URBANA — Almost 400 people turned out for a rally on the University of Illinois campus Wednesday night, calling for justice for Trayvon Martin and hoping to put a halt to similar deaths.
Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. He had purchased candy at a convenience store and was returning to a gated community in the city when he was shot by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who has not been charged. Zimmerman told police he shot in self-defense.
After meeting in front of the Alma Mater statue, the participants made a silent walk around the Quad.
The UI's Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which organized the rally, unfurled a banner to lead the walk.
Anthony B. Sullers Jr. of Chicago, president of the Black Greek Council, said it was a good to know that so many students were taking a stand to support Martin and his family.
"What happened to Trayvon Martin was a tragedy, and to see all these people want to do something about it is a great feeling," Sullers said.
Many of those taking part wore hoodies, as Martin was wearing when he was shot. Some of them carried bags of Skittles, the candy Martin was carrying as he headed home from the convenience store. Others were carrying flowers or candles.
At the end of the walk, a series of speakers delivered emotional pleas for justice in the Florida case.
William Patterson, adjunct assistant professor of African-American studies at the UI, challenged the students present to use the education they are receiving at the university to help uplift society, something he calls becoming "I-powered."
"Become I-powered at the highest level so you can go to medical school to heal the hurt in the hood, caused by a corrupt health care system," Patterson said. "Become I-powered at the highest level so you can become the next lawyer, then judge to argue and decide laws within a cultural context. Become I-powered to be the next professor of African-American studies, to help argue the case for change against policies that continue to victimize the victims of killers who are in their legal rights to defend themselves."
The rally concluded with a few moments of prayer for Martin and his family.
Brendan Gilbert of Chicago, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, said it was important for students to take a stand on the issue.
"If anyone wants to shoot or kill someone, they should be arrested and held for trial," Gilbert said. "We are rallying because justice is needed right now."
"That tragedy could have happened to my brother or my cousin," said Valentina Lana of Chicago. "Trayvon deserves justice, and we speaking out tonight show he is important to the African-American community."
Aaron Beasley of Harvey said he was taking part in the rally as a first step to bring about justice.
"We have the right to bear arms. We have the right to freedom of speech, but we don't have the right to wear what we want without being profiled. We shouldn't have to profile a 17-year-old boy just because he was wearing a hoodie," Beasley said.
"What happened in Florida was a very sad event, and I wanted to come to show support for him and his family," said Victoria Pride of Forest Park.
Royel Johnson of Chicago said the rally was an opportunity for UI students to make a statement about race relations.
"It is hard to remove race from the picture," Johnson said. "The stereotype of black males often depicts us in ways in which people feel threatened and intimidated. We aren't what we wear. We are much more than what people think of us and how people represent us."