Obama returns to Chicago, a city scarred by gun violence

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Crosses, each bearing the name of a murder victim, sit on the sidewalk along Michigan Avenue before the start of a Dec. 31 march to call attention to Chicago’s rising murder rate. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

President Obama will take the stage Tuesday night in his adopted hometown of Chicago, where he will deliver what aides have described as a farewell speech celebrating the achievements of his eight years in office.

But as Obama returns to Chicago for what will be his final time as president, he does so against the backdrop of a city rocked by historic levels of violence. Last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, 781 people were killed — the highest homicide rate since 1996, when 796 people were murdered.

A majority of the deaths were attributed to an explosion of violence on the city’s South and West sides, where the echo of gunfire has become a daily way of life. More than 4,300 people were shot last year in what police have described as a plague of gun violence that has surged out of control. That’s a major increase over 2015, when there were 2,989 shooting victims and 492 homicides — statistics that, even then, ranked above other large cities.

And though Chicago police have long looked to the city’s brutal winter to temporarily pause the gang feuds that many blame for the uptick in shootings, the disturbing pace of violence has continued. Since Jan. 1, more than 70 people have been shot and at least a dozen killed—including two Monday night, on the eve of Obama’s speech.

The bloodshed in Chicago comes in contrast to the rest of the country, where other major cities have experienced decreases in violent crime. In 2016, Chicago had more homicides than New York and Los Angeles combined — despite the fact that, as the nation’s third largest city, it has a smaller population than either one.

The seemingly unending violence has caused despair in already struggling neighborhoods, where residents say they feel under siege in a way that few Americans could truly understand. With the shootings happening at all hours of the day, many are scared to go outside even in broad daylight. On Monday, a man was shot in the street just after 11 a.m. on the South Side, a few miles from the Obama family home near Hyde Park and not far from where the outgoing chief executive plans to set up his presidential library.

A Chicago Police officer, left, watches as an evidence technician officer investigates a gun at the scene where a 16-year-old boy was shot in the head and killed and another 18-year-old man was shot and wounded on the 7300 block of South Sangamon Street on April 25, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

That proximity has caused mixed feelings among Chicago residents who are proud of Obama but who also feel forgotten and overlooked by him and the rest of the country. Many here look to Obama — who got his start as a community organizer here, and whose wife, Michelle, grew up in South Chicago — as someone who knows better than others the problems plaguing the city. They question why he hasn’t done more to help.

But in a hint of their complicated feelings about Obama and his legacy, they are also hesitant to criticize someone they revere — which, in some ways, has added to the sense of despair. “If [Obama] can’t help us, who can?” said the mother of a shooting victim who declined to be named because she didn’t want her neighbors to see her quoted criticizing the president.

On the eve of Obama’s appearance, many in the most dangerous neighborhoods declined to comment, including a prominent activist who told Yahoo News, “If you don’t have anything good to say, you shouldn’t talk at all.”

Chicago’s violence is a complicated issue that existed long before Obama headed to the White House. For decades, people in the city have struggled to combat the factors they say have combined to cause the brutal decline of the inner city, including poverty, easy access to guns and mutual distrust between residents and the police.

As president, Obama tried and failed to pass stricter gun control laws that he and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his former chief of staff, argued would have helped stem some of the out-of-control violence in the city. But Obama has acknowledged the issue is much deeper than guns, suggesting in an exit interview last week with Chicago’s NBC affiliate that there is no “silver-bullet answer” for how to solve the city’s epidemic of bloodshed.

“It appears to be a combination of factors: the nature of gang structures or lack of structure in Chicago, the way that police are allocated, in some cases the need for more police, the easy accessibility of guns, pockets of poverty that are highly segregated,” Obama said.

Though Obama has frequently cited the need for gun control and made it a central plank of his campaign for Hillary Clinton to succeed him in the White House, the interview marked the president’s first comments on Chicago’s violence in months. In pushing for gun measures, the president has primarily mentioned mass shootings, such as the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 first-graders and six adults dead — an incident that he’s described as the most difficult day of his presidency.

Last January, Obama likened Newtown to Chicago in passing during a White House event. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad,” he said. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

His cheek wet with tears, President Barack Obama President Barack Obama recalls the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, while speaking in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But that comment was one of the last times Obama spoke publicly about Chicago’s violence, even as the murder rate rose to historic levels. That has upset some in his adopted hometown who think he hasn’t done enough to call attention to the ongoing tragedy.

Against this backdrop is Donald Trump, who regularly cited Chicago in his stump speech last year. Trump, who campaigned in Chicago but bypassed a chance to see the most dangerous neighborhoods for himself, has likened the city to a “war zone” and pledged to help residents there by bringing jobs and development to the inner city.

Pressed last week on the issue, Obama insisted to NBC Chicago that he has been “pushing everybody that has impact on criminal justice issues” to try to figure out what can be done to help.

“I’ve assigned my Justice Department to work directly with the mayor’s office to provide them additional incentives, resources, best practices,” Obama said, adding that he’s approached the issue “as a citizen who has a deep interest in Chicago.” At the same time, Obama pointed to personal initiatives he’s launched to help at-risk youth, including the My Brother’s Keeper program, which he will maintain as part of his post-White House legacy.

That hasn’t been enough for some. Last week, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, a frequent critic of Obama, lambasted the president ahead of Tuesday’s farewell speech for using the city “as a prop.” “For all his talk, he has no answers for Chicago, or for its failing institutions or for the blood running in the streets,” Kass wrote.

But Obama allies have defended the president, saying he tried to help his hometown but realized the limited scope of the presidency. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, a longtime friend and adviser to Obama, said he and the president had talked “over and over again” about trying to figure out an answer for how they might be able to dramatically shift the dynamic of violence. But they had come to realize there was no simple solution.

“It’s almost as difficult as Syria,” Durbin told the paper.