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Ashbey Beasley, a Highland Park resident who was moved to activism after the mass shooting says, “We were broke, but we have built ourselves back and we are stronger.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Highland Park readies for return of annual parade two years after tragedy

“We are not a weak community. We are a strong community,” says Highland Park resident Ashbey Beasley.

American flags already adorn the parade route for Thursday’s Independence Day parade in downtown Highland Park. It will mark the first time the city has hosted a parade since the 2022 mass shooting that forever changed the North Shore community.

Last year, the city opted for a quieter community walk to mark the one-year anniversary of a massacre that claimed the life of seven people, injured dozens more and altered the lives of countless others.

This year, floats, bands and all the trappings of a typical parade will return.

“We are not a weak community. We are a strong community,” Highland Park resident Ashbey Beasley said last week.

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Flanked by politicians, supporters and mourners, Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering (center) led thousands on a community walk on July 4, 2023, marking the one-year anniversary of the Highland Park mass shooting.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Beasley attended the parade two years ago with her then 6-year-old son.

Beasley, who has become a community activist pushing for stronger gun laws in Illinois, plans to attend Thursday morning’s pre-parade memorial service that begins at 10 a.m. at Edgewood Middle School.

“We were broke but we have built ourselves back and we are stronger,” Beasley said. She spoke last week after a hearing in which the accused shooter in the massacre was expected to change his plea to guilty. In open court he refused to accept a deal to plead guilty. His original trial date remains set for February 2025.

The parade route will be slightly different than in 2022. It will bypass the area where the shooting rang out two years ago.

Highland Park City Manager Ghida Neukirch said planning for this year’s 1 pm parade, with the theme “Sweet Home Highland Park,” took into consideration resident and business feedback, as well as input from victims.

“We’re using a trauma-informed approach,” Neukirch said. “We put together a variety of different events this year that allow us to remember and reflect on the tragedy that we endured two years ago, certainly to remember those lives that were tragically killed and then to also bring back familiar and celebrated holiday traditions on the Fourth of July.”

Like many others, Neukirch remembers July 4, 2022 very clearly. She attended the parade with her teenage son and nephew. They were near Central and Green Bay Road, just a block from where the shooting began.

“I ran back into the hot zone once I knew that my kids were safe,” Neukirch recalls, referring to the area of Central Avenue and 2nd Street where shots rang out.

Neukirch said tragedy brought the community together to support each other. “That’s one of the many things that I love about the people of Highland Park and just the community overall,” Neukirch said.

She says July 4th remains a hard day for her and her staff but, “we know that we have a job to do and we will put everything we have into it to really help meet the needs of our entire community.”

Neukirch believes the community is ready to enjoy a parade once again.

“We’re just working diligently and I hope that the Fourth of July provides something for everybody. We’re working to balance the remembrance as well as the important celebration of our country’s independence and trying to do that in a very thoughtful, respectful way,” she said.

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From left to right, Nicolas Toledo Zaragoza, 78, Jacki Sundheim, 63, Irina McCarthy 35 and Kevin McCarthy, 37, Stephen Straus, 88, Katherine Goldstein, 64, and Eduardo Uvaldo, 69, victims of the July 4th parade shooting at a memorial site in Highland Park on July 7, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Considering a quiet day at home

The Rev. Quincy Worthington, a minister at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, said he may opt out of the parade for a quiet day at home.

Two years ago, while he was at his parents’ home in Erie, Pennsylvania, he received a text from his then-13-year-old daughter, who was at the parade with a friend.

“I got the text from her saying ‘Don’t worry, I’m safe.’ I had no idea what she was talking about. Then my phone just started blowing up and I instantly hopped in the car and drove back to Highland Park,” Worthington said.

Just a few months prior, Worthington and his family had moved to Highland Park.

“I hadn’t experienced a summer here before the shooting to know what the town was like beforehand. But I’ve noticed, this summer more people are out and about in the town and moving around. I think there’s also a lot of grief here. There’s a large Jewish population. So with the conflicts in the war that’s going on with Israel and Palestine, I think a lot of this grief gets compounded,” Worthington said. “There’s a lot of healing that’s still going on.”

Worthington still considers himself an outsider. He said he’s spent the last couple of years listening to people to help in the healing process.

“I think the most important thing to do is to listen to people but also to help people see that there’s still hope, that there’s still light. Being a Christian, one of our big passages in the Gospel of John, it tells us the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t overcome it,” Worthington said. “I think a lot of times, the best way for us to get out of our own grief is to practice empathy towards others and to help other people.”

Worthington was part of last year’s memorial service for the victims. He is impressed with how the city is handling this year’s celebration, as well as the memorial service.

“That being said, I know some people who are at the shooting who … the thought of attending a parade is still very difficult for them,” Worthington said. “And then I know people who also are like, ‘Hey, we should just move on and go back to normal.’ I think the city is in a tightrope situation. I think they’ve done an excellent job of walking that way.”

Local Al Frisch is among those ready to get back to normal.

“You can’t be intimidated by these crazy people and you have to go forward,” said Frisch, the longtime owner of Highland Park Ford. “They didn’t have a parade last year. I thought they made a mistake. You have to go and live your life normal. I don’t feel you should be intimidated over what transpired.”

Reporter Michael Puente is on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Community team. Follow him on X @mikepuentenews.

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