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Growing clamor for Obama to visit Chicago, address city's violence

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 9:42 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — When times are tough, the distraught have long sought comfort in an old church hymn.

"In times like these," the song goes, "you need a savior."

In Chicago communities overwhelmed by violence, some people are now singing a different tune. In times like these, they say, we need our president.

With each new victim added to the city's homicide roster, calls for President Barack Obama to visit Chicago and speak out on the issue have grown louder. The death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot last week in a North Kenwood park, cranked up the volume.

What began as gentle pleas for a little attention from the White House has turned into demands that the president hop on Air Force One, stocked with its usual horde of national media, and get to Chicago.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson led relatives of slaying victims on a South Side march last weekend, calling for Obama to come to Chicago and focus attention on the problems at home. A petition on the White House's "We the People" website urges the president and first lady to attend Hadiya's funeral Saturday.

Some might think that's too much to ask. But it wouldn't be the first time the president has shown up at a service to make a point about gun violence. Two years ago, he and first lady Michelle Obama traveled to Tucson, Ariz., to attend a memorial for victims of a shooting that killed six and injured 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Some Chicagoans think the president has even a greater reason to attend Hadiya's funeral. She was just back from participating in a presidential inaugural event near Washington when she was killed in Kenwood, the community that the president calls home.

If that doesn't get him to Chicago, they ask, what will?

So far, the president hasn't had much to say about Hadiya's death, though a White House spokesman has said the president and first lady's thoughts and prayers are with the teen's family.

In a city where homicides claimed more than 500 lives last year and the January toll kept up the murderous pace, people are desperate for answers. They hunger for reassurance that the lives of minority children in Chicago are as valued as the lives of white children in the suburbs. They long to know that the nation has their back and that they aren't lone warriors in the battle to save them.

In times like these, they want their president to act presidential.

They want him to comfort families of slain children here, just as he did in Newtown, Conn., after 26 people were shot to death in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

They want to hear the same promise made to grieving Sandy Hook parents, in the encouraging voice that only the commander in chief can provide, that he will use "whatever power" he has to end the shootings.

In African-American communities where gun violence is rampant, people want something extra from the first black president. They want him to say publicly to young men, as one black man to another: Put down your guns.

"If the president told them to put down their guns, they'd do it," said Juandalyn Holland, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a community support group. Holland told me the president is the one person young people truly respect, and they are looking for his leadership.

To many of us, it's hard to believe that anyone, even the president, has the power to stop the violence. But in desperate times, anything seems worth a try.

The people calling on their president aren't all that concerned about how a visit to Chicago might play out politically on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's turf. And some African-Americans have put aside their concerns about publicly criticizing the president. Until his re-election last November, few leaders in the black community were willing to call out the president.

Now they are. They say it's not enough to simply mention Chicago in passing, as he did in Newtown.

"As a country, we have been through this too many times," the president said. "Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, these children are our children."

Now, even some of Obama's staunchest supporters are calling for a full-court press in Chicago. They are lobbying for Chicago to become more than just a footnote in the national conversation about gun violence.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a longtime anti-violence activist on the South Side, is urging Obama to bring his bully pulpit to Chicago. Where the president goes, resources follow, said Pfleger, who preached about that Sunday at St. Sabina Catholic Church.

"Let's be realistic," Pfleger told me Monday. "We have become an America used to black and brown children being shot and killed. It's almost an expectation that that happens in those communities.  The president can be a unifying force in America by saying: These are America's children."

Pfleger would like to see the president make an important urban policy speech in Chicago. But others say the important thing is that he come here, even if he simply repeats what he said in Newtown.

"Surely, we can do better than this," Obama told the nation then. "We have an obligation to try."

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