1992 Mayor Daley: "Chicago has lost two generations of young people to gangs and drugs"

In March of 1992 then-Mayor Richard M. Daley entered the grand ballroom of the old Bismarck Hotel on Randolph Street to address 50 Chicago Youth Aldermen: high school students from all 50 wards whom the YMCA trains each year to spend two hours holding forth in the City Council chambers, making motions and passing resolutions. It's an annual civic exercise. Proceedings are chaired by a Youth Mayor, a Kennedy High School student that year. I was present as his guest.

Everyone in the room expected Mayor Daley to be in and out of the ballroom in
a minute or two. What the students got instead was so new and different - so blunt and plain-spoken - that no one knew how to react to it. Daley had come to reach out to young people as I suspect no big city mayor has done before or since. No media were present that day. What follows is a reconstruction of his remarks from notes and memory, although my brief, contemporary Sun-Times account of them is on your right.

"I want to talk to you today about gangs and drugs."
Mayor Daley, looking as he did in 1992 addressing the Youth Aldermen

Taking the podium, and without so much as saying the usual "good morning" to his audience, Daley looked around the room, saw that no media were present, and then asked the students if anyone could tell him why no media were present. When no one spoke up, he answered his own question:

"There's no media here today because you people are all doing something positive. If you were out on the streets throwing bricks and breaking windows, you'd all be on TV tonight."

Daley then accused Chicago media of sensationalizing youth violence. He charged media with alienating Chicagoans from each other. Then he capped off this critique with a succinct formulation:

"Chicago's media glorify trouble makers and neglect problem solvers."

How many Chicagoans would agree with this thought? I'd like to see a poll on this question. Anyway, next came the mayor's long, rambling attack on national media for glorifying sex and violence.

Daley then changed gears. He paused, and with a glowering look and in a flat, neutral voice, he said:

"I want to talk to you today about gangs and drugs".

He began with an assertion I'd never heard:

"Chicago has lost two generations of young people to gangs and drugs."

This was the language of wartime loss: it echoed the "lost generation" language that was felt throughout England after World War I. Daley then gave his opinion of the efforts Chicago had made to deal with gangs and drugs:

"Adults have failed to solve the problem."

Coming from a sitting mayor, this was an astonishing, even historic admission. But why had adults failed to solve the problem?
Daley had an answer. He said that adults simply didn't understand it. His words:

"In my time the problem was alcohol. But when I was your age, alcohol was no problem. It didn't affect us. We might see a wino on the sidewalk. When we did, we'd just walk around him".

This distance from the problem of alcohol he contrasted with what students faced in 1992:

"But for you it's different. Drug dealers come after you to use drugs. And they come after you to sell them."

I looked around the room to see how students were responding. I couldn't see any response. Faces appeared to be expressionless. It was as if the students had no connection to gangs and drugs. (And perhaps many of these upstanding-looking Youth Aldermen had no connection.) Or perhaps they confused blunt talk with being scolded.   

In fact, Daley was telling the Youth Alderman that young people know a great deal about gangs and drugs that adults don't know. Things that adults must know if ever Chicago is going to solve its gang/drug problem.

By this time I was pretty much on the edge of my seat. Then came a challenge that I could not believe, even when I heard it:

"I challenge you to formulate a drug policy of your own."

Hearing this, I turned to the YMCA Youth Mayor and whispered to him that Mayor Daley had just handed the Youth Aldermen the key the fifth floor of City Hall.

At the end of the speech, I looked to see if any students went up to Daley. Not one did. Not even the youth mayor, a brilliant but self-serving individual. I waited as people left the ballroom. Mayor Daley, as it turned out, was the last person to walk out of the Grand Ballroom that day. I had waited to congratulate him on his speech and did so, briefly, as he walked down the aisle. He stopped, looked me in the eye, listened for a minute, and continued walking down the aisle without a word.  Maybe I lacked the right connection.

Subsequently I arranged to met with half a dozen senior YMCA staff members to discuss the possibility of strengthening communication between young Chicagoans and City Hall. There was no interest. I was told that this project would be citywide and hence beyond the YMCA's existing mission, which is to advance its facilities at Chicago's local YMCA's. 

Because Mayor Daley had spoken off the cuff, no transcript of his remarks that day exists. Sadly, I never heard of him repeated his "formulate your own drug policy" challenge to Chicago students.

Some background on Mayor Daley's speech.

General: The reason for Daley's anger with the media that day? A few days earlier, "a sobbing Daley" (Eriz Zorn's Tribune account) had held a news conference to discuss "the involvement of his son Patrick, then 16, in an ugly brawl during an illicit house part at the Daley's vacation home in Grand Beach, Mich."
Daley wasn't just upset. He was furious with media's mockery of his parenting skills.

Personal: I had long been advancing the kind of youth/adult dialogue that Daley proposed in his speech. For instance:
  • In 1989, I proposed in this Sun-Times piece that Chicago could respond to President George H. W. Bush's War on Drugs by giving Chicago students and teachers a direct voice in defining and solving the problem of gangs and drugs in each Chicago public school. (Not quite the way I'd go about dealing with the problem today.) 
My brief account of Mayor Daley's 1992 Speech to the YMCA Youth Aldermen

"Chicago has lost two generations of young people to gangs and drugs"

To illustrate Mayor Daley's 1992 point that local and national media "glorify trouble makers and neglect problem solvers:

In 1994, media coverage of 13 year old gangbanger, Robert "Yummy" Sandifer.

  • Here's a front page headline from the Chicago Tribune
  • And this 1994 cover story about Sandifer in Time: