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Jennifer Kirby/MEDILL

Community members left flyers with Hadiya Pendleton's photo on the street outside her high school after a Feb. 1 march.

Chicagoans hope President Obama can rewrite our city's 'story after story' of gun deaths

by Jennifer Kirby
Feb 14, 2013

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Jennifer Kirby/MEDILL

If we had taken action sooner, Aisha Truss-Miller said, maybe Hadiya's life could have been spared. "Another family wouldn't have gone through the pain that my family went through."

There’s less than a mile between Harsh Park and the 800 block of East 45th Street. Just a short walk, then, between the place where Hadiya Pendleton was killed last month and the street where 17-year-old Leonard Truss was gunned down this summer. Both are now landmarks to Chicago’s lost youth.

“It’s like [if] my little cousin could be the last young person to die of gun violence then his life wouldn’t have been in vain,” said Aisha Truss-Miller. “That wasn’t the case.”

Truss-Miller said Hadiya’s murder, just a few blocks from her cousin’s, triggered trauma. She was fed up.

“After him there’s been so many, and after Hadiya there will be so many,” Truss-Miller said. “What the hell are we going to do about it? What is the community in Chicago going to do about it? What is our nation going to do about it? As a collective, what are we going to do about it?”

Truss-Miller said it needs to change, and calls on President Obama to push for that change in his speech Friday afternoon at Hyde Park Academy at 6220 S. Stony Island Ave. on Chicago’s South Side. She joined with the Black Youth Project, an action-group and online resource, to petition President Obama through to speak in Chicago and address head-on the city’s crisis of gun violence.

“It’s time to speak openly and honestly about the root causes of gun violence in Chicago, the institutional violence that young people of color are faced with in Chicago,” she said.

The president will talk about the tragedy of gun violence in Chicago and in communities across the country in his Friday remarks, a White House official said Thursday. But this visit to his hometown is part of a weeklong trip to promote policies outlined Tuesday in the State of the Union address. He will focus on ways to strengthen the economy for the middle class and other Americans striving to get there.

Those economic issues -- poverty, lack of living wage jobs, education – all feed into Chicago’s sustained gunfire. It’s not just about firearms, said Dallas Donnell, of the Black Youth Project. Obama, he said, needs to take on “the systemic issues that impede the life chances of black and Latino youth in Chicago that perpetuate the violence we’re seeing on the South and West sides.”

Truss-Miller agreed, saying a holistic approach was the only solution to the gunshots on Chicago streets. “No one is exempt,” she said. “No community is exempt from this. It’s about black or Latino America, but it’s about us as a nation of people, together.”

More than 48,000 people signed the petition, many telling how the pull of a trigger left them without sisters and uncles, friends and students. Like Janea McEwen, 31, of Dolton. McEwen hung up with her boyfriend, Willie Stallworth, at 10:18 p.m. on June 4, 2012. Less than 10 minutes later, he was dead. An alleged robbery attempt, outside a Walgreens in West Englewood.

“It’s crushing, crushing of your spirit, I don’t care who it is: child, husband, wife or whatever,” McEwen said. “To lose someone in the prime of their life just because somebody wanted what they had or because they felt like shooting that day, that’s not something we should take lightly.”

But the president’s words won’t be enough. “He’s got to get out and do something,” McEwen said. “Just talking about it, we’re beyond that. It don’t work anymore, we see that.”

Meredith Bawden, a high school English teacher at Team Englewood Community Academy High School, said all her students deal with violence. It’s not just about a shooting, or a student gunned down, but the danger that sticks to the neighborhood. They have to get home by 4 p.m., she said, to stay safe.

This is the every day for Bawden’s students. Leonard Truss and Willie Stallworth were two of the city’s more than 500 murders in 2012. This January was bloodied by more than 40 deaths, Hadiya Pendleton’s among them. But many wonder if the president’s visit marks a shift for Chicago, or if it is just another chapter in the city’s prolonged battle against the bullets, and their aftermath.

Donnell said it doesn’t hinge on the president or a single speech. His visit will infuse this city with energy and heighten momentum as its residents try to combat the violence. But it’s really the community, its activists and everyday individuals, who will take on this work, he said.

Like Truss-Miller, who will be in Obama’s audience at Hyde Park Academy, her own high school.

“I think every time we lift our voices, it’s a possibility,” Truss-Miller said. “[But] are we going to keep up with the moment? Are we, as a collective, going to step out of our comfort zones, out of our box, out of our zip codes and do what we can for the youth?”

She said there is a sense of hope. People are ready to move.

“I just can’t be silent about the issues,” she said. “I had my time to mourn my cousin’s life, and his death will not be in vain. I’m ready to hold myself, and everyone else, accountable.”

But there is also hopelessness. The reality of turning on the news and seeing another person shot, Truss-Miller said.

Another life snapped short, another family planning a funeral.

It’s story, after story, McEwen said. “I hope people get tired of going to funerals for kids, going to funerals for 20- and 30-year-olds,” she said.

“I hope people get tired of going to cemeteries. I hope people get tired of that."