My teenage son is a college student in Chicago, where so far this school year at least 36 children and teens have been murdered, a rate of about one a week. It is a sad story only made sadder because the hopelessness of the situation shares the same geographic and psychic space as the enormous hope that Barack Obama represents. Chicago gave us Obama, and now it’s taking away our children.
More sobering than the macro-ironies, of course, are the facts that there is no real, or reasonable, explanation for carnage, and that no one is immune. My son, a second-year, dean's list student, is so terrified by the violence that he worries about going to visit his grandmother (and my mom) in the South Side neighborhood where he spent so much time as a child.
Indeed, these are times and concerns far different from what I experienced on those same streets as a free-spirited, do-as-you-please, high school athlete who freely roamed the city in search of the best pickup game the season might bring. It makes one fret about whether there's any place where a kid can still really be a kid and live to talk about it.
I live in Brooklyn now, thousands of miles away from protecting my only son. I worry that when Glenn Jr. travels to visit my mom, he has to make a point of being back home before nightfall. “I still know pretty much everyone in the neighborhood, so once I'm on the block things are pretty much as they've always been,” he insists. “It's all the travel it takes to get there that makes things so hard.”
The mean streets of the city are suddenly becoming even meaner. “For whatever reasons, in different neighborhoods certain guys feel they own the streets," adds Glenn Jr. "Then there are all the followers—guys who, although they don't know me or anything about me, are more than willing to make a name for themselves at my expense. That's where all the senselessness comes in.”
With former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan now the secretary of education, the Obama administration should be well aware of the deadly dilemma. Still, others are starting to wonder aloud just why its response to the outbreak has been so tepid.
Had 36 kids died of swine flu in a single city, "There would be this great influx of resources that say, 'Let's stop this, let's deal with this,' " the Rev. Michael Pfleger told CNN recently. But because the epidemic is being driven by violence, “We're hiding it. We're ignoring it. We're denying the problems." Pfleger ordered that the American flag be flown upside down at St. Sabina’s parish, where he is the pastor, as a symbol of distress.
Symbolism aside, the reality remains that since 2007 a monument erected by Kids Off the Block to honor slain school-age children is now engraved with 153 names. And some of the victims have been as young as 10.
“President Obama can't walk the streets with us,” said Glenn Jr. “The sad reality is, even in this time of Obama, the only people that can govern our streets, make them safe for all of us to come and go, are the people that live there.”
Glenn Minnis is a New York writer.