Even by Chicago’s grim standards, gun violence in America’s third-most-populous city has reached something of a tipping point this month with deaths that have captured the nation’s attention, unnerved the mayor and even shut down part of its infrastructure.
On Jan. 14, two lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway, a central commuter artery, had to be closed after a fatal shooting incident spilled onto the highway. Two days later, a 17-year-old was mortally wounded in the back while fleeing a fight after a basketball game featuring Jabari Parker, one of the nation’s top high school players. And then there was this week.
The Jan. 29 fatal shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton a mile from President Barack Obama’s South Side home was the latest to complicate his drive for stricter gun-control measures, with such violence spiraling in a place with some of the nation’s toughest laws. It also has threatened the political stature of Mayor Rahm Emanuel by undermining his city’s sense of security.
“Nobody knows what to do -- nothing seems to be working,” said John McCarron, an urban affairs writer and adjunct professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Incidents such as Pendleton’s death are “an embarrassment” to Emanuel because it shows his inability to reduce violence in Obama’s hometown.
Pendleton, who had attended the president’s inauguration in Washington earlier this month, died after taking shelter from the rain with other students near King College Prep High School, where she was a band majorette and played volleyball. She was shot in the back, and a 16-year-old boy was wounded by a gunman who sped away in a car, police said.
The mid-afternoon shooting occurred beneath a metal canopy in a small park with brightly painted playground equipment. The violence belied the tidy order of a street with restored brownstones and newly constructed brick townhouses.
“People go to work and take care of their kids” here, said Reggie Jones, assistant band director at Pendleton’s school. “This is mind-boggling because you wouldn’t expect to see this happen in this environment. Not around here.”
Friends and relatives described Pendleton as a solid, disciplined student who smiled a lot and wanted to be a lawyer. “She never showed fear,” Jones said.
Standing in the park a few feet away from the shooting site, Vakiya Bedford, 17, said her cousin was determined to succeed because that’s what was taught at home. “Her parents were the type to make sure you’re studying and getting your homework done -- work before play,” Bedford said.
“Nothing pains you more than calling a fellow parent to try to comfort them,” Emanuel said during an unrelated news conference yesterday, displaying emotion. “She is what is best in our city. A child going to school, who takes a final exam, who had just been to the inaugural. And I think if anybody has any information, you are not a snitch. You’re a citizen.”
The mayor announced today the reassignment of 200 police officers from desk jobs to street duty, joining so-called Area Saturation Teams that focus on gun violence and gang crimes.
“Today’s move is another effort to target gangs and guns in particular areas with every officer we have available,” Emanuel said during a news conference with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
At a news briefing yesterday in the park where Pendleton was shot, McCarthy said his department had little information that would lead them to the killer. Pendleton had no arrest record or any history of gang affiliation, nor did any of the innocent children who were with her, McCarthy said.
“This situation happens all too frequently in the city of Chicago,” said McCarthy, who pleaded for community cooperation in the investigation and offered a reward of at least $11,000 for information leading to the killer. “We have very little to go on.”
From the White House yesterday, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, a native of Chicago’s South Side, are keeping Pendleton’s family in their prayers.
“It’s a terrible tragedy any time a young person is struck down,” Carney said. “This is just another example of the problem we need to deal with.”
Congress is debating ways to curb gun violence after a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults. Obama backs a ban on sales of assault weapons, a proposal that faces opposition in Congress even as most of the public supports it.
Combating gun violence has long been part of the political careers of Emanuel and Obama, a former state senator from the South Side. During his first public remarks after the Dec. 14 Connecticut school massacre, the president said gun violence victims are often “on a street corner in Chicago.”
The pressure on Emanuel and Obama was reflected by Carney responding to the killing and the arrival of police brass at a crime scene in a city that saw more than 500 killings in 2012 -- and already 42 this month.
The president’s hometown and state are on the front line of the struggle to defend some of the same gun-control measures he has urged Congress to support. The 506 homicides last year were the city’s most in four years.
Chicago has some of the nation’s strictest laws against possessing firearms. In December, a federal appeals court here struck down an Illinois law banning loaded guns from being carried except in homes or businesses. The court gave the state, the only one with an outright prohibition on loaded weapons outside the home, 180 days to draft new legislation consistent with public safety and the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
That followed a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Chicago ban on handguns, even for self-defense in a home, that the justices said went too far. The City Council later rewrote the ordinance to comply with the ruling.
Chicago’s murders are typically concentrated in the city’s poorer South and West Side neighborhoods, making it easier for residents in other parts of the city to ignore the issue. Yesterday, the nation’s attention was turned, however briefly, to the Kenwood area where Pendleton was shot.
“You took the light of my life,” her father, Nathaniel Pendleton said, addressing the unidentified killer. “Just look at yourself and know that you took a bright person, an innocent person, a nonviolent person.”
Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, issued two statements yesterday about his efforts to reduce gun violence, though neither was directly tied to Pendleton’s death.
The mayor gets frequent text messages to his mobile phone from McCarthy, updating him on crime statistics.
“People, by and large, are willing to give him a pass on it because there is a growing sense that this is an intractable problem,” McCarron said of Emanuel. “The only ultimate solution is to deal with the poverty problem and somehow get these neighborhoods connected to the mainstream.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Tim Jones in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org; John McCormick in Chicago at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts at firstname.lastname@example.org