Families of 2016 slain bear crosses down Magnificent Mile

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Over 700 crosses were erected and carried along Michigan Avenue on Dec. 31, 2016 — one for each person killed in 2016 in Chicago. Greg Zanis, of Aurora, constructed the crosses with the help of volunteers and distributed them to families of the victims.

The crosses were heavy.

Each one was about four feet tall, formed from two hefty wooden planks nailed together. A name was scribbled on each one. And an age. And a number.

Like Madison Watson, 4 years old, No. 456.

Or Donald Carter Brunson, 28 years old, No. 522.

Each cross was for one of the more than 750 homicide victims in Chicago in 2016. They were numbered to represent where the death fell on the year’s homicide count. No. 1, for example, was the cross for Deandre Holiday, shot to death Jan. 1., 2016, two hours into the new year.

And on Saturday, the last day of 2016, as hundreds marched down Michigan Avenue with the crosses held high, some were surprised by how much strength it took to carry them.

The crosses were heavy, people agreed. But not as heavy as a casket.

"We’re protesting violence. Who are we calling to get involved? Everyone," said the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church, who organized the march with the help of Greg Zanis, an Aurora-based carpenter known for installing crosses at the sites of tragedies around the country.

"Every elected official, every government agency, every business and corporation, every mosque, every synagogue and church, every law enforcement official, every parent, neighbor and resident, and every citizen — from children to elders. Everyone. We are calling on all of Chicago to take a stand against violence," Pfleger said.

Before the march, Pfleger and his fellow organizers unloaded the crosses from a truck and lined them up numerically along Pioneer Court, so that families could locate the cross for their loved one based on the day they were killed.

"There!" a girl cried out, sprinting toward the group of crosses marked "April, Numbers 101 to 188." She lifted up one holding a young man’s photo and carried it to a crowd of crosses held by others who, like her, had experienced irreversible loss in 2016.

Elsewhere, Daisy Villarreal, 19, smiled down at the cross she was about to carry. It bore her brother’s name: Jesus Valois. He was 24, and he died Aug. 21 after being shot near his home in the Homan Square neighborhood.

Before his death, he was excited by the news that he’d be a father, Villarreal said. Her niece or nephew is due Sunday, on New Year’s Day.

The family hopes Valois might live again through his child. Perhaps the baby would grow up to be an artist, like his or her father.

"I’m glad to be here," Villarreal said. "A lot of people here are here for the same reason. It’s a way to know that it’s OK for me to feel this way."

The march itself was mostly silent but for the soft sound of a woman reading off the names of the more than 750 homicide victims. The names filled 29 pages, Pfleger said.

While most marchers held crosses, some carried framed photographs of their deceased loved ones or strung those photos around their necks. Pedestrians halted their shopping as the marchers passed, and a few retail workers huddled behind the windows of their stores, watching through the glass.

During the reading of April’s victims, as the crowd was crossing Ontario Street, Lisa Rauckinas, who had traveled from Naperville to spend the day downtown with her husband, Paul, began to cry. She felt shaken by the sight of all the crosses, all the victims’ photos. It all made her feel terrible, she said.

One of the marchers broke from the crowd to give Rauckinas a hug, and tell her that she appreciated her compassion.

"It’s just so powerful. So quiet," said Rauckinas, 48. "These people are literally carrying their burdens."

A little more than an hour later, as the marchers approached their end point back at Pioneer Court, Pfleger, marching beside the Rev. Jesse Jackson, noticed a saxophonist playing nearby.

"Find out if he knows ‘Amazing Grace,’ " Pfleger told an organizer.

He did. The saxophonist played as the marchers dispersed, as victims’ families headed home with their crosses. Unclaimed crosses were collected, to be kept for families who couldn’t make Saturday’s march.

"It means a lot," said Renee Canaday Sr., who had taken time off from his job as a postal worker to honor his son, Deandre Holiday, the man killed in January.

"I know it’s sad, but this all just makes me feel better."