EAST ST. LOUIS — Gun violence in the metro-east and across the country is claiming too many young lives and leaving behind grieving loved ones. It has to stop. This is the message that Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin is bringing to the East St. Louis community on Friday when he speaks to youth at a "Stop the Violence " rally.
Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and his older brother also will speak. The event is at noon at North End Missionary Baptist Church, 463 N. 88th St., in East St. Louis.
Trayvon Martin was 16 when he was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch security guard, George Zimmerman, in late February in Sanford, Fla., after the two scuffled. Martin was not armed. All he had on his person was a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, which he had just purchased at a local 7-Eleven.
In an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat, Tracy Martin, who grew up in East St. Louis, said he wants young people who are picking up guns and killing each other to know that death is permanent.
"It's something I will never get over. I had talked to my son between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., then 12-13 hours later I found out that he was dead. He was three weeks from turning 17. I know my son was a good kid who had a future. He was very responsible. If he said he was going to the movies or to the store, I know he was doing that," Martin said.
Good parenting is where it all starts, Martin said. Young people have to be taught to treasure their lives.
"We also have to get back into our roots -- the Church. If you have respect for home and faith in the Lord, you'll make positive changes."
To parents, Martin said, "A lot of them are not ready to have children. They're still out in the streets partying. We have to embrace our young people.
"The only way we get better as a nation, we have to educate ourselves on the system. We have to stop falling into the trap where guns, drugs and violence trap us," he said.
A native of East St. Louis, Martin said he knows "there's a lot of poverty here, but I don't look at it as one of the most dangerous places in the country. These are my peers, my family and friends. Hearing that it's seen as one of the most dangerous devastates my heart," Martin said.
He said young people have to be taught to believe that they can make it. They have to go to trade schools and continue looking for jobs, not just go and fill out applications here and there, Martin said.
Martin said he and Trayvon had a good father-son relationship.
"We talked about everything. I discussed a lot of my issues with him, so when he was out there making decisions, he would make the right or the best ones," he said.
Martin said he intends to tell young people that when they pick up a gun, they need to think about the life they're taking. That person is someone's child, loved one , friend, brother or cousin. Violence destroys family's and community's, he said.
"It doesn't matter whether you are black or white -- no one deserves to have their life taken from them."
Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder. Martin said that although he could not discuss the case, "We feel the guy was wrong for approaching our son after he had been told to stand down."
Asked about the hoodie his son was wearing, which some have said made him look suspicious, Martin said some famous, well-respected individuals wear hoodies, including Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
Martin said he is particularly disturbed by some media that have tried to "soil his son's image.
"My son is dead. He can't speak for himself. He wasn't aggressive and wasn't acting suspicious," he said.
Tracy Martin said his recipe for young people to stay out of trouble is: "Go to school and get educated."
At one time he sagged his pants, but as he grew older, he grew out of that look.
"I became a father and had responsibilities. I had to step up and be a man," he said.
"Pull up your pants and carry yourself like a man. Respect yourself and others will respect you. I also want them to know they do not want to become a part of the (criminal) system."