Who hasn’t taken a break from dreadful news cycles to have a good laugh at the screwball crime stories attributed to the so-called “Florida Man”? We’ve all done it. “Drunk Florida man arrested at Olive Garden after eating spaghetti with his hands,” the Miami Herald reports, accompanied by a depressing mugshot of a long-haired man with cuts and bruises on his face.

    “Florida Man” stories, stripped of all context, are ubiquitous across digital media. Take Esquire, which has a running tally of “The 90 Wildest Florida Man Headlines of 2019 (So Far),” accompanied by the subtitle, “Whatever insanity is happening in your state, Florida has done it with an alligator and possibly some amphetamines.” Florida Man is everywhere.

    After listening to a recent episode of Citations Neededa popular podcast hosted by media critics Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazithat critically examined what lies beneath the media’s obsession with the proverbial Florida Man, well, these viral stories are not so funny anymore.

    At the top of the show, Shirazi asks, “What are we really mocking when we mock ‘Florida Man’?” Johnson goes on to say, “We want to talk about what we believe is the anti-poor, mental health-shaming subtext that animates much of the viral Florida Man meme; how that, and a broader culture of weird crime stories and mugshot-shaming serve as little more than a socially acceptable way of mocking the marginalized and indigent.” Florida in particular, notes Johnson, “is notorious for having some of the harshest systems in place for those on the margins of society.”

    The ubiquity of the Florida Man represents much more than a vulgar SEO-hack.

    To test the ubiquity of the Florida Man trope, I searched for it on the very morning I wrote this piece. Lo and behold, the first hit was a piece from Cleveland.com, which purports to cover Northeast Ohio, with the headline, “Florida Man: Driving Drunk on Riding Lawnmower, Crashing into Police Car.” The fine folks of Northeast Ohio would no doubt be shamefully ill-informed without knowing that a supposedly drunk man on a lawnmower in Florida allegedly crashed into a cop car.

    I watched the daily virality occur in real time. Hours later, the lawnmower incident had filtered all the way “up” to Fox News, appearing under the “crime” tab. Exactly why is this news?

    No journalist or editor seriously thinks this is news, of course. Rather, it’s a cheap and glib way for financially hollowed-out local news outlets to draw clicks and eyeballs at the expense of another human being who is likely suffering from poverty, mental illness, or addiction—possibly all three at once.

    To show how cruel this trend truly is, Citations Needed even created a clever Chrome plugin that replaces the text “Florida Man” with “Man Likely Suffering From Mental Illness or Drug Addiction” on your browser.

    The ubiquity of the Florida Man represents much more than a vulgar SEO-hack for outlets like the increasingly deranged Fox News and even supposedly woke new media like Buzzfeed. Beneath the goofy headlines is the distressed state in which sick and poor people living in Florida exist.

    Florida is a hotbed of far-right government that strips desperate people from accessing health care, bars black and formerly incarcerated people from voting, and of course, drug tests some people receiving government benefits.

    Back in 2012, only 108 of the 4,086 people on benefits who took a drug test tested positive, creating a net loss of $45,780 for the state. Fiscal conservatives who are otherwise hellbent on cutting government waste doesn’t seem to care. “The cruelty is the point,” as the saying goes.

    Early on in “Episode 75: The Trouble with ‘Florida Man’,” Shirazi paints a grim picture of where Florida ranks on a series of health outcomes, injecting important context that’s entirely absent in the viral Florida Man articles. “Florida is in the midst of a major mental health crisis while having virtually no social safety net,” Shirazi says. “Florida ranks 49th out 50 among states for [spending on] mental health programs; 41st in support for those affected by drug addiction; and No. 3 for percentage of the population who are homeless.” In lieu of actually treating these issues with health care, the police step in to arrest and harass.

    “Jails and prisons are the asylums of the new millennium,” says Michelle Bruder, an organizer with the Orlando Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and soon to be a statewide organizer for Florida DSA. Bruder was interviewed by Johnson and Shirazi for the Florida Man segment, and explained how unstably housed people in Florida are criminalized. The segment reveals that roughly 80 percent of prosecutions in Miami Beach target homeless people.

    “We devote $718,000 million a year to mental health programs, but $1 billion a year into jails and prisons for mentally ill inmates,” Bruder says. “What little support mentally ill Floridians are getting is involved in their incarceration.”

    Florida is also a hotspot for the national opioid-involved overdose crisis. In 2017, 3,425 Floridians died from opioidinvolved overdoses, at a rate of 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people, which is higher than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Putting these figures into context, in 1999 fewer than 500 people in Florida died from opioid overdoses; the past two decades have seen an increase of over 500 percent.

    Yet while the state struggles with this horrific and soaring death toll, the media still sees fit to laugh at the expense of the opioid-addicted Florida Man: “Florida Man thought he was stealing opioids but instead got laxatives,” reads a headline from USA Today.

    Johnson and Shirazi identify Florida’s expansive “Sunshine Laws” as the main culprit.

    Florida’s mental health and overdose crises are not necessarily unique among states that refused to expand Medicaid coverage. So what explains all the “crime” stories coming out of Florida?

    Johnson and Shirazi identify Florida’s expansive “Sunshine Laws” as the main culprit. “While ostensibly designed to make the government more transparent, they have instead created a conveyor-belt of searchable crimes that lazy journalists can cherry-pick for salacious clicks,” Shirazi says.

    If there’s any bright spot, it’s knowing that Florida does have organizers like Bruder, who are working to empower communities and upend the circumstances that create the viral Florida Man content in the first place.

    After listening to Shirazi, Johnson, and Bruder describe the hellish environment that Florida has become for people suffering from mental health issues, addiction and poverty, it is much easier to resist giving a click to viral Florida Man stories. We should all try harder not to take the bait.

    Photo by Cleo Vermij on Unsplash

    • Zachary is a journalist focusing on drugs, justice and health. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine, The Appeal, Slate and New York magazine. He is a fellow of the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law.

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