There were no marching bands this year. No floats. No church groups throwing snacks at spectators. No American flags on sidewalks.
Instead there were prayers. There were tears. And there was a somber walk down Central Avenue, a collective effort to retake a parade route that was stolen in a storm of bullets.
Over the generations in Highland Park, Illinois, a colorful parade through downtown has become synonymous with the Fourth of July.
But in less than a minute last Independence Day, a gunman who fired from a rooftop killed seven people, injured dozens and sent families fleeing for shelter, leaving bottles of water and red, white and blue scattered on the ground.
As the first anniversary of the massacre approached, city leaders were faced with a series of seemingly impossible demands: to honor the people who died. Retrieve the parade route through downtown. Give space for people to celebrate the country’s birthday. And support the residents of the Chicago suburb who still carry devastating injuries, mental and physical, from last year.
« When there’s mass shootings in this country, a day or two later, people leave, » Mayor Nancy Rotering said. « But those communities that are directly impacted are carrying this pain and trauma forever. »
Among the hundreds who gathered on the City Hall lawn on Tuesday for a memorial service were residents who were in the line of fire last July 4. Jeffrey Briel, who described taking cover with his young grandchildren not far from the gunman, said reminders of the shooting were everywhere: in bullet marks in the downtown plaza, in a temporary memorial that now stands next door at the town hall. Highland Park was still in mourning, he said.
« I want 2024 to have a parade again, » said Mr. Briel, who like many wore a hat that read « HP Strong. » « So maybe this is a way to start the healing process a bit. »
A year ago, the Reverend Hernan Cuevas was only days into his tenure as pastor of a Roman Catholic parish in Highland Park when the parade took place. Mr. Cuevas had gathered worshipers for the church wagon and bought granola bars to distribute to people along the way. Then he heard what sounded like fireworks.
He said it was only when he saw “a wave of people walking towards us, running, crying” that “we thought, ‘These aren’t fireworks. This is true.' »
They fled a couple of blocks to the church, where a mix of members and other parade-goers, some with blood on their clothes, waited for hours as authorities searched for the gunman. They prayed the rosary. They nervously watched the news on their phones.
Mr. Cuevas said his congregants had processed the trauma of that day differently and had different ideas about how to observe this 4th of July. Some wanted to go back to normal. Some wanted room to grieve. Others have skipped town for the holidays, trying to get away from the pain.
“It brings back some of the memories,” Mr. Cuevas said of the anniversary. « It unleashes some of the emotions of loss and fear. »
On Tuesday, many residents expressed grief and trauma laced with a sense of anger that the accused gunman, a local resident who had previously drawn the attention of authorities, was still able to acquire and use a weapon high-powered, according to prosecutors. The defendant, Robert E. Crimo III, faces 117 criminal charges, including murder, and has pleaded not guilty.
Long before the massacre, Highland Park, an affluent and politically liberal lakeside town of about 30,000 people, was at the center of a national push for tougher gun laws. The city passed a municipal ban on some high-powered rifles that led to a legal brawl.
After last year’s killings, local officials pressed Democrats in control of the Illinois state government to tighten the state’s gun laws, which were already among the strictest in the country. In January, Governor JB Pritzker signed into law a law banning the sale of many high-powered rifles, which gun rights advocates have challenged in court. Mayor Rotering, a Democrat, has called for a nationwide ban on such weapons.
« Someone with a lawfully obtained gun can choose to end a large swath of a community’s life, » he said. « This to me is a violation of human rights. »
Many residents wore T-shirts Tuesday morning calling for tougher gun laws, and some held a rally in Highland Park in the afternoon.
Last year, Highland Park native Dani Cohn was sitting in a lawn chair outside a pancake house with family members, including Jacquelyn Sundheim, when the gunfire started.
Although Ms. Cohn escaped physical injury, Ms. Sundheim, known as Jacki and who coordinated events at a local synagogue, was killed. Ms. Cohn recalled performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation and taking supplies from an ambulance in an attempt to save her life.
Ms Cohn said it was important for her to be at the commemorations on Tuesday and participate in the protest calling for tougher gun laws, which her brother, Lexi, has organised.
« I’m just meeting myself where I am, » said Dani Cohn. “I don’t want to remember the 4th of July just as a tragedy. I want to remember and act. Do something. »
As July 4th of this year approached, city officials decided it was too soon to hold a parade again, but it was also important to come together. In addition to the somber morning events, the city has scheduled a drone show and concert for the evening, giving residents a chance to celebrate the holiday without the noise of fireworks, which still makes many residents nervous.
Ghida Neukirch, the city manager, said residents of Highland Park did not want their city to be defined by tragedy. But in planning the holiday, officials had to take stock of the traumas people still carry, especially in large crowds.
“I was at my daughter’s graduation,” Ms Neukirch said, “and I’m thinking, how am I going to escape here? And how can I protect my family if a shooter starts shooting in this crowd?”
For some who have lost loved ones, the shooting has profoundly reshaped the way they thought about Highland Park. As children, Jon and Peter Straus sometimes attended the parade with their father, Stephen Straus. He was among those killed on July 4th.
The elderly Mr. Straus, who at age 88 still commuted by train to his job as a financial advisor in downtown Chicago, was a familiar face in Highland Park, where he took long walks through the city.
« We were with him the night before he died, and he told me he was going to the parade, and it didn’t surprise me, » Jon Straus said in a recent interview. “He just liked being around. He liked being where the action was.
The Straus family is one of several who have sued a gunmaker over the shooting, claiming irresponsible marketing of the high-powered rifle used that day helped lead to the tragedy. The violence also changed the brothers’ relationship with their hometown. A few weeks ago, the family sold their childhood home.