Not trash. Not widgets. Not just a statistic. Not forgotten.
Despite the way their killer discarded their breathless brutalized bodies in assorted alleys, vacant lots, abandoned buildings or set ablaze in garbage cans from Chicago’s South Side to the West Side, they are human. Not garbage.
Say their names. Look into their eyes. See their souls…
No matter how sordid the details of some of these victims’ past, they were flesh and blood, heart and soul, human. All 51.
That’s the number of Chicago women, mostly African American, ages 18 to 58, identified by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Murder Accountability Project. They were strangled to death or asphyxiated. And based on a computer algorithm developed by researcher and project founder Thomas K. Hargrove, their slayings since 2001 are believed to be the sadistic work of at least one serial killer.
According to police and the Murder Accountability Project, many — though not all — engaged in “high-risk “ behaviors: street prostitution, illicit drug use.
And yet, none of this justifies how they died — at the hands of a monstrous killer who defiled their bodies if not also their souls, leaving behind a ceaseless trail of salty tears.
Tears for how they were taken. Tears because their murders remain unsolved.
Tears of loved ones — their mourning made heavier by the cloud of shame from those who would cast aspersions — as if these victims were “less than,” the sum of their mistakes, perhaps disposable.
There is neither justification for dehumanizing these women nor reason to assume that their loss would have less impact upon their communities, or upon a city that sometimes seems to have lost its soul.
Should we not all be moved?
Sometimes lost in the blitz of daily news, in the constant barrage of murder and mayhem that numbs the senses are the stories of those who live and die on society’s fringes. Mostly untold stories of people upon whom we pass judgment.
People we deem less worthy. Those who got what they had coming to them: The drug addicts, hookers, the poor and homeless, gangbangers and assorted thugs, “societal rejects” and other less desirables.
“Them” over there as opposed to “us” over here.
But who made us God? Judge and jury?
Crystal clear when I stare into the smattering of publicly available portraits of the 51 is that here is somebody’s sister. Somebody’s mother. Somebody’s niece. Aunt. Cousin. Daughter.
Clear that all of them, once upon a time, were somebody’s baby girls, filled with hopes and dreams. That they are not some “ho,” “hoochie,” “hype,” or hooker, but human.
That much is also clear to my class of journalism students at Roosevelt University, which this semester is taking on this case. The objective of our project titled, “Unforgotten: The Untold Stories of Murdered Chicago Women,” however, is not to find the killer, or even to examine the murders, but to humanize the victims.
To secure their photographs and to write a portrait of each woman.
Ultimately the aim of our collective published work and public presentation at semester’s end is to serve as a reminder of why we should — of why we must — all care.
“The more you can humanize them” the better, Hargrove told me recently about our efforts. “The attention that you would bring to these women would be a good thing.”
Greg Zanis, the retired Aurora, Illinois carpenter who erected thousands of crosses across the country in memory of victims of homicide and mass shootings, agrees. He told me he will build 51 more crosses — to memorialize these murdered women.
To show that they are not trash. Not widgets. Not just a statistic. Not forgotten.
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