. This recent Miami Herald editorial exemplifies the tone of most of the coverage:
“Refusing to cooperate with the police is not only a form of moral cowardice, but a self-inflicted wound for witnesses who remain silent. It leaves criminals free to commit more crimes. The next time, the silent witness may be the victim, and no one who might have seen that crime will dare speak up to point the finger of guilt.”
The moralizing by the Miami Herald is likely to pale in comparison to the words that will be uttered by the President tomorrow as he speaks about parenting and personal responsibility. I anticipate that he will go into full Bill Cosby mode on these matters. He will surely win plaudits from mostly white commentators and pundits for “telling black folks the truth about themselves.” After all, dysfunctional black families have been blamed for almost every social ill impacting the community for generations. One of the President’s favorite tropes is to call out “absentee black fathers.” He often does this in speeches directed at the black community. We can be certain that structural oppression will not come up at all. The words racism and endemic discrimination won’t be uttered you can be assured.
The President is unlikely to arrive today with a new jobs plan. Yet this is precisely what’s most needed in Chicago, a city where the poverty rate keeps rising with no relief in sight. But the President won’t be bringing any jobs with his speech. About the most significant root cause of violence, poverty, the President will be reduced to platitudes. At this point, this is mostly not his fault. He can tinker at the edges. However, ultimately he can only propose but the Congress must dispose. Bruce Hartford gets at why the President can’t achieve economic justice for the masses. And here it’s important to turn the mirror on ourselves. Poverty exists not only because of a lack of opportunity but as Hartcourt writes: “it’s also caused by lack of power to change the systems, policies, and practices that create and continually recreate poverty.” In other words, we might have a shot at a 21st century WPA program if we could mobilize a social movement that demands it. For now, that movement has yet to materialize. But people are building in pockets across the country. Not enough people yet, but some.
Finally, I expect that the President will speak movingly and eloquently about all of the young lives lost to what will certainly be described as “senseless” violence. He will rightly re-eulogize Hadiya Pendleton and perhaps he will add another couple of less well-known names. He is likely to underscore that these were “good” kids with their lives stretching before them brimming with limitless possibilities. He might invoke the American dream and patriotism.
Perhaps we may also hear about those young people who live outside of the dream; those who pick up guns and sometimes shoot others. I would like to believe that the President will root his words in compassion for these young people. I wonder if we might hear words similar to the ones written by Tribune columnist Mary Schmick: “It’s difficult to see villains as people too, but it’s important. Only when we see the forces that shape bad behavior can we begin to fix it.” Schmick also described the cycle of violence that enmeshed the lives of the young men who are accused of killing Hadiya Pendleton:
“The story, of course, goes back much more than three years. It goes back to when these murder suspects were kids, to before they were born. It reaches deep into the decades, into the cycles of poverty and prison that have left generations of children growing up in jobless neighborhoods where fathers are absent and gangs are a form of family.”
Can we hope for similar words from the President today in Chicago? I doubt it.
So when the President speaks this afternoon, I won’t be watching. It’s not a protest. It’s just that I know that a speech can’t uproot oppression. Only a movement can do that.