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A Solemn Walk Through Highland Park One Year After Parade Massacre

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There were no marching bands this year. No floats. No church groups tossing snacks to spectators. No American flags lining the sidewalks.

Instead, there were prayers. There were tears. And there was a somber stroll down Central Avenue, a collective effort to take back a parade route that was stolen in a storm of bullets.

Over generations in Highland Park, Ill., a quaint parade through downtown became synonymous with the Fourth of July.

But in less than a minute last Independence Day, a gunman firing from a rooftop killed seven people, wounded dozens and sent families scrambling for cover, leaving water bottles and red-white-and-blue lawn chairs scattered on the ground.

As the first anniversary of the massacre approached, city leaders faced a seemingly impossible set of demands: Honor the people who died. Reclaim the parade’s path through downtown. Give people space to celebrate the country’s birthday. And support residents of the Chicago suburb still carrying devastating wounds, mental and physical, from last year.

“When there are mass shootings in this country, a day or two later, people move on,” Mayor Nancy Rotering said. “But those communities that are directly impacted are carrying this pain and this trauma forevermore.”

Among the hundreds who gathered on the lawn of City Hall for a remembrance ceremony on Tuesday were residents who last July 4 were in the line of fire. Jeffrey Briel, who described taking cover with his young grandchildren not far from the gunman, said reminders of the shooting were everywhere — in pock marks in the downtown square left by bullets, in a temporary memorial that now sits beside City Hall. Highland Park was still grieving, he said.

“I want 2024 to be back to having a parade,” said Mr. Briel, who like many was wearing a hat that said “HP Strong.” “So maybe this is a way of starting the healing process a little bit.”

A year ago, the Rev. Hernan Cuevas was just a few days into his tenure as pastor of a Roman Catholic parish in Highland Park when the parade took place. Mr. Cuevas had rounded up congregants for the church float and bought granola bars to hand out to people along the route. Then he heard what sounded like fireworks.

He said it was not until he saw “a wave of people walking toward us, running, crying” that “we thought, ‘These are not fireworks. This is for real.’”

They fled a couple of blocks to the church, where a mix of members and other paradegoers, some with blood on their clothes, waited for hours while the authorities searched for the gunman. They prayed the rosary. They looked nervously at the news on their phones.

Mr. Cuevas said his congregants had processed the trauma from that day differently, and had different ideas about how to observe this Fourth of July. Some wanted to return to normal. Some wanted space to grieve. Others left town for the holiday, seeking distance from the pain.

“It brings back again some of the memories,” Mr. Cuevas said of the anniversary. “It triggers some of the emotions of loss and fear.”

On Tuesday, many residents voiced grief and trauma infused with a sense of anger that the accused gunman, a local resident who had previously drawn the attention of the authorities, was still able to buy and use a high-powered gun, according to prosecutors. The accused, 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 lakefront city of about 30,000 people, was a center of a national push for stricter gun laws. The city passed a municipal ban on certain high-powered rifles that led to a legal fight.

After the killings last year, local officials pushed the Democrats in control of state government in Illinois to tighten the state’s gun laws, which were already among the country’s most restrictive. In January, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law banning the sale of many high-powered rifles, which gun rights supporters have challenged in court. Mayor Rotering, a Democrat, has called for a national ban on such weapons.

“Somebody with a legally obtained weapon can choose to end a broad swath of a community’s life,” she said. “That to me is a human rights violation.”

Many residents wore shirts on Tuesday morning calling for stricter gun laws, and some held a demonstration in Highland Park in the afternoon.

Last year, Dani Cohn, a Highland Park native, was sitting in a lawn chair outside a pancake house with family members, including Jacquelyn Sundheim, when the gunfire started.

Though Ms. Cohn escaped physical injury, Ms. Sundheim, who was known as Jacki and who coordinated events at a local synagogue, was killed. Ms. Cohn recalled performing CPR and grabbing 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 to attend the protest calling for stricter gun laws, which her sibling, Lexi, organized.

“I am just kind of meeting myself where I’m at,” Dani Cohn said. “I don’t want to remember the Fourth of July as just being this tragedy. I want to remember and take action. Do something.”

As July 4 approached this year, city officials decided it was too soon to hold a parade again, but also important to gather. In addition to somber morning events, the city scheduled a drone show and a concert for the evening, giving residents a chance to celebrate the holiday without the noise of fireworks, which still sets many residents on edge.

Ghida Neukirch, the city manager, said residents of Highland Park did not want their city to be defined by the tragedy. But in planning for the holiday, officials had to take stock of the trauma people still carry, especially in large crowds.

“I was at my daughter’s graduation,” Ms. Neukirch said, “and I’m thinking about, how will I escape here? And how can I protect my family if a shooter starts shooting among this crowd?”

For some who lost loved ones, the shooting profoundly reshaped how 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 last July 4.

The elder Mr. Straus, who at age 88 still commuted by train to his job as a financial adviser in downtown Chicago, was a familiar face in Highland Park, where he took long walks around town.

From left to right, Stephen Straus with his sons, Jon and Peter.Credit…

“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 to be out and about. He liked to be where the action was.”

The Straus family is one of several who have sued a gun manufacturer over the shooting, claiming that 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.

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