President Barack Hussein Obama came to Chicago last Friday to give a speech at Hyde Park Academy on the South Side, and I went to write about it.
Technically, this was my third time seeing the president speak live after making it to election night rallies in both ’08 and ‘12, but during this speech I would not have to fight the teeming hordes of Obamabots, which can consist of the sharp elbows of old Jewish ladies, 400-pound linebacker-looking dudes in FUBU hats stepping on your feet, or bubbly crowds that seemingly fell off the pages of the blog Stuff White People Like. I had a press pass to this sucker, which meant I could journalist my way all the hell over the place, and if I had a problem with the Wi-Fi there’d be some young, pert, blonde woman to address my concerns.
Just west of Lake Michigan, Hyde Park Academy is nestled between Jackson Park, a bit of low-income housing, and the University of Chicago campus. It’s basically 63rd Street, which, if you’re familiar with the geography of Chicago homicides, lies just outside the belt of the city’s most intractable violence. I don’t get down to Hyde Park much, but I’ve been enough that I know at least a few good secret streets for parking, so I stashed my car a decent walk away from HPA in hopes of beating motorcade traffic afterward and made my way to the school.
This was a very typical white-guy-on-the-South-Side stroll in that I got a few fantastically curious looks and one tall, unintelligible gentleman, who stopped to mumble something at me. I listened to him long enough to understand that he was either drunk or schizophrenic and we both agreed to move on amicably.
The underlying lesson of this moment having to do very much with Obama’s speech that day: to be very blunt about it, there are a lot of legitimately fucked up cities in the United States, and a core part of their fucked-upedness has to do with those cities segregated legacies. Chicago has become a particular exemplar recently with homicides at their highest level since 1997. Awash in cheap handguns and battered, struggling schools, with unemployment and incarceration the norm in some neighborhoods, Chicago saw 730 homicides in 2012.
Not in my part of town, though. I’m a northsider, so those neighborhoods might as well be a separate city. And therein lies part of the problem.
Security preparations for HPA were borderline militarized. A row of CTA busses lined the street in front of the school in a makeshift barricade, and each end of the street had two snowplows on either side of a cop car with their snouts menacingly lowered as if braced for Kabul suicide drivers. After getting redirected around multiple obstacles by Chicago PD, I finally spotted the other white guys in ties, their doughy backfat visible through winter coats—this is how you recognize fellow journalists.
Following a credentialing, bag search, and full-body wand, I made my way to the school’s gymnasium where bleachers and cameras surrounded a single podium, and the treacly sky-blue on the cinderblock somehow called to mind every high school gymnasium from San Diego to Portland, Maine.
I had a lot of time to kill, which I spent reading a book and chatting with the young, pert blonde woman in charge of press advance named Megan. Megan’s job was to get to everywhere the president was speaking a week in advance and set up, well, everything. She ate as she walked around trouble-shooting the crappy internet, and I tried to imagine how she ever maintained a personal life or had time to get laid. During the campaign, I pointed out, Obama was doing one of these events every five minutes.
“I’ve seen a lotta high school gyms,” she explained, and then we talked about Ohio, where her staff and Romney’s staff were basically high-fiving as they breezed by each other on the highways.
When our mayor finally emerged to introduce Obama, I was really feeling for the unfortunate kids who’d been standing on the rafters behind the podium for well over an hour. I imagined the ache in their legs, the way they would have to shift their weight around just to keep the blood circulating. It reminded me of every middle school choir concert I’d ever suffered through as a participant.
Rahm Emanuel’s nasty, F-bomb-slanging reputation aside, he’s one diminutive dude. His reedy voice bounced around the gym, and he wasted no time introducing Obama, possibly because you could feel the crowd leaning in as it attempted to anticipate which sentence would lead to the president walking on-stage.
It was a veritable who’s who of Chicago political influence. Senator Dick Durbin, Governor Pat Quinn, Congressman Bobby Rush, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and just about every relevant clergy member in the state. On the side opposite the journos, HPA students sat, uniformed and bottled up, slapping at each other’s hands even as they all seemed to hold on and link arms the way a March Madness Cinderella will when a victory looks within reach through a couple of free throws.
When Rahm finally gave his welcome and Obama strode out from behind the curtain erected over the back of the gym, the crowd went absolutely ballistic. Every last student was on his or her feet, just shrieking like Justin Bieber fans. Camera phones rose in unison to touch-pad pics or start video recordings. Obama—typically magnificent grin beaming in every direction—jogged up to the podium, waving. I seriously thought some of those kids might faint, and it reminded me that for all the haughty blather on cable news shows and op-ed pages, it wasn’t rocket science to understand that Obama’s presidency meant something real to kids who’d previously only studied white men and slave-owners as American executives.
“Everybody have a seat. Y’all relax,” said Obama as he took to the mic. “It’s just me.”
Obama was surrounded by a preposterous number of Secret Service agents, all facing every angle of the crowd. Several more patrolled the gym and stood guard by the doorways. Some of these people looked semi-normal, and earlier, when a young lady stopped me at the door to ask that I display my press pass I almost thought she was a student kidding around with me. Then again, some of them looked straight out of central casting: hard, ex-Navy Seal-looking types wearing suits two of me could have fit into (Also how are they still using the little earpiece with the coiled wire running into the suit? Can’t we update that in the age of the Bluetooth? I feel like Jack Bauer always had some kind of way less cumbersome two-way com.) It made you wonder what kind of eventualities they were prepared for—like if the entire crowd suddenly got the 28 Days Later virus and rushed the stage, were they ready for that?
Such amusing thoughts were on my mind as Obama launched into the boiler-plate of his speech. He was from here, he reminded the crowd. Taught around the corner at the University of Chicago, organized in the neighborhoods to the south, met Michelle here, knew half the people in the crowd. This last one in particular struck me because throughout his speech, you could see Obama giving little nods, winks, and acknowledgments to practically everyone in the first five rows. Beyond that, I was situated directly in front of one of the two teleprompters, so whenever he read from that side it felt like he was making eye contact with me.
I probably started blushing.
(Truth be told, I’d thought long and hard about what I’d ask him if the chance should have miraculously arisen. While I like to believe it would be something hard-hitting like, “How can you reconcile pleading with the public about gun violence when you’ve overseen military campaigns that have unleashed brutal violence on communities of impoverished people overseas without any kind of accountability?” I would probably end up asking something like, “Ohmygod will you and Michelle adopt me? And then can we play basketball together? I’ll run the point, you play the two or the three?”)
His speech, for the most part, was a reiteration of the previous week’s State of the Union. He repeated that night’s most powerful moment when he said of those families victimized by guns, “They deserve a vote.” Leave it to the one of the best speakers of the era to come up with the perfect Twitter hash-tagable line to bully his Republican opponents into an awkward corner. As he pointed out, the U.S. is in a situation where we have the equivalent of a Newtown massacre every four months. Slate has created an excellent catalogue of the gun deaths since Newtown in which you can scroll over every individual body, demarcated by bathroom stall figures of various sizes, depending on whether they were an adult, teenager or child. If you click on one, you can get the entire story: children shooting themselves in the face, husbands murdering their wives, random teenagers gunned down in the street. One of those figures is Hadiya Pendleton, the fifteen year old murdered in a South Side park weeks after attending the inauguration. Her parents, who’d sat with the First Lady at the State of the Union, were in the crowd and received a roaring applause when Obama spoke of their particular, but not unusual, tragedy.