A Voice Raised in Chicago
By BOB HERBERT
Senator Barack Obama took his presidential campaign to Chicago Sunday, where he addressed an agonizing issue that has been largely overlooked by the national media — the murder of dozens of the city’s public school students since last September.
Speaking to an overflow crowd of worshipers at the Vernon Park Church of God, Mr. Obama, a resident of Chicago, said:
“I asked to come here because I wanted to talk with you about the spate of violence that’s been robbing the city’s children of their future. In this last school year, 32 Chicago public school students were killed, and even more since the school year ended. This past week alone, two teens were shot in a South Side schoolyard.”
You’ve probably heard more than you wanted to about David Beckham and Posh Spice in recent days, but not a lot about the deaths of these children and teenagers in Chicago. Black, Latino and poor, they are America’s invisible children.
“In one Chicago public school,” said Mr. Obama, “a teacher was calling attendance, and when she got to the name of a particular student who wasn’t there and had missed a lot of classes, she asked if anyone knew where he was. And the answer she got was, ‘He’s dead.’ ”
He mentioned another school: “In Room 104 at Avalon Park Elementary School, an empty chair is pushed against the wall in memory of Quinton Jackson, the eighth grader who used to sit there, and who was stabbed to death a few months ago.”
And he mentioned Blair Holt, 16, who was riding home from school on a city bus when a gunman opened fire. “As the bullets flew, and Blair was shot,” the senator said, “he pulled a friend onto a seat and saved her life. And as he was driven to the hospital, where he would pass away a short time later, he asked the paramedics to tell his parents that he loved them.”
Over the past school year, Mr. Obama said, the number of public school students killed in Chicago was higher than the number of soldiers from the entire state of Illinois who were killed in Iraq during that period.
As I mentioned in a previous column on this issue, Chicago is hardly alone when it comes to the slaughter of youngsters who are living in conditions that can fairly be compared to combat.
“From South-Central L.A. to Newark, New Jersey,” said Senator Obama, “there’s an epidemic of violence that’s sickening the soul of this nation. For the third year in a row, violent crime and murder are on the rise nationwide. As we’ve all borne witness to here in Chicago, this is partly due to the rise of gang violence. The F.B.I. says there are now more gang members on our nation’s streets than police officers.”
The senator talked about the need for more stringent gun control laws, and he criticized the Bush administration for “decimating” a Clinton administration initiative that had added more than 100,000 police officers to local departments.
He said governments need to do more to combat gangs and gang violence and invest more in after-school programs that provide an alternative to the streets for vulnerable youngsters.
But he added, “There is only so much government can do.” There is also a need, he said, “for a change in attitude.”
The senator talked about the young men and boys who have gone down “the wrong path.” And he said one of the main reasons they are wreaking havoc and shooting one another is that they had not received enough attention while growing up from responsible adults.
“We’re not reading to them,” he said. “We’re not sitting down with them and talking to them. We’re not guiding them. We’re not disciplining them.”
In a conversation yesterday, he stressed that the plight of young people struggling in tough environments demands both governmental attention and a heightened sense of individual responsibility. Both are essential.
He said in his speech that he will keep fighting in Washington for more money and more programs. “But that money and those programs,” he said, “will not make any difference unless we have a change of heart.”
He also noted that there was tremendous grief across the country when the massacre at Virginia Tech happened last April, “and rightfully so.” But with 34 schoolkids dead in Chicago since the beginning of the last school year, he said, “for the most part, there has been silence.”
It’s important, he said, that Americans reach a mind-set in which “we care just as much” about the children slain in Chicago as those killed at Virginia Tech.