In the spring of 1986, a grassroots organizer named Barack Obama was walking through a trash-strewn playground on Chicago’s South Side when the sound of gunshots pierced the air.
Obama ducked and glanced nervously at John Owens, an activist working for a local nonprofit, who was giving him a tour of the neighborhood’s parks. “He said: ‘You hear that? Whoa’,” Owens, recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, he hasn’t been around here very long’.”
The president’s three-year stretch as a community organizer in an impoverished section of Chicago gave him a first-hand look at how gun violence affects a community. He’s now drawing upon that experience, and the solutions he saw then, as he crafts a second-term agenda in which gun control finally has political momentum after the Dec. 14 shootings at a Connecticut school.
As was the case in Chicago almost three decades ago, the president is seeking a holistic response to urban violence that goes beyond curbing gun use. The echoes of his early approach are evident in the ‘‘promise zones’’ he unveiled last week after his State of the Union address.
The proposal designates 20 communities as laboratories for better coordination of government, private and nonprofit investments. Obama is seeking tax breaks in those areas for employers who hire jobless residents and federal funds to increase law enforcement, expand after-school programs and build housing.
“This is not just a gun issue,” Obama said on Feb. 15, when he returned to Chicago to promote his agenda. “It’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building.”
During his time as an Illinois activist, organizing around the issue of gun control wasn’t a priority because there was already wide agreement in Chicago that the weapons had to be curtailed. Instead, Obama worked to establish a broad base of support for children and families to make the streets safer.
“Barack was a middle-class kid; the level of social problems was eye-opening for him,” said Gerald Kellman, a local activist who brought Obama to Chicago in 1985. “The way that he responded to the youth violence was to try to do something about poverty.”
Working out of a small office that often smelled of cigarette smoke, Obama, then 24, would lean back in his chair, cross his legs and quiz pastors, teachers and parents about their concerns, recalled Loretta Augustine-Herron, who worked with him.
The parks were unsafe and underfunded, Augustine-Herron and others told him, making it dangerous for their children to play and limiting the reach of after-school athletic programs. Looking across the street from his office to rundown Palmer Park, Obama concluded that city officials weren’t giving facilities on the South Side the same resources as the more affluent neighborhoods to the north, Owens recalled.
There was evidence he was right. The city had lost a discrimination lawsuit over park conditions, and Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, that year had wrested control of the system from a political appointee who ran the department by patronage.
Obama reached out to Owens, then a 24-year-old working at Friends of the Parks, an organization trying to improve recreational areas, to gauge the extent of the problem. A South Side native, Owens was happy to spend a spring afternoon showing Obama around. The two men were examining broken glass scattered across a section of Palmer Park when they heard the gunshots.
“What made us sort of flinch on it was the fact that it was in such close proximity,” said Owens. “But you would hear that kind of shooting fairly regularly.”
Obama recounted the incident differently in his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” In his book, he describes hearing “a small pop, compact and brief like a balloon bursting.” The two men dropped flat on the ground, he wrote, and watched several teenage boys run past, one shooting a small pistol.
“Something different was going on with the children of the South Side that spring,” he wrote. An “invisible line had been crossed, a blind and ugly corner turned.’
Obama recruited Owens to his organization, Developing Communities Project, and began working to build a network of after-school events, summer job programs, high school equivalency courses, and employment training for teenagers and young adults. The project took him across the South Side and occasionally into neighborhoods marked by gang violence.
“We were so protective of him. We were like, ‘Don’t go into this neighborhood. This is a bad corner’,” said Augustine-Herron. “But he would always go anyway.”
Months later, when Obama went to Los Angeles with Owens for an organizing training session, he requested a tour of the neighborhoods most overrun by warring gangs. The group went at night and saw young men darting across streets and into alleyways, Owens recalled.
“It was a real experience,” said Owens, in an interview in Roseland, the Chicago neighborhood that was the focus of Obama’s effort. “I was freaked out, and I’m from here.”
Obama raised $125,000 for his program, falling short of his $500,000 goal, according to Owens, before leaving for Harvard Law School. That wasn’t enough to fund the salaries of counselors and pay the rent, he recalled.
“I’m quite certain the impact of those years on Obama was bigger than on the community,” Owens said.
While Obama’s organizing experience in Chicago became a prominent piece of his political narrative, his inaction on guns has haunted his career. He was a reliable vote for gun control as a state senator representing Chicago, yet a missed vote on a package of weapons-safety bills contributed to his 2000 loss to U.S. Representative Bobby Rush -- his first and only defeat.
During his first presidential term, Obama also passed up opportunities to address gun control, even with mass shootings in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and at an event for then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. Instead, he signed laws allowing the public to carry guns into national parks and passengers on Amtrak to pack weapons in their luggage.
That record drew protests from Obama’s old friends and coworkers in Chicago. Posters on the wall of the Effie O. Ellis Early Care & Youth Center, a new community center on the South Side, evaluating the president and Congress on youth violence prevention display a series of “F” grades.
Chicago had become a killing zone, reaching a four-year high of 506 homicides in 2012. The 9th ward, which includes Roseland, saw the number of homicides almost double in the first half of last year.
One victim was Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old drum majorette gunned down in a South Side park just days after she performed at the president’s inauguration. Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral and her parents sat with the first lady during the Feb. 12 State of the Union address, during which Obama memorialized her death.
In the speech, the president described the teenager as a girl who loved “Fig Newtons and lip gloss” and was killed in a park just a mile away from his home. Her death became part of the dramatic refrain of the president’s call for stricter laws. “They deserve a vote,” he chanted to rising applause.
“We’ve been trying to get him to add his voice to the chorus for safe communities that has been around for a while now,” said Rush, a Democrat who still represents the South Side in the House and whose son was killed by gunfire in that community in 1999.
‘Black and Brown’
Yet it was the national outcry after 20 children and six adults were killed in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school that ultimately moved Obama to action.
In Palmer Park, the playground today is strewn with broken beer bottles, candy wrappers and plastic bags. The windows of the historic stone recreation center are covered with plywood. And last May, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the head by a man who approached him in the park on a Thursday evening.
“The terrible truth about the gun violence in Chicago is it’s almost all black and brown people who are dying,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “The difference in Newtown is that it was comfortable white kids. I find it profoundly disturbing to have black and brown kids murdered on a regular basis as well.”