Photo: Shellie and Robert Zimmerman "in disguise"/Courtesy GQ and Robert Zimmerman
There's a reason writer Amanda Robb begins her GQ magazine profile of George Zimmerman's family with Robert Zimmerman's thoughts on "rebranding" the family name. Robert, who's been the clan's unofficial spokesperson since his brother George killed Trayvon Martin two-and-a-half years ago, talks about his vision for a potential reality TV show starring his elder sibling. "I learn a lot from watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians," he says. "Like, use the shit you've got." The younger Zimmerman has all kinds of plans for rehabilitating his brother's image and capitalizing on his infamy, including a line of security products that would bear a distinctive "Z" logo and a Candid Camera-style program that would have George surprising unsuspecting strangers, presumably not by shooting them. Robb sets the stage by making it clear why the seemingly reclusive Zimmerman family might have agreed to do an interview with GQ in the first place.
If you think George Zimmerman's public life has played out like one big psychodrama since he shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, you can't imagine how bizarre it's been behind the scenes. It makes sense that the Zimmermans would realize the potential peril George's violent encounter with Trayvon Martin -- and the court's decision to let him walk for it -- might put them in. But their paranoia runs so deep that it feels like it might have been a kind of dormant virus that existed all along and was either awakened by circumstance or actually led to the shooting that put them all in their current position as the family of a cultural pariah.
Zimmerman's mother, father, sister and brother are all armed at all times, according to Robb, and even worked out a color-coded security system in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
The family formalized new security protocols. They watched the movie Argo to learn how to live like CIA. Code names for everyone. No mail delivered to the house. No visitors. No talking to the few neighbors they had. No long phone conversations—keep it short and vague to outwit surveillance. Never discuss your whereabouts via phone or text. Keep a weapon close by at all times. Robert slept with his gun. Still does.
And in case someone—or multiple someones—decided to mount an attack on the house, the Zimmermans pre-packed their own "go-bags" filled with everything they would need to flee in a rush, as well as what they called "footballs"—like the one President Obama has with the nuclear codes—that contained laptops, cell phones, and other essential electronics.
They also memorized a color-coded threat-ID system. Code blue: Law enforcement at the door. Code brown: Draw your weapons. Code black: Come out guns blazing.
George Zimmerman's parents left their home and moved the family into a rental property back in 2012. Its location is unknown -- and the Zimmermans will go to absurdly melodramatic lengths to keep it that way.
The family were considering letting me visit their safe house to witness how they live now. They were eager for the world to see them as they see themselves: ignored, unmourned victims. Collateral damage of an incident for which—to be clear—they still do not consider George responsible. We even got so far as to negotiate terms of my visit in order to preserve their security. I would have to wear a hood while they drove me from my hotel to their house, and I would have to leave my cell phone behind. Grace, in particular, was alarmed about my phone's GPS capabilities, which I could use to pinpoint their location.
I agreed to all of their conditions—I did tell them that I thought the hood seemed a little Abu Ghraib-y, so we compromised on a blindfold.
While they've tried to cut themselves off from the outside world as best as possible, there's one relationship they maintain with unwavering intensity: their relationship with their guns. In a place like Florida, that's easy to do.
George has arranged for Gladys and Robert to take a concealed-weapons-certification class the next evening. (George already has a permit; Bob refuses to say if he has one.) It's a three-hour course, required in order to carry a weapon in Florida. The class is held at an Orlando gun store called the Arms Room, where George did a meet-and-greet back in March. Gladys invites me to come along with her and Robert.
Almost immediately, things get weird. The class's instructor, a police officer in Belle Isle, repeatedly recommends "accessorizing your gun," which he illustrates by lisping and wagging his wrist like a stereotypical "queen." The instructor keeps up the act until he finds out I live in New York City. Then he veers into Colonel Klink from the 1960s TV series Hogan's Heroes. "Welcome to Germany," he says. "Everyone on the train!"
We don't actually learn to fire our weapons in this concealed-weapons class, so eventually I tell the instructor, "I have no idea how to load, aim, or shoot a gun." He recommends I get a .38. "It's a good baby gun," he says. "Yes!" Gladys exclaims. "Personally, I love my .45!" Then she does this kind of Angie Dickinson draw-and-aim move from the TV show Police Woman.
But in what may be the most revealing moment of the profile, Amanda Robb slyly comes back around to the very first point she made. She describes two television appearances the notoriously media-shy George booked, one of which ended in an angry confrontation when CNN essentially accused the Zimmermans of being what Robert Zimmerman made them sound like at the beginning: grifters.
Throughout their stay in Miami, Robert carried a backpack filled with handguns, which he called "the babies." "You never say, 'Get a gun,' " he said, explaining the nomenclature. "That alerts bad guys. You say, 'Get the baby!' "
The Univision appearance went smoothly enough—no gotcha questions, no need for a baby—so, emboldened, George agreed to another media stop, this time on CNN. It would tape at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami. The network agreed to pay for two hotel rooms for three nights and, according to Robert, "everything" they wanted during their stay. (For this article, George refused to speak with me on the record unless GQ provided a similar hotel room—he asked for a week's stay—but the magazine declined.)
The Zimmermans seized on their brief stint of subsidized luxury. They ran up a big room-service bill, cleaned out the minibars, got their clothes laundered, made several trips to the spa, treated a party of ten to dinner at the hotel restaurant, and bought swag—from bracelets to bath fizzies—at the gift shop.
Toward the end of their stay, according to Robert, a manager presented him with a bill for $3,600. He says he called CNN, outraged, only to have the producer accuse them of splurging shamelessly on CNN's dime. "You and your brother are evil!" he remembers her screaming. The hotel manager threatened to call the police. Alone in his room, Robert started shaking. He wrapped all the blankets around him, ordered shrimp, chain-smoked cigarettes, got roaring drunk. Nothing helped. He called his mother in a panic. "I can't get warm," he sobbed. "I just can't get warm."
In the end, Robert Zimmerman called, of all people. Dr. Drew. He wound up not being able to get through.
Maybe that, more than anything else, puts a perfect punctuation on the entire piece and tells you all you need to know about the Zimmerman family.