In the wake of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in southern Oregon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., held a press conference on Monday, Oct. 5, at his Rainbow/PUSH headquarters on the city’s South Side to urge President Barack Obama to convene a White House conference on gun violence in Chicago.
Jackson was flanked by about a dozen other community leaders, religious leaders and elected officials, including Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of Saint Sabina Church, Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (D-1st).
The leaders represented a fraction of the attendees who showed up for an emergency meeting on gun violence held there earlier in the day.
“The president said there’s so much killing in our country — whether it is in Sandy Hook or Oregon or Charleston — we’ve become numb. In Chicago, we are not numb, we’re terrified. We cannot be heard,” said Jackson, who called for a state of emergency in Chicago.
Jackson also juxtaposed the national attention of mass shootings in Chicago with those that occur in other, less urban, parts of the country.
According to the Guardian’s Mass Shooting Tracker website, there have been close to a thousand mass shootings — defined, as the Chicagoist points out, as incidents involving at least four people wounded — since Jan. 1, 2013. Of the nearly 50 mass shootings that occurred last month, five of them took place in Chicago. Jackson said there have been several recent shootings near his organization’s South Side headquarters.
“Our crisis right now is guns coming in at an exorbitant level, drugs are coming in from outside the city and jobs are going out — that’s a lethal combination. We need help now,” Jackson said. “While we are concerned about the killing in Oregon — and we ought to be … Chicago has an Oregon every weekend.”
“We know where [the guns] are manufactured. In Barrington, downstate. We know where they are sold. We know where they are straw-purchased,” Jackson said. “We know who gets killed. If we were in Afghan today and we knew where the guns killing American soldiers were manufactured, who made the bullets, who transferred them — we’d break up the trail.”
“Parts of my district — Austin, North Lawndale, East and West Garfield, Maywood — have become war zones,” Boykin said. “Individuals aren’t safe walking down the streets. People won’t even let their kids go out and play. They won’t let them leave the porch, because of a fear of being shot.”
Those gathered at Monday’s press conference advocated for a comprehensive set of long-term solutions, many of which have been proposed before. Jackson called for more funding for job-training, mental health and drug treatment resources on the city’s South and West Sides.
State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-31st) called for a financial transactions tax. All of those in attendance were in agreement that local, state and federal governments have not responded sufficiently to the chronic disinvestment in poor inner-city neighborhoods.
“If we take a community where you have 30 percent or more unemployment, you have poor schools, you have abandoned houses, you have no economic development, you have no options and opportunities for young people and you tell them, ‘Value yourself,'” said Pfleger. “But we’re a society that tells our young people every day that we don’t value you.”
But the deeper purpose of that afternoon’s press conference may have been to integrate Chicago’s gun violence problems into the national concern about mass gun shootings that has developed in light of the Oregon incident.
“We should not blacken the face of this crisis,” Jackson said, referencing what he considered the media’s differential treatment of shootings in African American communities.
“When Sandy Hook occurred, the media went ballistic, [saying] ‘We must do something.’ Well, Chicago existed before Sandy Hook … It seems to me we have adjusted to the pain in [the black] community,” Jackson said.
“If unemployment was 30 percent on the North Side, if you had blocks and blocks of vacant homes on the North Side, you’d call it an urban crisis, assuming that something was wrong with the structure — not that something was wrong with the people.”
Rev. Acree, who participated in the emergency meeting held before the press conference, said there were other solutions that were offered, but the White House conference topped the list.
“We’re urging everybody that’s not here to join this rainbow coalition, because we are serious about ending this epidemic of violence in our city as well as across the nation,” said Acree.
Jackson and others who spoke during the press conference didn’t detail how exactly they’d pull off persuading the president to convene a meeting in Chicago; nor did they address questions of timeliness.
Obama’s final term is swiftly coming to an end. If a conference does land here, there would have to be concrete policy ideas to come of it and it’s not certain that those policy proposals will have any teeth once the president is out of office.
Commissioner Boykin did say that he’ll work to pass a resolution at the county level calling for the president to convene a gun violence conference here. He also said various elected officials, and religious and community leaders, have agreed to write letters to the White House.
“I’m hoping we’ll put enough pressure on him to get it done. I think the president wants to do something. I think he has to do something,” Boykin said.
A previous version of this article mistakenly noted the district represented by state Rep. Mary Flowers. Austin Weekly News regrets this error.