One year ago this month, I grabbed the guy off the third rail at a downtown Atlanta station and my life got pretty crazy for a couple of weeks with interviews, new reports, and the story going viral online (click here if you don’t know what I am talking about). I did not want to say it at the time, because I thought people would look down on me, but 15 minutes of fame is hard on the adrenal glands. Sure, starving and dying of disease to death can be taxing, but watching a news story about you spread across the internet is stressful too. Seeing facts become skewed, details lost, and misconceptions develop exasperated me. I realized that, in everyday life, if a friend misrepresents you to someone, you can contact the friend and whoever they talked with and set the record straight. But in a public story that millions see and thousands forward, control is illusory. Over those few weeks I got a bit better at being comfortable being talked about by strangers, but it left me with a healthy respect for the chronically famous, and pity for those poor souls plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight.
George Zimmerman is such a person. One second he’s an insurance underwriter–entirely unknown. Within a few weeks, protests calling for his arrest are happening across the nation and 2.2 million people have signed a petition demanding he be arrested and tried.
I was not good at interviews at first. You can see my “men and boys” epic fail here. But I watched Zimmerman’s brother on Piers Morgan’s show doing incredibly well considering one guy was plucked from obscurity and the other makes a living arguing in the public eye.
From what I can gather on the awesome Wikipedia and the world wide web, people are going crazy: “George Zimmerman received death threats and moved out of his home in the wake of the controversy. The New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 reward for the “capture” of George Zimmerman; this was condemned by the city of Sanford. Film director Spike Lee retweeted to his 200,000 Twitter followers an erroneous Sanford, Florida address, purported to be Zimmerman’s, which forced a family out of their home to avoid harassment after they received hate mail and unwanted visits from reporters.“
…seems a tad much perhaps?
At least I had the good fortune of being in a story that was made better by skewing the facts in my favor. People wanted me to be a good guy. George Zimmerman does not have that luxurty. The story of him shooting an unarmed teenager is more sensational the more villainous Zimmerman appears. Of course, this story is way bigger than mine ever was, more beyond his control, and responses to the story are way more cruel and uninterested in facts.
A second lesson I learned from my 15 minutes of fame is that there is no such thing. When one-off stories like this develop, nobody is famous or known in any complexity that might reflect reality. A thin projection of yourself, attached to your name, is sent out into the void and people judge it.
The average person feels remarkable freedom to judge people that they don’t know shit about. They will hear a 1-2 sentence news story and say, “What a dumbass!” It’s really quite incredible. Really? You’ve heard enough information? Ah. Absolutely. No it makes sense. I’m sure you are very intuitive. 🙂
As friends and I discussed the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was very surprised at how such kind and thoughtful people can also be so quick to judge. I am amazed at “facts” that people are citing, in my own conversations and in the news, that are so obviously inconclusive and meant to paint a picture.
For instance, it is oft said that he apparently has called the police 46 times since 2004 — but I probably called the police twice as many times in my 2 years as a community organizer. He also was part of the block club, and was tasked with the neighborhood watch. Some say he was a busy-body who took it upon himself. Others say he was asked by the community to do it. I say that if you walked down any block that I had worked on, you would probably hear both things said about me too.
So, as far as I can tell, Zimmerman might be a vigilante idiot. He also might be a responsible and active community citizen. I don’t know. But I do know that nobody else knows either and that all the facts that I know about the case, including the skin color of the victim, might be incidental and not reflect the mind of George Zimmerman.