DOWNTOWN — Jalisa Ford will always remember her son as a spirit full of joy and excitement who was loved by his friends and the community.
Her 9-year-old son, Janari Ricks, who was shot and killed July 31 outside of his Cabrini Green home, is one of the faces pinned on the Tree of Remembrance at Daley Plaza, which was unveiled Wednesday to remember and honor the more than 700 people who died from gun violence this year.
Ford and her family joined dozens of other families Downtown to pay tribute to their slain loved ones, find their face on the purple tree and receive a card and a T-shirt with a picture of their child from nonprofit Never Forget Chicago.
“It’s an honor not only for my son to be honored on this tree but for all the victims who have lost their lives to this tragedy,” Ford said. “It brings the community together, letting them know everyone is special.”
Chicago has seen a steep uptick in shooting deaths in 2020, with 728 murders — a 55 percent increase compared to last year, according to police data. A violent summer hit children particularly hard. Ricks was one of the dozens of children fatally shot this year.
Ford said Ricks has a street corner dedicated to him at North Cambridge Avenue and West Division Street in Cabrini Green, as well as a garden in his name at 44 W. Chicago Ave. She said he loved to give gifts to his friends around the holidays, and she is keeping his legacy alive with a holiday toy drive that will benefit children on the Near North Side.
The Tree of Remembrance’s location is intentional to remind people of the hurt that exists in the city outside of Downtown, said organizer Maxwell Emcays.
“The 2020 pandemic brought all of us down to that human level. And I think this tree being here, exactly where typically there is a big yearly celebration, says a lot,” Emcays said. “When it comes to loss, we are all equal in that capacity. This tree is a marker of that.”
Emcays said the goal of the Remembrance Tree, which will be at Daley Plaza until Dec. 27, is to promote healing, change and unity through tragedy and to acknowledge pain from gun violence in Chicago.
“Our communities are full of people in pain, full of people that need to release frustration,” he said. “Downtown got released with the frustration and pain [this summer]. If we show that people’s pain and frustration matters, I think we heal and come together in a lot of stronger ways.”
This is the first year the organization has put up a tree to remember gun violence victims, but Never Forget Chicago has held similar events in the past to bring together victims’ families and promote healing and peace.
Social justice activists, religious leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were in attendance Wednesday to show support for the victims’ families and to urge the city to come together against violence.
In an emotional speech to the crowd, Lightfoot said Chicago has failed the families who have suffered. She urged every citizen to come together and do their part to curtail gun violence, no matter what neighborhood they live in.
“Public safety cannot be a luxury that is only available to the rich and powerful,” Lightfoot said. “ Every single family, in every ZIP code, deserves to live in peace. Our young children deserve to be able to go out and trick or treat or enjoy the Fourth of July or be in their house … . I don’t care who you are or what your circumstances are, we all deserve to have that kind of peace, but we all have to be united on this journey to get there together.”
Lightfoot said the city must do better and she is committed to stopping the city’s gun violence. That starts with accountability, showing greater support for children and having high expectations and better opportunities for young men caught in gang violence, she said.
Latasha Banks, the mother of 17-year-old Vonzell Banks, who was fatally shot in Bronzeville in 2015, attended the tree unveiling to remember her son and stand in support of the families who lost their loved ones this year. Pointing to the pin of her son on the tree, she said the vigil made her happy he is being remembered with the help of groups like Never Forget Chicago.
“Even though he’s not here, he’s alive and well in spirit,” said Banks, who also received a T-shirt with Vonzell’s face on it. “With everybody coming together, you feel like family, it’s not like you are by yourself.”
For more information on Ford’s toy drive, email firstname.lastname@example.org.