Chicago, Obama, the Olympics, and the Murder of Derrion Albert

Chicago does not deserve the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. What the people of Chicago (and other urban American cities) deserve is a domestic Marshall Plan -- an action agenda that will, once and for all, deal with failing schools, terrible housing conditions, limited job, career, and business opportunities, and a culture of violence, mayhem, and hopelessness that led to the very recent beating death of a teen named Derrion Albert, at the hands of other teenagers, no less.

Cellphone footage showing a group of teens viciously kicking and striking Albert with splintered railroad ties has ramped up pressure on Chicago officials to address the violence epidemic that has led to dozens of deaths of city teens each year. The graphic video of the afternoon melee emerged on local news stations and YouTube (before it was summarily removed by the social networking site), showing the fatal beating of Derrion Albert, a sophomore honor roll student at Christian Fenger Academy High School. His death was the latest addition to a rising toll: More than 30 students were killed last school year, and the city could exceed that number this year.

Prosecutors charged four teenagers with fatally beating Albert, who was walking to a bus stop when he got caught up in the mob street fighting, authorities said. The violence stemmed from a shooting earlier that morning involving two groups of students from different neighborhoods, said a spokesperson for the Cook County prosecutor's office. When school ended, members of the groups began fighting near the Agape Community Center.

During the attack, captured in part on a bystander's cellphone video, Albert is struck on the head by one of several young men wielding wooden planks. After he falls to the ground and appears to try to get up, he is struck again and then kicked. Authorities said Albert was a bystander and not part of either group. Prosecutors have charged Silvonus Shannon, 19, Eugene Riley, 18, Eric Carson, 16, and Eugene Bailey, 18, with first-degree murder.

In a terrible case of bad timing, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to lobby hard for the 2016 Olympics to come to the Windy City. Here was part of Mr. Obama's pitch: "One of the legacies I want to see coming out of the Chicago 2016 hosting of the Games is a reminder that America at its best is open to the world," he said. "We are putting the full force of the White House and the State Department to make sure that not only is this a successful Games, but that visitors from around the world feel welcome and will come away with a sense of the incredible diversity of the American people."

But, to date, the only thing President Obama, who made Chicago his adopted hometown thanks in part to his wife and Chitown native daughter Michelle, has said, has come through White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: "Chilling."

Yes, just one word. Chilling. And that response was only after a reporter asked about the murder of Derrion Albert. So the questions beg to be asked: Why was a sporting event more important than the human lives that are being routinely taken on the streets of Chicago? How could the president, on the one hand, chide fathers over a year ago for not taking more responsibility in the lives of their children and their communities, yet remain virtually silent on this tragic killing of Derrion Albert? Is Mr. Obama going to make a trip to Chicago to talk about the issue of youth violence, or, at the very least, give a speech on it and lay out an agenda to address this social ill plaguing our nation? Will Mr. Obama invite Derrion's mother to the White House, as he did Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley? And who, praytell, is going to make the people of Chicago feel welcome in their own neighborhoods, Olympic Games or not?

I am from inner-city America. I was born and raised there, and but for the grace of God, my mother's uncanny knack for survival and, yes, one incredible educational opportunity after another, I would not be writing this essay this very moment. And I am very clear that it was because of a combination of a movement by the people (the Civil Rights Movement) and the government response to that mass energy in the form of a sweeping legislative agenda, that ghetto children like me were able to attend quality schools, participate in meaningful afterschool programs, and have access to free breakfast and lunch programs that kept our eyes open and firmly on the prize.

But the 1980s crack era and Reagan administration reversals of many of those very minimal gains destroyed the fabric of our communities, ripped apart families, and, all these years later, has left a generation of Black and Latino young people, male and female alike, living their own versions of William Golding's Lord of The Flies. If you think I am exaggerating, then simply Google the video of the Derrion Albert beatdown. Only a people who have lost all hope, who have no sense of spirituality and the preciousness of human life, would resort to this kind of savagery, the pummeling or shooting of each other until death is there, sprawled on the ground, blood gushing from the head, as was the case with young Derrion.

Yes, the protests will come, the candles will be lit, and the eulogies will be sung. But the violence in Chicago, New York City, Oakland, New Orleans, and every other large American city will not end until we decide, individually and collectively, to make it end. And as President Obama pushed for the Olympics to come to Chicago, let us not forget that Los Angeles, after hosting the Games in 1984, saw an explosion of gang violence, and one of the worst riots in American history in 1992 on the heels of the infamous Rodney King verdict. No amount of gloss and fanfare can ever cover up the real work that needs to be done to give every single American, especially younger people, a sense of life, a sense of possibilities, a sense of real hope.

Kevin Powell is an activist, and the author or editor of 10 books, including his newest essay collection, Open Letters to America. He can be reached at

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