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George Zimmerman and the vigilante hero


You’ve probably all heard about George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin in Florida a month ago by now, but in case you haven’t here’s what we know: On February twenty-sixth, George Zimmerman, twenty-eight, shot Trayvon Martin, seventeen, dead in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman used a gun for which he had a concealed carry permit. Martin was unarmed. He had gone to the corner store for some Skittles and ice tea and was trying to return to his father’s girlfriend’s condo. Police listed him as a John Doe until someone in the department made the connection when his father was following up on his missing person report the next morning. A lot of the details are disputed. Here’s what Zimmerman apparently told the police:

Trayvon Martin walked up to Zimmerman’s vehicle and asked why he was following him. Zimmerman denied following the youth and rolled up the car window. Minutes after Trayvon walked away, Zimmerman got out of his vehicle.

Then came the second encounter, according to Tracy Martin’s recollection of the detective’s account. Trayvon Martin appeared from behind a building in Zimmerman’s gated community, approached him and demanded, “What’s your problem, homie?”

When Zimmerman replied that he didn’t have a problem, Martin said, “You do now.” The unarmed teenager hit Zimmerman, knocked him to the ground, pinned him down and told him to “shut the [expletive] up.”

During the beating, Zimmerman pulled his gun and fired one shot at close range into Martin’s chest. “You got me,” the teenager said, falling backward.

He apparently also claimed that Martin was beating his head into the pavement and said “You die tonight” and tried to grab his gun. This matches what Zimmerman was aware police knew at the time (his 911 call where he was told not to follow), but sounds really unlikely. In fact, it reminds me a lot of this spoileriffic, non-embeddable scene from Observe and Report. It sounds like what it almost assuredly is: a story concocted to make Zimmerman into the perfect victim and also a big damn hero standing up to the ravages of crime. He carefully sets it up so he did nothing to initiate or escalate the conflict and paints Martin as a ludicrously stereotyped villain that no one could blame him for shooting. Unfortunately, real criminals don’t talk like this, only criminals in hackneyed thrillers. Also, there’s the problem that Zimmerman had a concealed carry permit. Martin shouldn’t have known he had a gun unless he was showing it off to intimidate him. In the last few days it’s come out that contrary to earlier reports, the police did not accept this dubious story. Zimmerman was brought in for questioning unofficially and the lead investigator wanted to make an arrest and charge him with manslaughter because it looked like a wannabe cop got too eager to take down a criminal and shot an unarmed kid for not respecting authority he did not actually have as a neighborhood watch captain. (Note that basically everything he did is against neighborhood watch guidelines, which are designed to keep this sort of thing from happening.) State attorney Norman Wolfinger came down to the station, met with chief Bill Lee and they killed the case. Zimmerman’s father is a retired judge. This is likely relevant. Also, it contradicts information that came out later: Martin was on the phone to his girlfriend when the confrontation started. She heard Zimmerman confront him right before the call was lost.

I brought up Observe and Report because it seems to be about people like Zimmerman: Hotheaded vigilantes who are influenced by media narratives who think they just need a bad guy to take down and they’ll win the adulation of the community. I think Observe and Report was about pointing out that such people are dangerous and criticizing society for encouraging them, as Zimmerman perfectly illustrates. To tie this back to what I’ve been talking about the last few days, this is a highly controversial movie. You know what I said a couple days ago about how you can’t make the audience root for something contrary to the goals of the film? You actually can, but it’s one of the trickiest maneuvers you can do as you also need to communicate to the audience that they shouldn’t want to see this sort of behavior and make them question why they would cheer for it. It’s really easy for this latter part to fly right over your fanbase’s heads and end up with a misaimed fandom. TV Tropes covers this subject really well, but I’ll pick out a few personal highlights: My cousin watched Mean Girls and seemed to take the movie as a guide to get one up on girls you don’t like rather than a warning about the self-destructive nature of bullies. Apparently, some people watched Fight Club and were inspired to start their own local fight clubs instead of rejecting consumerism and toxic masculinity. Way too many people you’ll meet at the comic book store read Watchmen (or saw the movie these days) and came out of it thinking Rorschach is the ultimate crime-fighting badass instead of a violent psychopath who’s effectively a serial killer.

This brings us back to Ronnie Barnhardt, protagonist of Observe and Report. My girlfriend, Sophia, hated the movie and thought my interpretation wasn’t really supported by the movie. She’s wrong, as is anyone who disagrees with me, but she has plenty of company. Ben Lyons said “You don’t relate or enjoy watching Seth Rogen’s character on screen.” Kam Williams called it “a relentlessly-dark and disturbing celebration of depravity unlikely to resonate with any decent demographic.” In the misaimed fandom department, Graham Langer on IMDB took Ronnie to be the sort of loveable, raunchy loser trying to overcome the difficulties caused by his lack of social graces Seth Rogen normally plays and said “When Ronnie whipped out that extendo and bashed the group of crack heads I laughed so hard I almost shat my pants. When he took out the first few cops that charged him I was on my feet cheering!”

On the other hand, my view also has plenty of support. Jim Emerson and Quentin Tarantino both declared it one of the best movies of 2009. As to how my interpretation is supported by the movie: Ronnie’s scenes of victory are so ludicrous we would never accept them outside a movie. When he gets into monologues about living by a code and such, he sounds like he is self-consciously aping things he’s heard from fictional cowboy cops and super heroes. This is especially true of the ending, which is so ridiculously happy that the only way it makes sense is if it’s mocking the audience’s desire to see Ronnie succeed. There’s also the general lack of effort to make Ronnie likeable, as many critics who disliked the movie noticed. This is an unusual mode for American comedy and against type for Rogen, so I can see how a lot of people missed it. The movie was frequently compared to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which has a similar premise and opened a little bit earlier. I think this is apt largely because Ronnie thinks he’s Paul Blart: an unlucky, unappreciated everyman who protects society and just needs a big bust to get noticed. This works out for Blart because he’s in a formulaic movie with an over-the-top villain. It works out for Barnhardt because he apparently occupies a universe that thinks this is the case for him, even though his nemesis is just a flasher and on the whole, a lot less dangerous than he is.

We can argue about the meaning of fictional works. Post-modernism has taught us there are lots of ways to examine a text and you can’t really say that one interpretation is wrong. The significance of a work is in how people interpret it. Some interpretations may be better supported by a work, but declaring an interpretation wrong doesn’t change the fact that plenty of people are acting as if it’s true.  The author can comment, but they may be dead or otherwise unavailable. They also may have been motivated by things which they were not consciously aware of. There may be multiple authors who disagree, Plus, the audience can just ignore them. This also has implications for real life. I and many other people following the Martin case think Zimmerman was way too eager to shoot a criminal and be hailed hero of the subdivision, so followed Trayvon Martin around because he “looked like a criminal” (read: a young black male wearing a hoodie). When Martin ran, he chased him down and grabbed him. Martin was freaked out by some big guy chasing him and grabbing him and likely thought he was being kidnapped, so he fought back. Zimmerman figured this just confirmed he was a thug, so shot him. When he realized he just shot an unarmed kid, he made up a bullshit story to cover it up and his dad pulled a few strings to get him out of trouble. However, Zimmerman has a support base with their own interpretation of what happened. Unfortunately, this breaks down when applied to real life. While we can’t know for sure what it was, some mental process really went on in Zimmerman’s head that led him to shoot Martin. Determining the exact nature of their confrontation may be difficult, especially since the evidence gathering seems to have been bunged, ultimately there was only one sequence of events that really happened and all others are false. In fact, Zimmerman choosing an interpretation of facts that fit his own experiences and biases (i.e. things he had seen in the media) rather than the real world seems to have been exactly what started the problem. This is not nearly all I have to say about the case as the word in the honkisphere has been that we shouldn’t be making a big deal about this. There are dozens of murders in the US every day and people don’t care about most of them. This one only got attention because the victim is black and it’s good for the race-baiters. Tomorrow, I will explain why this view is incorrect.

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  1. “During the beating, Zimmerman pulled his gun and fired one shot at close range into Martin’s chest. “You got me,” the teenager said, falling backward.”

    Definitely sounds like B-level movie dialogue.

    I also think this is a conversation we need to have as a country. Not just because of the race aspects – though that is of course vital – but also because of this “lone cowboy” mentality. This idea that each of us is the ONLY ONE who can somehow prevent evil, that we are each superheroes, that each of us is the only one who can stand in the gap and get rid of the Other, the Outsider. If Zimmerman hadn’t thought he was Superman, saving the world one hoodied criminal at a time, would this have even happened? What about the American psyche leads to this conclusion?

    • I’m not sure this is a uniquely American problem. People who think this in other countries tend not to have guns, so they’re only obnoxious, not deadly.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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