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Gary Younge


Hadiya Pendelton was shot dead in this playground shelter on January 30 in Chicago. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Michelle Obama attending Chicago funeral of Hadiya Pendelton, 15

First lady Michelle Obama flies home to Chicago on Saturday morning to commemorate the short life and tragic death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendelton, whose fatal shooting has taken on significant symbolic resonance both in the city and nationwide.

Pendleton, a promising student and school band member, was shot near the Obama's Chicago home little more than a week after performing at the Presidential inauguration. She had been sheltering from the rain with friends in a park near her school after finishing exams.

The first lady announced she would go to the funeral earlier this week amid considerable pressure on the president to both attend and bring national attention to the epidemic of gun violence blighting his home town. A petition calling on him to come back to the funeral gained more than a thousand signatures.

Last Saturday, before a march to the site of Pendelton's death, Jesse Jackson appealed to the president to "please come home" and bring national attention to the problem.

Several hundred people attended the viewing of Pendleton's body on Friday at Chicago's south side where she lay in a bold purple, sequinned dress. A sombre procession shuffled past as a TV screen overhead showed shots of her as a baby with her mother, sitting on an Easter Bunny's lap as a toddler and wearing pink sunglasses as a teenager. A faded poster on the dry cleaners where people lined up to enter and left in tears said "stop the Killing."

There were 506 gun murders in Chicago last year, 16% more than in 2011 and a higher rate than most major cities. This year has likewise got off to a bloody start in terms of gun violence. Last month the death toll was 43 – the deadliest January in more than a decade. Most of the shootings take place in the minority and low-income areas of the south and west side. The crisis has gained increasing national attention as Barack Obama has pushed his plans for gun control.

Announcing the first lady's visit, Michelle Obama's communications director said: "as a mother and Chicagoan, the first lady was heartbroken to learn of the tragic loss of Hadiya Pendleton due to senseless gun violence. Too many times, we've seen young people struck down with so much of their lives ahead of them. The first lady is traveling to her funeral on Saturday to offer her condolences and support to Hadiya's family and loved ones."

Her attendance was slammed by one recently ousted Illinois Congressman as opportunistic. "'Heartbroken' Michelle Obama attending funeral of Hadiya Pendleton. I guess the other 553 murder victims didn't break her heart," wrote Joe Walsh, a Tea Party supporter who lost his seat in November. "Most of the 553 Chicago murder victims in 2012 & 2013 were young black males. Is she attending this funeral to make a political point?"

The fact that Hadiya's murder took place the day before congressional hearings on gun control and just a week after the inauguration at a time when the issue of gun violence had been revived has given her case national attention. "There was something about Sandy Hook that was maybe a tipping point," said Jackson, referring to the shooting of 20 children and six adults in an elementary school in Connecticut in December. "We were making the case, but we couldn't make that case here until then. Then the case of Hadiya Pendleton has given us another opportunity."

The family now hope that her death may make a difference. "She's that face," Damon Stewart, her godfather, told the Chicago Tribune. "She's out in front, and now all those other people's stories can be heard. She is a voice for those who haven't had a voice. She's not being treated different. She's important because they're important."

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