February 13, 2013
Chicago is brassy and muscular and loves, maybe lives, to strut into most any spotlight. The barons and baronesses of commerce, the occasional Bulls star, a corrupt governor or two, the mono-named TV hostess, the vicious snowstorms — they matter to the world, so the rest of us Chicagoans matter, too. Toured our Art Institute yet? Care to see to Al Capone's grave?
This time, though, Chicago's intrusion on the larger stage made this city look small. Weak. Unable to protect a 15-year-old girl. A president launched from Chicago, by Chicago, spoke her name. As a leader and a parent he looked pained. But he is also a notoriously proud Chicagoan, no doubt grieving Tuesday night over savagery back home that he felt compelled to disdain.
During his State of the Union address he gazed up from the teleprompter to Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton, who had traveled east to hear Barack Obama, not a month after their daughter Hadiya made the same trip to see the president from Chicago inaugurated.
Obama's Chicago, our Chicago, is unhinged now, and rightly embarrassed. The street slaughter won't subside. Tuesday night the nation heard the president channel the agony from households across this metropolis in the context of his push for more rigorous firearms laws:
"In the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun," Obama said. "One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house."
Back home in Chicago, where two suspects had been charged Monday in that slaying, Chicagoans were asking questions about the alleged triggerman. Why was he still on the streets after three arrests while he was on probation for a 2011 gun crime? And about that probation: Was it a lapse in judgment by a too-trusting judge? Or was it a too-common protocol in Cook County courts because of undue leniency that Illinois legislators and governors wrote into our sentencing laws? Did someone fall down? Or does Chicago need public officials to be the fall guys?
The local pols who'll face these questions mourn the Pendleton family's loss, but they also yearn for the day it leaves the front page. Obama's focus Tuesday night prolongs its prominence, as will his trip to Chicago Friday to discuss gun violence and other themes of his address.
That's good. The young victims of Chicago cases that television coverage elevates to national stories — Ben Wilson, Dantrell Davis, Blair Holt, Derrion Albert and too many others — invariably have been all but forgotten. The longer the broken saga of Hadiya Pendleton endures, the likelier that Chicago will remain engaged in trying to quell the violence.
In the past this city has vacillated: In the wake of these heater cases Chicagoans tend to want more laws, tougher enforcement and harsher penalties; other years citizens wary of heavy-handed policing, aggressive prosecution and fast-rising prison head counts want velvet gloves on crime-fighters' fists.
Tuesday night wasn't about resolving those tensions. Nor was it about two priorities for Chicago: strengthening neighborhoods relentlessly victimized by gunplay, and helping parents steer their sons, primarily, away from the gangbangers who terrorize so much of Chicago.
No, Tuesday night was about Washington remembering a child who had come to see Washington.
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