CHICAGO — At last year's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made an emotional plea for gun control, invoking the more than 1,000 deaths in the two months since the Newtown shooting, including the memory of one fallen Chicago teen.
"One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss," the president eulogized. "She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends they all thought they were her best friend," he continued. "Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house."
Hadiya’s parents Nate and Cleo Pendleton sat with first lady Michelle Obama as the commander in chief talked about their daughter, and about them.
"They deserve a vote," the president said of the mourning parents. "They deserve a vote," his crescendoing voice continued as he referenced the countless other individuals and communities ripped apart by gun violence.
“That was surreal,” Cleo Pendleton told America Tonight, looking back at attending the president's speech. The couple was still an emotional wreck. “We were there, but not present in terms of the emotion of it all and the reason why we actually made it.”
For years now, Chicago has felt like two different planets. On one side, it's a modern metropolis, full of glittering high rises and tourist attractions, symbols of American corporate wealth. On the other, it’s a virtual warzone overrun by drug dealers and gangs.
But it would take Hadiya's death, which touched a nerve in the country after the president's speech, for the epidemic of violence on Chicago's South Side to become a national issue. Suddenly, a spotlight was on the city's murder rate and what could be done to bring it under control. Chicago had become ground zero in the debate over gun control.
A year later, Hadiya’s parents, who have become a symbol for grieving parents nationwide, are among countless Chicagoans working to make their city safer.
But talking to other city residents, they wonder what took so long for the rest of the country to notice. What had happened to Hadiya has happened to thousands of kids over the years.
Veronica Morse-Moore of Southside Together Organizing for Power was angry that it took as long as it did for anyone to notice what was happening on Chicago’s South Side.
“We tend to live in a society where adults care more if they agree with you and your lifestyle, then they’ll be more concerned or they’ll be more compassionate,” she said. “But there’s no concern for the 15-, 13-, 14-year-old boys that are losing their lives every day out here.”
What the city needs, she stressed, are resources and the means to make money in ways other than selling drugs. "It's too easy to get a gun, to get some drugs, and make money," she said. "You close up clinics, you cut back resources as far as food stamps go and health care and all that other stuff. You shut down schools. What do you expect broke people to do other than find the best way that they know how to get money?" she asked.
Fearless Leading by the Youth
You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Chicago’s South Side to see that the area is suffering. Businesses are closed and houses are left vacant. On every block, you see signs of neglect, and just about everyone has been affected by some sort of gun violence.
Candice Denard has spent her whole life here, and she has seen a lot of people die. Her brother Damien was killed by a single gunshot three years ago. Like Hadiya, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He wasn’t blazed up, shot a thousand times. He was shot one time,” Denard said. “If there was a trauma center, he could’ve been saved. He could’ve still been alive today if they had a trauma center.”
What was to blame? "Lack of knowledge. Lack of education. Lack of opportunity," she responded.
It's a sentiment that's echoed by Leronn Johnson, who works with the Target Area Development Corp., a regional grass-roots social justice organization.
"When you have no hope, you gonna stay hopeless. And that's what's going on. No hope, hopelessness," he said. "Hope is this: 'Let me show you how to get back in school.' Young guys that that haven't graduated, let's get you back in school, and let me get you a job while you're going to school."
Changing the culture of gun violence remains an uphill challenge in a city where many young people see their situation as hopeless.
The centerpiece of the president’s response to the violence was to press for more gun control. Those efforts toward reform, however, were mostly blocked last year in Congress, including a bill named in Hadiya's honor that would have clamped down on trafficking and made it harder to purchase a gun.
But advocates say that promises of stricter gun control should not take greater precedence over the call for more prevention and jobs to keep kids off the streets.
“I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be out here selling stuff on the corner if they had a 9-to-5 job to work at,” said Victoria Crider of Fearless Leading by the Youth.
Whatever the cause of the neighborhood’s plight, the South Side is struggling and local leaders say it’s all about the numbers. Chicago has more police officers per capita than any other city, and police say that’s one of the reasons the murder rate has been dropping. Since 2012, the murder rate is down by 18 percent. But not everyone is feeling the difference.
“You said the murder rate is down this year?” Denard asked America Tonight correspondent Christof Putzel. “Due to what statistics? Cause if I had four hands I would be able to count how many people I know whose lives were taken from them [in the last two years].”
The numbers mean even less to those still grieving.
“Right now, we are trying to focus on at-risk kids like the one that killed our daughter,” Nathaniel Pendleton said.
In this divided city, the Pendletons lost their daughter to an epidemic of violence that’s become a way of life. And the question of whether things are better, or are just the same, depends on which Chicago you live in.
“I would never want to share with someone what it’s like to lose a child,” Cleo Pendleton said. “Losing a child is like dying a death that you can’t fully participate in.”
For more information on Hadiya Pendleton’s story, visit the Hadiya Pendleton Foundation.