Last Friday, February 15th, President Obama came to Chicago and addressed the city’s gun violence crisis. Many across the city and country had called on the President to come to Chicago and give such a speech. As those familiar with the Black Youth Project already know, we lent our voice to that effort by launching a petition asking the President to come to Chicago and give a major speech on gun violence that would provide a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of this epidemic, as well as a plan of action. Incredibly, in about 13 days we were able to secure nearly 50,000 signatures on our petition.
On Friday eleven members of the BYP sat in Hyde Park Academy’s gymnasium to hear the President’s remarks. Members of our crew included young people whose lives have been deeply impacted by gun violence. We did not sit on the floor of the auditorium with the elected officials, university presidents, and members of the clergy. Instead, we sat in the bleachers with the other young people, their parents, and those engaged in daily work to end gun violence.
President Obama’s speech included points with which we strongly agree. For example, the President discussed how all children make bad decisions, but some young people have a stronger safety net, ensuring that bad decisions early in life do not harm their futures. President Obama noted that even he had made bad decisions as a young man, but his mother and grandparents were able to respond with needed resources to protect him from long term harm. Sadly, too many of our children do not have such a privileged safety net.
The President also made the case for investing in communities, acknowledging that issues such as poverty, unemployment and failing schools deplete the communities where gun violence is rampant. Without radically bolstering the opportunities and resources as well as the psychological supports and encouragements available to young people in their communities, we will never fully address the issue of gun violence.
However, there were also elements of the President’s speech that we strongly contest. President Obama focused a considerable amount of time on the issue of families as an important underlying factor of gun violence, suggesting that his administration would provide incentives for individuals to get married. This seems to us like the warmed-over, ill-conceived policies of the Bush administration, when then-President Bush initiated a program of tax incentives to encourage poor people to get married. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Furthermore, with the limited resources available, we believe they would be put to better use for much-needed job training and placement programs for black and Latino youth who suffer from extraordinary unemployment. They should be invested in models of education that speak to the lived experience of marginalized youth. The government should use its resources to help coordinate the efforts of community-based organizations, city, state and federal officials trying to respond to gun violence, maximizing their efforts and efficiency.
The federal government should continue to pursue stricter gun control legislation to rid our streets of illegal guns. But the government also should invest in community workers who can walk the streets and help to deescalate encounters headed toward violence; and facilitate discussions in communities, schools and faith-based communities about how we each can contribute to stopping the violence.
When we asked President Obama to come to Chicago and talk about gun violence, we never believed that he could solve this crisis alone. Instead, we believed then as we do now that it was important for the President to bring national attention to this issue. We also believed that it was critical that he signal to the world that our children’s lives are just as precious as those lost in other random and senseless acts of violence in the suburbs. Our young people—all of them, not a chosen few—deserve the President’s attention. Finally, we wanted the President to come to Chicago because we believed his visit would open up new and more pointed dialogues about what must be done to save our children’s lives.
The Black Youth Project will continue to work to hold city and state officials and President Obama accountable regarding the ongoing crisis of gun violence in our communities. We will continue to work to ensure that the voices of community members – and particularly young people – are heard as potential policies and programs are discussed and implemented. And we are committed to working with any and all individuals and organizations committed to stemming the tide of violence and combating the systemic challenges that threaten the lives of Black and Latino youth.
The President’s visit was one moment in a longer struggle to radically improve the lives of black and Latino youth. Now that the President has come and gone we all have work to do!