A president from Chicago, an Education Secretary who ran the Chicago schools, a chief of staff from Chicago and two senior advisers from the city are stuck with a horrific reality: students who attend the Chicago public schools are getting killed and wounded in an epidemic of youth violence.
The latest victim is a 16-year-old Fenger High School honors student, Derrion Albert.
The Obama administration is taking on the job of trying to figure out how to stop young thugs from beating, shooting and murdering children--in Chicago in particular and the rest of the nation in general.
Obama decided to take some ownership of the situation after Albert was beaten to death on Sept. 24. At least four young men, ages 16, 17,18 and 19, are suspected of killing the student with a piece of wood and their fists on the far South Side, a few miles from the neighborhoods Obama worked in as a community organizer.
Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago on Wednesday to meet with Mayor Daley, local leaders, and Fenger students.
During a press conference at City Hall, officials announced a $500,000 grant to help make Fenger and the schools that feed into it safer. Daley, Holder and Duncan had breakfast at the swank Four Seasons Hotel off Michigan Avenue with religious and community leaders to discuss youth violence.
I'm told by an administration source that the idea for Holder and Duncan to visit Chicago in the wake of the Albert murder came from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, one of the many Chicagoans in the Obama administration.
The murder is getting national attention, in part, because it was video recorded on a cellphone, which makes it a better story for the endless news loop on cable television. To paraphrase Duncan, it takes a video to wake up a nation.
Said Holder, "Nearly two weeks ago, this nation was shocked -- shocked -- by a video showing scenes of such graphic violence that they've left an indelible mark in the mind of every American who has seen them. Now, for many Americans who live with the threat of violence every day, the video was a sad reminder of the harshness and the cruelty that remains all too prevalent in many parts of this country. For others, it was a stark wake-up call to a reality that can be easy to -- for too many to ignore as they go about their daily lives. For me, and for this administration, it was a call to action, to address a challenge that affects this entire nation."
But even without the video, Chicago was in trouble. In the 2008-2009 school year, 45 Chicago public school students were murdered; add to that five kids who were killed since the new school year started on Sept. 8.
Holder and Duncan tried not to make their visit too Chicagocentric, perhaps because the White House is coming off the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid last week when Obama and First Lady Michelle flew to Copenhagen for the final sales pitch, only to have Chicago come in last. Last Friday, Duncan was on Air Force One, making the round trip to Copenhagen with the president.
On Wednesday, Duncan was back where his big-time career started in Mayor Daley's City Hall. I have a sense that the Obama White House may be a little sensitive about back-to-back boosts for Chicago. To address that, Holder noted that youth violence is everywhere and impacts everyone.
"Youth violence is not a Chicago problem, any more than it is a black problem, a white problem, or a Hispanic problem. It is something that affects communities big and small, and people of all races and all colors. It is an American problem," he said at City Hall.
If the language sounds familiar, here's what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week, in announcing the Holder and Duncan visit. "This isn't a Chicago problem; this is violence. Youth violence is a problem throughout our country," Gibbs said.
As Duncan noted, "Chicago is not unique. Four students have been shot in Tulsa, Okla., already this year. Philadelphia, Seattle, Miami, New Orleans, and many rural communities have also lost schoolchildren to violence in recent weeks."
Daley was pleased the Obama cavalry rode into his town in to help.
"The needless and brutal violence that continues to take our children from us is an outrage. Even one child lost to violence is one too many in our city. I am very thankful that it is also the outrage of administration leaders in Washington, D.C.," Daley said.
At the Four Seasons breakfast, Daley said they talked about "how best to focus our resources on the young people and the families who need help the most without sacrificing other priorities; the importance of offering more Saturday and after-school programs at local schools, where our young people can learn and take part in other positive activities; how to get more adults involved with our young people as mentors; and how to more effectively tell the success stories. And I see the success stories involving many young people and families who can serve as role models for their peers in every community of our city."
The Obama White House, even without the Chicago violence, has been tackling youth crime. Last August there was a White House gang violence prevention and crime control conference. A Justice Department study released Wednesday found that more than 60 percent of children surveyed were directly or indirectly exposed to violence in the last year -- victims of robbery, vandalism, theft or sexual assault.
"Now, we're here today to continue a public-safety conversation that the Obama administration began on day one," Holder said. "But it's not a conversation where we want to do all of the talking. We want to listen to educators, to parents, to students and to experts in the field and find out the best ideas for addressing this urgent problem. We're not interested in just scratching the surface or focusing on generalities, and as we delve into this problem we're not going to protect any sacred cows. We're here to learn firsthand what's happening on our streets so that we can devise effective solutions," he said.
Duncan, a Chicago native, added, "Chicago won't be defined by this incident, but rather by our response to it. So I came here today to join with all of you, and with communities across America, for a national conversation on values. It's a conversation that should happen in every city, in every suburb, in every town in America where violence and intolerance and discrimination exist."
Taking questions afterwards, my Chicago colleagues cut to the chase with Duncan. Some of those 45 murders in the 2008-2009 school year happened on Duncan's watch, after all.
"Secretary Duncan, you could have given that speech a couple of years ago here in Chicago," a reporter said.
Said Duncan, "We did, yeah."
"And perhaps -- yes, you did. I've heard you say those things many times. What's different now? What can the federal government do now to change the situation," Duncan was asked.
His response: "Well, it's not just about the federal government. It's about what all of us do differently. What's different, and I think this is probably actually heartbreaking that it takes capturing a death on video to awake the country. Nothing against anyone here, but we were dealing with children being shot every single day. We never saw a crowd like this ever. And so something about seeing something on video seems to wake up this country.
"And we should use this moment, whether we're going to critique the past, whatever, we should use this moment to go forward together, that this is a fork in the road. This is a line in the sand, and we have to get dramatically better. And it's all of us stepping up. Nobody gets a pass."