President Barack Obama will come to Chicago on Friday and talk about guns, heeding the calls from crime-ridden communities to make the city a priority in his national anti-violence agenda.
But young African-American men, those most likely to be hit by the gunfire that occurs almost daily in neighborhoods like Roseland, Englewood and Lawndale, were not leading the call for a presidential visit. They view the violence through a different lens.
Unlike the longtime activists who have held marches, preached sermons and demanded that Obama offer resources and fresh policy ideas to help curtail Chicago's escalating homicide rate, young men forced to live their lives dodging bullets are less confident of what the president can achieve.
At least that's the message from a dozen teenagers who sat down with the Tribune on Wednesday night at the Salvation Army's Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in West Pullman to talk about the impact of the president's visit. The young men, most of them high school students from neighboring Roseland, Morgan Park, Washington Heights and Calumet Park, attend an after-school program at the center.
The teens said Obama can have little effect on gangs.
"They're not going to give up their guns. They're not going to even listen to Obama," said Brian Alexander, 16. "Some of them don't have a father in their lives, so why would they listen to the president, a man who's not in their lives either?"
Obama's proposals to strengthen gun laws would have little, if any, effect on the illegal guns on the streets, according to Tyler Minor, also 16.
"Someone will just give you a gun if they've just killed someone because they want to get rid of it," Minor said.
"When you have a gun, it makes you feel like a man because of the power of that gun," he said, explaining why some youths are drawn to weapons. "If I had the chance to talk to the president, I'd tell him to just tell people, 'You have to decide how your life goes and choose your own actions. You have to choose for yourself.'"
Though all of the teens interviewed said they had steered clear of gangs, more than half said they knew someone who had been shot or killed. Some of them have to cross gang boundaries to get to the center.
For these young men, fear is not an option. Part of growing up in a rough neighborhood, they said, means learning how to be cautious at an early age. When something is about to go down, they said, they feel it, like a sixth sense.
"They have this hard shield around them. They're not invincible, but they don't worry," said Greg Porter, an instructor in the digital imagination after-school program, which includes multimedia training and mentoring. "They talk about the violence on their block matter-of-factly, like they just went to a basketball game."
During Obama's stop in Chicago, part of a three-state tour to promote policies he introduced in the State of the Union address, he will address a crowd at Hyde Park Academy. He also plans to meet privately with 20 young black men whose experiences are similar to those of the teens interviewed by the Tribune.
While all of the young men at the community center said they had respect for the first African-American president, they noted that it would be difficult for anyone to penetrate the culture of violence.
"People look up to Mr. Obama more than he knows, but the one thing they need is their guns," said Latwon Rufus, 18. "It's about revenge, reputation and territory. That's the city of Chicago."
On the surface, they said, guns are the biggest problem. But there are also underlying issues, like the feeling among some youths that there is no future outside of their communities.
There is a disconnect between their lives and the president's, though he hails from the South Side, they explained. Coming to Chicago is just "publicity" for the president, Minor said.
"A lot of people feel hopeless. (They say,) 'If you don't care about me, why should I care about you?' So they get in a gang because they have so much despair," said Quron Jackson, 16.
It is easier to fall off the right path than to stay on it, they said.
"When I was in elementary school, gangs just interested me. I don't know what it was," Alexander said. "I was naive, and I was trying to find myself. I had to realize I could be the same person and be cool without being in a gang."
Occasionally, someone would put a suggestion on the table: more police, or legalization of drugs, or the return of the death penalty in Illinois. But every time someone offered an idea, someone else methodically shot it down.
"When a gang member kills another gang member, then they're going to get killed. That's their own death penalty," said Glynn Morris, 15.
While Obama's visit won't change their lives, parents and others in the community can have an impact, the teens said. But ultimately, they said, it is up to the young people themselves.
"My mama cares," said Justin Tyler, 17. "But she's said, 'I can't stop you from going into this life. If you want to get yourself killed, I can't stop you.'"