Diane Aoki was driving and listening to news radio one day when the overnight crime report came on as usual. But this time the absurdity, the floating quality of the news, struck her. It seemed that each local murder was noted, became public for a brief time, then disappeared. Nothing added up. There was no context. "They'd say a guy got shot or stabbed, a baby was thrown out a window. They didn't say the toll," Aoki recalls.
That was in October 1991, and that year the number of homicides in the city was 927. (Last year it climbed to 941.) Aoki, former art student, former housewife, who'd never done anything more political than make marketing calls for Greenpeace, decided to do something. She wanted to call attention to the deaths in a way that showed their totality. These people were killed in the city she and nearly three million other people lived in.
And that is why the storage area next to Aoki's apartment is full of coffins. They're small--four feet by one foot by one foot--made of particleboard, weighing about 20 pounds each. Two people can carry one pretty comfortably, she says.
She's hoping by Saturday morning, June 12, to have about 100 of them ready for a mock funeral march on the west side, in an area that's within the police district that had the highest number of homicides last year. The procession begins at Unique Funeral Home; chairman of the funeral home, Rodney Cozart, who's often spoken to school assemblies on the grim consequences of violence, helped do the organizing. The marchers will reflect Cozart's and Aoki's two worlds--concerned people from the Lawndale community and family members of murder victims, and artists and others from various parts of the city.
The march is a scaled-down version of Aoki's original plan: to set 900-plus coffins on 8,000 square feet in a public area downtown. The idea of placing coffins conspicuously was already germinating in her mind when she came across a clipping about a 1991 antiviolence march in Englewood that used mock coffins. She set about trying to get grants--she was awarded two--and a downtown location, which proved too difficult. Her vision was to have "ratty-looking pine boards" confronting viewers, to overwhelm people with the number of violent deaths. She heard about Cozart's school presentations and called him, figuring she'd find a like mind.
She was right. "I was somewhat elated because someone had the same thoughts and ideas that I had," he says. He suggested the funeral procession. By changing the venue and audience for the project, the message changes too, and Cozart says he's pleased about that. A march of coffins on the west side, he says, will provide a "visual whipping for people with a conscience." He adds, "I'm hoping that someone looking out of a window, knowing that they took part in taking someone's life, will be touched and moved. I'm hoping that someone who's not a good parent and lost a child to this sort of thing would become a better parent for the other children. I hope someone carrying a handgun will be impressed enough to say, 'They're marching because of me.'"
If Aoki was touched by the volume of murders from afar, Cozart is affected at close range. He's 26, grew up in Lawndale. "When removals are made from the morgue," Cozart says, "you see rows and rows of young black bodies lined up like doughnuts from a bakery. It sickens you to see that. It's rare you get an old person with Alzheimer's, that you get an opportunity to bury someone who died of cancer or leukemia."
Aoki, 33, grew up Diane Smith in Edgebrook on the northwest side, an area her mother used to call, quoting a columnist, "the Garden of Eden of Chicago." The only time homicide touched Aoki was when she was five and a playmate's father was killed. She attended the funeral. Death came into her life directly at 19, when her mother died of cancer.
Growing up, it was TV, Wonder bread, and Chef Boyardee, she says. Her grandparents were Polish and Swedish. "I didn't know a word of either language of my grandfolks," she says. "There didn't seem to be any culture for me." But she found a new family of sorts while a student at the School of the Art Institute. She became friends with Japanese students, later roomed with Japanese friends and learned the language. "I was welcomed," she says. "I was fascinated by it. Part of it has become part of me."
She married a Japanese man, and says she spent the four years of her married life shopping, horseback riding, and working on their house. She got back to painting only as the marriage was crumbling.
This will be the first time Aoki's work will be in the public eye. On the wall leading to the kitchen of her Lincoln Square apartment is a large painting of hers adorned with cascading dollar bills. Plants sit in nearby windows, and they're also in the storage area where she makes the coffins. By day she works for a company that maintains office plants--"I'm like this invisible person with a green shirt and a bucket."
Aoki says the experience of planning the march is opening up African American culture to her. Cozart has opened the west side to her. And she's eagerly reading African American fiction.
She doesn't have a particular plan or platform to combat violence. "Everything is interlocking, in a crazy puzzle," she says. But she wants people to notice the escalating number of needless deaths. "We live in a society with a diminishing value of life. . . . People say, 'Oh, look at Bosnia. Oh, look at Tiananmen Square.' Is it so great here?
"We really criticize other countries for their stance on human rights. How humane is it to keep people segregated and poor?"
The procession will begin, rain or shine, at 8 AM Saturday in front of Unique Funeral Home, 3425 W. Chicago, and will finish around noon on the east end of Douglas Boulevard in Douglas Park. Participants are asked to wear black and may bring flowers, sing, or recite prayers in the park. Nonalcoholic refreshments will be allowed. For more information, call Aoki at 769-5531.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.