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The Daily Need

‘I am Trayvon Martin’

In the wake of the tragic shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and with growing calls to stop what critics contend are racially-motivated police actions, I saw this powerful post on Facebook written by my friend Dawn Porter. Dawn and her husband Dave are black, and the parents of two boys not that much younger than Trayvon Martin. I asked Dawn if we could post her note, and she was happy to share it.

Here’s her post:

Eleven years ago, my husband and I gave a friend a ride to a fancy neighborhood in Essex Fells, N.J., about 15 minutes away from where we live. I was seven months pregnant with my first son. While we sat and waited to make sure she got in safely, a police car with flashing lights pulled up behind us. The officer came to the car and asked why we were there.  Even after we told him, he continued to question us, and asked for our license and registration.

My husband and I are both lawyers. We studied hard and worked hard to get through college and law school and we were eagerly awaiting the birth of our first son. In other words, it was the happiest time of our lives.

We were sitting in a car on the side of the road 15 minutes from our own home. We weren’t doing anything.

As I got increasingly annoyed and began to talk back to the officer, I saw my handsome, brilliant, hardworking, never-been-in-trouble husband (and why do I even think it’s important to emphasize that?!!) slowly put both his hands on the steering wheel, and say in a voice — and with a tone I’d never heard from him — “All right, officer. I’m going to reach in and get the documents for you.”  In that moment, my husband realized what I didn’t: that nothing mattered then but that we were black and in a place a police officer thought we shouldn’t be.

While the officer walked back to his car to run our license plates, only then did I see his partner standing off to the side, legs spread, pointing a gun at our car.

When he returned our documents, he did not apologize.

I am Trayvon Martin. And 11 years later, I have to explain to my sons that they could be, too.

Dawn Porter is a lawyer and documentary filmmaker.  Her documentary “Gideon’s Army” about the American criminal justice system and young criminal defense lawyers practicing in the South will be broadcast on HBO.

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  • Kllymllr88

    You know, I felt annoyed that everyone is saying this is about race because to me it is a black and white, no pun intended, case of cold blooded murder. The guy who killed that child deserves life in prison no matter the color. BUT I do understand better how people who share Treyvon’s race are so angry, because, perhaps a lot of them can relate all too closely, and because they remember a time when it could have been them. Not nearly all humans have not felt afraid, at some point, for their life, but to be innocent and afraid based on racial profiling… that is not something we have all felt, especially by those who we pay to protect every citizen.

  • Alan Breslauer

    Powerful re: Trayvon Martin case.

  • Moufid Al-Joundi

    Kllymllr88 – This has everything to do with Race and Race Profiling. You would know this and would have experienced it if your ethnic background was profiled in anyway. The fact is, racism is still alive and doing well in America. The harsh reality is, some people, not all, but some people were raised on ignorance or intolerance. You cant argue the fact that if a teenage boy who was white was murdered by a black man than this case would have a completely different turn of events. This inst about murder, this is about an ongoing paranoia or which triggered a person to shoot down a child in cold blood. Every single person who is sharing their personal relevant experiences arent making inconsequential accusations for personal hype. This is about a deeply rooted and ongoing issue that has been around since America’s inception.

  • Dawnmporter

    Thank you so much for writing this post.  This is exactly what I hoped to do – help everyone understand the special significance for minorities, BUT I also understand how it is only by sharing our experiences that we help others see life from other perspectives.  I am so touched that you wrote in.  Thank you. 

  • Andreaviets

    Dear Ms. Porter: Thank you for being willing to help educate those who still do not understand or believe that racism continues to poison the very air that we breathe. Hearing experiences like this from people of color from all walks of life, from all over the country, from urban and rural areas, from young and old, men and women, perhaps will open more minds and hearts to do the work that must be done to *clean* our air, our thoughts, our systems of “education,” our beliefs, our judgements. I hope with deepest of hopes that you, and I, and our sons, are blessed to see this cleansing and reconciling underway in our lifetimes. As a white woman, I will never be Trayvon Martin. I *am* his mother, though. I stand with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, in abject grief and horror, filled with rage and disbelief, determined with a mother’s fierce love that Trayvon’s death will not be in vain, his killer brought to justice, and the world will see our beloved Black sons as who they are: beloved, priceless treasures of our hearts who hold unending promise for the future of our country.

    I cannot stop weeping…

  • TheyChoosin_Sappy


  • Abbycolen

    Thanks so much for sharing with everyone. What a tragedy this shooting  was and your willingness to share and educate others is crucial. Your community is thankful for that. 
    What an awful experience  for you to go through. Abby

  • Analytic Critic

    There’s a lot of racial bias in this country. That said, I’m not sure this incident says much about it. The police car approached them from behind so it’s not likely the cops knew the Porters were black. Ms. Porter seems outraged that the officer didn’t take her word for why they were there and she refused to comply with his request for license and registration. By her own account, she got increasingly annoyed and began to talk back. I’m white, and I would never dream of doing anything except giving the police the documents they requested in a situation like that. I suspect the cop’s primary interest was in clearing the incident and getting on with his night and that Ms. Porter’s lack of cooperation only served to raise his concern needlessly. I also suspect that he could care less that she and her husband are lawyers or were in the happiest time of their lives. It probably was relevant that the Porters lived only 15 minutes away, but confirming that depended on checking Mr. Porter’s license. As for the cop’s partner providing backup, there’s no way to tell whether he drew his gun before or after Ms. Porter began arguing. She also implies she was troubled that the cop didn’t apologize. Fair enough, but based on what she wrote, I’d say she had a little apologizing of her own to do.  As for her one liner, “I am Trayvon Martin”, it’s a throwaway line that evokes lots of emotion but not much insight. She wasn’t stopped unreasonably. She wasn’t searched or frisked. She wasn’t the subject of racially biased remarks or, that I can tell, treatment. The only injury seems to be to her pride, and that was self inflicted. I trust her documentary on HBO will be well received, in particular now that she has benefited from this publicity. 

  • Dawnmporter

    People certainly see things differently.  But you have some key facts wrong.   

    1. We handed over the license and registration right away. We did not refuse to comply with his request.  We were not “uncooperative” or “arguing”.   What “incident ” do you see in a couple parked by the side of the road waiting for a friend to get safely into the house? The police created the incident.  What if they just watched us and we drove away like we planned?  2. AFTER we gave him the license and registration and told him whey we were there – he continued grilling us, asking details over and over .  I was annoyed that he didn’t believe us.3. Legally we were stopped.  We were not free to leave.  He pointed a flashlight in our car – looking for I don’t know what.  In fact, the next day I wrote to the police department complaining and the police officer in charge who called me to explain that Essex Fells was not an “urban” town like Montclair where we live so we should understand his officer was suspicious. Its also interesting that this happened to us right in the middle of the successful stories about the rampant practice of racial profiling by new jersey state troopers.  We certainly could have sued or whatever but neither of us wanted to do anything like that.  We wanted the police to not draw and point guns at people sitting by the side of the road because they are black. 5. I dont even know what to say about the gratuitous swipe at my film  - goodness  - I am grateful i am not such a cynic …  so your thought is that in reaction to the news that a 17 year old unarmed teenager was killed by an armed person who outweighed him by 100 pounds – I posted about a scary incident in my past on my PRIVATE FACEBOOK and hoped that it would be picked up by PBS to gain publicity for my documentary?  Got me.  

  • Ann Foster

    A good reason why racial bias is rife in this country is because of the  insensible analyses which are often inaccurate and dismissive of  some hard core issues.  For one thing, these are two attorneys who understand law and compliance.  In no wise are they showing an effort to NOT comply with the officer’s request.  However, you seem to focus on Mrs. Porter’s “increased annoyance.”  Is it that you feel as though she has no right to feel annoyed and no right to ask questions?  She’s an attorney and is thoroughly aware of law enforcement procedure.

    Sadly, it’s this issue called “White Denial” (The anti-racist writer, Tim Wise defines it:  that is at the root of much of the vitriol and bigotry sweeping this country. 

    Bravo for the courage to share this dark moment, Mrs. Porter.
    Our families are Trayvon Martin! 

  • Analytic Critic

    Ms. Porter,
    You’re focused on the ingrained prejudices and injustices that still remain in our society. I couldn’t agree more that this is a serious problem. But as I said before, I don’t see your specific story as a good example.

    For one thing, I’m having trouble with the changing versions. You now say you handed over your license and registration right away, and that you were not uncooperative or arguing. In your original posting, however, you stated that you “got increasingly annoyed and began to talk back to the officer”, AFTER WHICH (emphasis mine) your husband told the cop that he was going to “reach in to get the documents”. What’s your final answer?

    As tensions rose that night, you credit your husband with deducing that nothing mattered except that you were black and in the wrong place. Yet it seems reasonable to ask if an additional factor might have been that the two of you weren’t doing what most of us would: i.e., give the cop our documents and not talk back.

    I passed your story by an acquaintance of mine at the gym tonight, a local cop in a well-to-do town not far from Essex Fells. He was surprisingly sympathetic with your being upset. After all, you had done nothing wrong. He said there were two reasons why the police car might have pulled in behind you while you were stopped. The most common is that an anxious neighbor phones it in. It doesn’t sound like you were there long enough for that. The other reason is simply that he sees a car stopped and it’s his responsibility to check it out. It could be a burglarly or other crime in progress, or a driver with a medical problem, or a car breakdown, or whatever. Once he radios in the license plate (before he ever walks up to your car) and the dispatcher runs it, he is required to file a short report explaining the disposition of what is then an “incident.” It doesn’t mean anyone has done anything wrong, just that a situation has been reported and now has to be resolved. One of the normal things he does is to ask for license and registration even when the explanation seems obvious, as when a couple stopped to feed their baby one night. Because he just doesn’t know what might be happening and it’s his job to check everything out. ANYTHING you say that slows things down or causes him to think the situation is not quite right–e.g., not producing your documents upon request–triggers another question, perhaps the same question he asked earlier just to see if you answer it the same way. And maybe it triggers a little alarm.

    He did express surprise that the cop’s partner had his gun out and doesn’t blame you for being upset. From his perspective, if the partner couldn’t hear what was being said and/or the exchange had started to get heated (your expression “talking back” covers a lot of ground), he couldn’t blame the partner for taking prudent action just in case something might escalate.

    Your primary objection seems to be that the police were unduly suspicious and you assume this was because you were black. You may well be right; my friend commented very matter of factly that there are some obnoxious cops out there. But…that’s a slippery slope intellectually. Is their being suspicious of you because you are black any different than your being certain of their motives because of, in your words, the “rampant practice of racial profiling by new jersey state troopers”. Be honest. Aren’t you judging these local cops, if not all cops, by the actions of some (but by no means all) of a different branch of law enforcement?

    I’m not denying that racism remains a sinister and corrosive force in our imperfect society. Whether I agree with someone’s view or not, however, they are a lot more persuasive to me–with a far better chance of convincing me of the merits of their position–when they deal in facts rather than opinions, appeal to reason rather than emotion, and avoid referring to me as being in “white denial” because I don’t agree with everything they say (that wasn’t your phrase but it was applied to me after I posted the first time). If you want people who already think exactly the way you do to tell you how brave and insightful your are, stick with the plan. But if you want to help change the world for the better, you and the admirable causes you champion would be better served by your maintaining the same open mind and lack of prejudice as you hope others display towards you.

    As for whether you attempted or hoped to turn your private FB posting into favorable publicity for your film, you’re being a bit disingenuous. It would be presumptuous of me to say I know what your thoughts actually were. I suspect both of us are well aware of what can be accomplished with viral marketing using social media. Whether you intended the result or were just the unwitting beneficiary, congratulations!

  • Ray Cummings

    Pick any city, town,  or village in this country and 99.9% of African-Americans can tell you that same or similar story. This country is still as racist as it was in the 50′s & 60′s.  The only factors that has gotten it off the front pages of newspapers is prosperity……and then greed.

  • Mcdonaldmary95

    I am trayvon Martin  also and I am happy that you shared that message to the world..when we will learn that’s a question that only the Lord can answer!

  • Guest

    Is anyone thinking that the whole country is going nuts over Trayvon Martin without any facts about the case?  Does anyone care if Trayvon assaulted Zimmerman or not?  Oh well, carry on, I guess hijacking Trayvon for your own uses will do in the mean time…
    Racism sucks, but so does a whole country that would rather witch hunt than fact find…  God Bless the innocent, who ever you are

  • Doug

    I think it is wrong what happened to your friends the attorneys in NJ.  How about telling the other side’s stories.  Try being white and walking through the south side of Chicago, IL or Kendall, Maimi some evening and see how long it takes before you get hassled, not by the cops, but the locals.

  • stan chaz

    Just as we have seen with anti-women and ant-voter  legislation spreading across the country this year, the Right is also trying to expand this type of vigilante “stand your ground” gun  legislation to other states…including even liberal New York State. We ned to be as informed and organized, or better informed and organized, than these well-funded Right-Wingers. PBS and 13 are part of this effort… to shine a light on these topics.

  • soccer cleats

    Good article, hope to see more similar

  • Collitonstudio

    Sad to say, I’m sorry! I ran from police in Washington DC 1969 and fought in Nam in 1971…..and we are still killing our own citizens in the land of the “Free”

  • Yoice001
  • Tenured2000

    Witch hunts abound in this country, usually they tend to be female “witch” hunts. A gay female is fired from her education position, however, the gay male is not!
    This is still a land of selective bigotry.

  • Jason

    boo hoo. I’m white and i get harassed like that in inner city Columbus Ohio

  • Beth Hart

    Dawn, I just read this. I moved to this area of NJ hoping that we would never hear of anything like this in our neighborhood. Sadly racism prevails here too. Thanks for sharing that story. I am saddened.
    Beth Taylor Hart – your colleague on MFF

  • rmurray

    You make us racist