Washington Officials Join in Mourning a Young Shooting Victim in Chicago

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CHICAGO -- By the hundreds, mourners filed into the pews of a crowded church on this city's South Side on Saturday, clutching one another, weeping and wearing buttons adorned with the smiling face of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl whose death has come to represent the miserable cost of gun and gang violence.

"She is a representative not just of the people in Chicago, she is a representative of people across this nation who have lost their lives," said Damon Stewart, Ms. Pendleton's godfather, as he urged people not to politicize her death.

An array of Washington officials -- the first lady, Michelle Obama; Arne Duncan, the education secretary; and Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser -- were among dignitaries sitting in the front row. Ms. Pendleton, a member of her high school's majorette team, traveled to Washington to perform during President Obama's inauguration festivities only a week before she was fatally shot here.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has met with the girl's family and spoken emotionally of her dreams for her future, attended, too, as did Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, who had alluded to Ms. Pendleton in his State of the State address.

As an emerging national debate about firearms has focused largely on mass shootings in places like Newtown, Conn., Ms. Pendleton's death last month became a symbol for a different element of gun violence -- urban and often quickly forgotten. Ms. Pendleton, a student at King College Prep high school, was shot Jan. 29 as she sat after school in a park, about a mile from Mr. Obama's Chicago home, with friends -- a group that the police say was probably mistakenly swept up in the cross-fire of a gang fight.

In Chicago, people said they viewed the sudden rush of attention on Ms. Pendleton as a needed shift in the consciousness of the nation's third-largest city, which experienced more than 500 homicides in 2012, many of them from gun violence, and 46 more deaths since the start of 2013. If the city had grown inured at times to the stories of gang-related shootings, largely on the South and West Sides, Ms. Pendleton's death appeared -- at least for now -- to have reawakened many people, even those in more upscale neighborhoods away from the worst of the violence and far beyond Chicago.

"It should be a tipping point," Andre Smith, head of Chicago Against Violence, a local group aimed at preventing neighborhood violence, said on Friday, as he and scores of others attended a visitation for Ms. Pendleton, whom he had not known. "I just hope that it's not here today and gone tomorrow."

In the days since Ms. Pendleton's killing, a debate had ensued here over what the White House response should be. Some, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, local newspaper editorial boards and students, had urged Mr. Obama to appear at the girl's funeral.

Some said he needed to draw the same attention to violence in his hometown and to the complicated urban questions of poverty, joblessness and gangs that he had given earlier to the mass shootings in Connecticut and elsewhere. Others, though, said that a White House presence here would only politicize the funeral of a young girl and create a needless media spectacle, even as scores of other Chicagoans had died in violence here with barely any notice at all.

Asked why Mr. Obama, who is expected to address gun restrictions in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, had chosen not to attend Ms. Pendleton's funeral, his spokesman pointed out on Friday that Mrs. Obama and others from the administration would attend.

"I think that represents the feeling that the president and the first lady both have about what happened to her and the tragedy that it represents both in real concrete terms to her family but also symbolically because of the tragedy of gun violence that our country has to deal with all too often," the spokesman, Jay Carney, said.

Family members of Ms. Pendleton said they were pleased and honored that Mrs. Obama, who has lived on the South Side of Chicago and met with the Pendleton family before the funeral service, chose to come.

"It says to us that not only is she coming in support of our family, but she's a parent," said Shatira Wilks, a cousin of Ms. Pendleton who has in recent days been serving as a spokeswoman for the family. "She has daughters. She understands. She's not being intrusive. It's not about her being seen."

Still, for Ms. Pendleton's family, this gathering was not about politics, but about Ms. Pendleton. "If you came to be entertained you won't find that today," said Courtney C. Maxwell, the family's pastor, who officiated the service. "If you came for a show you won't find that today, for Hadiya was genuine and real."

Friends and family described Ms. Pendleton, who had once appeared in a video aimed at discouraging children from joining gangs, as a sweet and cheerful young woman who twirled batons on the majorette team, was considering going to college to become a journalist or pharmacist, and had been imagining a sweet 16 party with a close friend in June.

Around 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 29, Ms. Pendleton walked with friends to Harsh Park in the North Kenwood neighborhood. As the group huddled under a canopy as it began to rain, a man suddenly approached, jumped a fence, ran toward the group, and began shooting.

The police believe that the man mistook the group for members of a gang.

Ms. Pendleton, who the police say was an unintended target with no ties to gangs, was shot in the back. By Saturday, no arrests had been made in the case, although the police said they had received a significant number of tips and were pursuing all of them.

Early Saturday morning, people lined up in front of the church, waiting to pass through security before they entered for the wake and funeral. Friends of Ms. Pendleton and guests invited by the family were given colored wristbands that allowed them to enter early into the church, which was said to have the capacity of 1,000 people.

Inside the sanctuary, Ms. Pendleton's open coffin was surrounded by flowers. More than an hour before the service began, the pews were full, and people were being taken to an overflow room. Hundreds more outside were supposedly told they could see the body, but had to leave before the funeral started.

As friends and family shared their stories about Ms. Pendleton and pleaded for an end to gun violence, those in attendance held glossy programs that told the story of her life, her involvement at church, her favorite foods -- Chinese, cheeseburgers, ice cream and Fig Newtons.

On the back page was a copy of a handwritten note from the White House to her parents.

"We know that no words from us can soothe the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you, and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence," the note said. "God Bless, Barack Obama."

Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington, and Catrin Einhorn from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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