Trayvon Martin and the myth of ‘the first punch’

The Trayvon Martin shooting and  the myth of ‘the first punch’


The Zimmerman family’s attempts to use the mass media may or may not work to George Zimmerman’s advantage, but regardless of legal outcome, the news media have an obligation not to purvey misunderstanding or misstatements of fact.



The phrase ‘the first punch’ has been heard too often lately. It has also been accompanied too often by overstatement bemoaning how little we know about the shooting of seventeen-year-old, unarmed Trayvon Martin—about which we actually know quite a lot. ‘The first punch’ has also been too often part of fatuous assertions that ‘we may never know’ what happened. Actually, the justice system has an excellent chance of arriving at the truth about those very few minutes not directly recorded in the 911 calls to police. Forensics help.

In the meantime, however, when well-placed personnel in the news media toss around phrases like ‘the first punch’, with too much assertion and too little definition, it can get scary. The concept of self-defense is essential in everyday life as it is in the justice system. Given what we know about Zimmerman’s actions about 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 26, 2012, it is essential to remember that Trayvon Martin had a right to defend himself.


Trayvon Martin

Let’s start with ‘first punch’ in its literal sense. As anyone knows who has spent time sitting in courtrooms during domestic violence proceedings, not all fighting or close-hand violence takes the form of punching. In fact, you might be surprised how many husbands or domestic partners are credibly charged with dragging their female partners by the hair, throwing something at them, grabbing them roughly either by the throat or elsewhere, kicking them, or shoving them–into walls, or not; etc. It’s almost as though the aggressor in these cases was foreseeing a legal defense of sorts: “Your honor, I never hit her.” Then there’s the whole separate but related topic of threats of physical violence, along with the actual acts.

In such a case, the question ‘who threw the first punch’ is not the most important question. It might not even arise. Who in his right mind exonerates physical spousal abuse, child abuse or, for that matter, an attack on a stranger, just because it cautiously excludes punching? Conversely, if someone being attacked threw a punch against the aggressor, do you really illuminate the situation by summing it up, “Well, Martha threw the first punch”?

‘First punch’ in its figurative or broader sense, after all, means acting as the aggressor. The question ‘who threw the first punch’ is metonymy for the question, who started the fight? Who was behaving as the aggressor?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s leave ‘fighting words’ out of the equation—use of language that has been held to justify use of force. Let’s just take physical actions.

Give yourself a little quiz at home, in between working the crossword puzzle and Sudoku. In which of these situations would you not want the right to throw a punch?

  • When cornered by your friendly neighborhood rapist, escape not possible
  • When blitzed by a mugger
  • When being chased by someone bigger than you, and you’re running out of breath and/or can’t reach the nearest shelter ahead of the pursuer

Be it noted that in any of these situations, while you have a right to throw a punch, you also have latitude to use your best judgment about whether to do so. These situations do not usually conduce to best judgment on the victim’s part, of course. That’s the nature of aggression, that it trumps judgment as it trumps ethics. But in any case, you can always try to run away, to escape. According to George Zimmerman’s 911 call to police, that is exactly what Trayvon Martin did, and Zimmerman’s account is corroborated by that of the sixteen-year-old girl talking with Trayvon Martin on his cell phone, who has told police she urged him to run.

Anyone wondering whether George Zimmerman was using his best judgment, or trying to do so, can check out Zimmerman’s calls to the Seminole County sheriff’s office, linked here. There is ample indication that Zimmerman had already talked himself into perceiving any black teenager as a threat, and as someone just about to get away with something. Interestingly, Zimmerman had used that “I don’t know what his deal is” line in regard to one of the African-American garbagemen in his complex, before the fateful 911 call about Trayvon Martin.

The Orlando Sentinel previously reported that it was Zimmerman himself who initiated the presentation in his community by Neighborhood Watch. The Florida press did a good job generally reporting on the series of 911 calls.

Regrettably, on January 29 of this year the Tampa Tribune ran a front-page article titled “Use your phone to fight crime.” A GPS device is called “high-tech neighborhood watch.”

If the question is which man was the aggressor, not to give away the ending here, but my money’s on Mr. Zimmerman. He was the man with the 9mm handgun; he was the man in the vehicle calling the police on Trayvon Martin, who had a right to be there; he left the vehicle to go after the seventeen-year-old, after saying “okay” when advised by police not to do so. That Zimmerman is recorded on the 911 tape as saying, “Shit, he’s running,” and that Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman, Jr., described Zimmerman as out of breath from running make it sound as though Zimmerman was running after Trayvon Martin. Close police investigation of the few-minutes timeline between Zimmerman’s 911 call and the death of Trayvon Martin, correlating the timeline with the distances between Zimmerman’s vehicle and Martin’s body, between the body and the sidewalk, etc., should clear up any residual doubt. Furthermore, Zimmerman was the man who walked away alive afterward, while an unarmed teenager was fatally shot. As has been reported, the Sanford Police Department initial reports of the shooting categorize it as “homicide–negligent manslaughter—unnecessary killing to prevent unlawful act.” Zimmerman’s gun was confiscated, and Zimmerman was searched, cuffed and taken into custody.

Witness testimony, the forensic examinations, detailed analysis of the short timeline, and a thorough analysis of the recorded screams—which sound like a young guy’s voice–all have yet to come. But in the meantime, nothing in the picture so far yields “Who threw the first punch?” as the intelligent question to ask.

How did that obfuscatory and self-serving misdirection become the meme of the week in discussions of the Florida case?

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3 Responses to Trayvon Martin and the myth of ‘the first punch’

  1. Jody says:


    Your thoughts in this essay have reassured me greatly. I was becoming overwhelmingly frustrated with what you have so aptly identified as the cornerstone to so many of the media discussions on SYG and self defence in general, and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in particular — that is this notion of a sacred first punch.

    Even the NHL, with its goons and enforcers and gladiator like cheering crowds and moms with pitbull coloured lipstick have managed to figure out that he who throws the first punch isn’t relevant to anything.


    The “Instigator” Rule doesn’t take into consideration who threw the first punch at all.

    *Take note of the 46.2 in particular: The Agressor is the one who continues after the other one stops OR is the only one fighting.*

    Rule 46 – Fighting
    46.1 Fighting – A fight shall be deemed to have occurred when at least one player (or goalkeeper) punches or attempts to punch an opponent repeatedly or when two players wrestle in such a manner as to make it difficult for the Linesmen to intervene and separate the combatants.
    The Referees are provided very wide latitude in the penalties with which they may impose under this rule. This is done intentionally to enable them to differentiate between the obvious degrees of responsibility of the participants either for starting the fighting or persisting in continuing the fighting. The discretion provided should be exercised realistically.
    46.2 Aggressor – The aggressor in an altercation shall be the player who continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenceless position or who is an unwilling combatant.
    A player must be deemed the aggressor when he has clearly won the fight but he continues throwing and landing punches in a further attempt to inflict punishment and/or injury on his opponent who is no longer in a position to defend himself.
    A player who is deemed to be the aggressor of an altercation shall be assessed a major penalty for fighting and a game misconduct.
    A player who is deemed to be the aggressor of an altercation will have this recorded as an aggressor of an altercation for statistical and suspension purposes.
    A player who is deemed to be both the instigator and aggressor of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, a ten-minute misconduct (instigator) and a game misconduct penalty (aggressor).

    But surely, the NHL isn’t our benchmark for determining Murder?

    Thanks for writing your piece. Well done.

  2. James Blin says:

    I liked your thoughtful essay as it brought it good points to think about. It is possible that Zimmerman chased down Martin and began savagely attacking him, Martin defended himself, and Zimmerman shot him. It is also possible that Zimmerman approached Martin unadvisedly but not illegally and Martin savagely attacked Zimmerman. At this point, due to the “stand your ground” law, the legal question turns on what was happening in Zimmerman’s mind, did he fear for his life. Or it could be some shading of the two situations that would make either Martin or Zimmerman more at fault. In any case, I don’t think without evidence that establishes how it went down we can say if Zimmerman is guilty. I don’t think that you can reasonably infer from the alleged racist remarks or failure to heed the dispatcher how things went down. Remember to convict Zimmerman the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt. I think there is reason to doubt that Zimmerman murdered Martin. I respect your views, however,

  3. captain II says:

    Zimmerman’s 911 call included a comment that may tend to define Z’s mindset when he told the official that Martin ran. He followed up by saying (with obvious disgust) “These ***holes always get away.”

    Those words tell me that Z. had placed himself in the role of judge and jury. He found Martin guilty of (all) incidents that had previously happened at the Twin Lakes gated community. That’s called a mindset. It does not mean that his mindset was correct. Considering a mindset like that, Z. was angry because he thought another trouble making punk was about to get away… AGAIN. It seems Z. not only had a hair-trigger mindset, but also had a hair-trigger finger.

    Many times we find that our mindsets are totally wrong. We watch a football game on TV most any given Saturday or Sunday throughout the fall. We see a touchdown called back because a referee claims the ball carrier stepped out of bounds on his trek down the field to the endzone. The opposition fans are happy about the call and agree with the referee… until the dreaded Instant Replay becomes a factor. The instant replay proves that the ball carrier DID NOT step out of bounds along his long run. It is the instant replay that deems “seeing is believing” even if some fans thought they knew better.

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