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.
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?