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President Obama sent message to Chicago — but who heard it?

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Updated: September 15, 2012 6:19AM

After enduring weeks of poking, on Saturday President Barack Obama finally addressed the violence taking place in his adopted hometown.

“We have to provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner,” Obama said in a videotaped message.

“All of us have to make safer streets our cause.”

Unfortunately, only a few people who needed to hear the president’s message likely heard it.

That’s because the videotaped message wasn’t played at the annual event that draws tens of thousands of spectators.

Beverly Scott of the Chicago Defender Charities said the video landed in her e-mail about 3 a.m. Saturday. She turned it over on Saturday morning to Central City Productions, the company that has produced the live broadcast of the Bud Billiken Parade for the past 38 years.

But WCIU-TV was the only station that aired the president’s anti-violence message.

Don Jackson, chairman and CEO of Central City Productions, explained how he thinks the president’s message got lost.

“[Parade organizers] didn’t give it to us until the morning of the parade,” he said. “There was very little time set aside for the Chicago Defender Charities or us to mention it or send out any type of notice to the press,” Jackson said.

Obama had declined the invitation to serve as grand marshal in this year’s parade. But he sent Deputy Assistant Michael Strautmanis, who is a trusted aid to presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, to represent Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The president’s absence was a particular burn to some of the parade organizers.

For one thing, they had chosen as a theme: “Education: Built to Last; A Tribute to President Barack Obama.” And given Chicago’s growing reputation as a violent city, it seemed only fitting that a president who was from the city would be especially concerned.

Robert Sengstacke, whose roots go back to the paper’s founding publisher, was still making appeals to Obama the day before the parade kicked off.

“With less than 100 days until the election, your loyal supporters are dedicated to moving forward in a unified effort for “Obama for America’s” participation in the 83rd Annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic,” Sengstacke wrote in a press release.

Had it actually aired, the videotaped anti-violence message would have been a brilliant compromise.

“Hello South Side,” Obama said cheerfully.

“I wish I could be there with you today. I just want to take a moment to thank Col. Scott and the Chicago Defender Charities not only for putting on this incredible parade, but also for the work you do every day to support all our kids,” he said.

Scott once considered starting an online petition to pressure Obama to participate in the storied parade.

But now all is forgiven.

“We understood the president could not be in the parade due to the extreme security issue,” she told me on Monday.

“We are taking up the president’s mantle.” We are partnering with Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges and community organizations to engage these parade participants in activities and events that will encourage and continue to motivate them to stay focused on education.”

Local journalists and bloggers, including Carol Marin and Stella Foster, had also challenged Obama to come to Chicago to speak out about the violence.

Although no one really expects the president to solve the problem, his encouragement may help others to take a stand.

At least 21 people, including a 15-year-old boy, were shot over the same weekend the president was in town fund-raising.

In the 1.48-minute video address, the
president called on “law enforcement, educators, clergy, parents and young people to redouble . . . efforts to fight this epidemic of violence.

“Even as we come together for this
parade, we know there have been too
many mindless acts of violence in our
communities,” Obama said. “We grieve
for the children who have been taken from us.”

Coming when it did, the anti-violence message might resonate with young people, Jackson told me.

“[The president] spoke out in the
context of a special that showcased our youth and not just in a news program,” he said.

“[The president] called on us to take responsibility for the violence in our community so that they could go back to school in a safer environment.”

Coming from the nation’s first black president, that’s a powerful message.

But only when the young black people who are living in Chicago’s troubled neighborhoods can actually hear it.


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