It all started in 2012 in Miami, Florida when Rudy Eugene, high on bath salts, was shot dead on sight by police while attempting to consume Ronald Poppo’s face. Poppo barely survived, losing his nose and his eyeballs. What was it precisely that had started? As Logan Hill reports at the Washington Post Magazine, it was the Florida Man meme — a sometimes humorous, mostly pitiful, ongoing series of events in which Florida men are discovered in bizarre, often criminal circumstances. What the media coverage and the internet fails to report, however are the addiction and mental health issues that spark the strange behavior in the first place.
Since Florida Man was first defined on Twitter in 2013 as the “world’s worst superhero,” many men (and it’s almost always men) have assumed the mantle. He is a man of a thousand tattooed faces, a slapstick outlaw, an Internet-traffic gold mine, a cruel punchline, a beloved prankster, a human tragedy and, like some other love-hate American mascots, the subject of burgeoning controversy.
At its most comical, the Florida Man phenomenon encapsulates the wildness of both America and the Internet. At its most salacious, it’s a social-media update on the true-crime TV of “America’s Dumbest Criminals” and the gallows humor of tabloid headlines. At its most insensitive, Florida Man profits by punching down at the homeless, drug-addicted or mentally ill.
For Florida Man to evolve from the primordial swamp-gas of the Internet, the environmental conditions had to be just right. Florida is the third-most populous state, so it naturally has a lot of everything — good, bad and weird. The state’s sunshine laws, passed in 1967, make public records — mug shots, arrest reports, video evidence and 911 calls — available to anyone, with the ease of one-click shopping. Then there’s the state’s strange geography: swampland infested with alligators and pythons, the most sinkholes in the nation. As for law and order, the state counts about 2 million concealed weapons permits, 1.4 million felons, and “stand your ground” laws. Thanks to the temperate climate, there’s no offseason for criminals or pranksters or nudists. And, as local writers from Carl Hiaasen to Dave Barry to Lauren Groff have noted, the water table of weirdness is just naturally high in Florida. Strangeness seems to bubble to the surface.