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Even Under Obama, Black Activist Says Every Inch Of Progress Is A Fight


Around this country people clearly want their voices to be heard after the killing of two unarmed black men by police officers in New York and Missouri. There have been protests in cities around the United States. Tomorrow the focus turns here to Washington, D.C., for what's being called a national march against police violence. But there are some who want another voice to be heard more - President Obama. We're about to hear some voices from his hometown - Chicago - where there are mixed feelings about his efforts to address race. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: At Carter's Barber Shop on Chicago's West Side, clippers are going, the TV is on, there's a wall of pictures of President Obama. As 24-year-old barber Walter Hardy puts the finishing touches on a customer's shave, he says heated conversations about police brutality and racism are ongoing.

WALTER HARDY: I want to say for about a month strong this has been a head topic come Friday and Saturday afternoons.

CORLEY: And Hardy says many of his customers are looking for some tough talk on race relations from the country's first black president, but he feels President Obama is doing all that he can.

HARDY: I think his hands is tied. I think he - he's running a country that's just not full of black people so he can't just always jump to the defense of black people.

CORLEY: Hardy says he'll be working, but he does have friends who will be at the march on Washington led by civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Can have French toast - potatoes?

CORLEY: Valois Restaurant, in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood, is not far from the president's Chicago home and his picture adorns a wall here too. Twenty-nine-year-old Charlene Carruthers, with the activist group Black Youth Project 100, is working her way through the cafeteria's breakfast line. Carruthers says her group chose not to participate in tomorrow's march on Washington.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: What we know is that the movement that is happening right now has been extremely decentralized and in a way that, I believe, has moved the president to talking to young black people about this issue, has moved many people out of their homes, out of their jobs and onto the streets.

CORLEY: Carruthers says she believes President Obama has his personal ideas about race in America, but she doesn't think his administration has been as transformative as it could be.

CARRUTHERS: I would never say that there's been no progress around police accountability, police brutality in this country, also sentencing reform that's happened out of the Department of Justice. But what I do know is that every single step that the administration has taken to improve the conditions of so-called criminal justice in America has been result of demands of people.

CORLEY: Sitting at a nearby table 26-year-old Chris James, who started a nonprofit foundation to help student athletes, says he sees progress in initiatives like My Brother's Keeper, a project designed to improve opportunities for black and Latino boys and young men. But James says he's not hopeful about the president's proposal to spend millions to help police departments buy body cameras.

CHRIS JAMES: I mean, with the Eric Garner situation I feel like that's irrelevant. The incident that's in question is in full video. So even in that situation, if you have a police officer with a body camera, what is it going to do? It isn't going to make any difference.

CORLEY: Cradling her 2-month-old son while she ate breakfast, 32-year-old Rebecca Murray says the president's earlier speeches about race did make an impact.

REBECCA MURRAY: I think his first run helped. I don't feel like it's moved much further beyond that.

CORLEY: And Andre Kellum, a workforce development consultant, says President Obama should've spoken up much earlier on both police brutality in neighborhoods of color and black-on-black crime. Even so, Kellum says the president can only do so much.

ANDRE KELLUM: Where is our Senate? Where is our House of Representatives? Where are they on establishing laws and policies?

CORLEY: Those questions and more will be on the minds of scores of demonstrators marching on Washington tomorrow. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
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