Meditations on Christopher Dorner


The death by fire of Christopher Dorner evoked a rush of memories dating back to September 1971, when, in the wake of the Attica Prison Massacre, I began making plans to migrate from New York State to California.

At age 21, I had no master plan, other than to get far away from where I was, a college drop-out working for a tree company in the suburban town where I was born and raised.   Pleasantville.  Irony intended.

I hadn’t been “political” during the Vietnam War.  In that phase of my misspent youth, I was occupied with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.  I went to one anti-war demonstration in Poughkeepsie.  The organizers bused us over from New Paltz.  All I remember is dropping out of the parade and hitching back home after an angry guy on the curb spat at me.

A few years later, sitting over my untouched bacon and eggs in the local P’ville diner, reading the Daily News account of Attica, I found I wasn’t hungry anymore.   Coming on top of the slaughter of millions of Vietnamese halfway around the world, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  It seemed like the war had come full circle and was now at home, where it belonged.  Time to enlist.

Maybe Christopher Dorner felt something similar.

My buddy Mike wanted to teach tennis in Southern Cal and by September 1972 we were driving cross country in my blue, three-speed-on-the-column Rambler, purchased for $600 from a little old guy my father knew named Terwilliger, a barnstormer who’d flown some of the first bi-planes around the country at the beginning of the 20th Century.

I mention old Terwilliger to emphasize how time flies, and how easily we forget.  The powers that be count on it.

Mike and I camped along the way.  We got as far as Shamrock, TX, where we had a car accident at 2:00 am on Route 66 while tripping on LSD.  That’s a story in itself.   Anyway, we couldn’t find a service station to fix the water pump, the only part of the car that needed fixing.  We had long hair and the grease monkeys in the Panhandle didn’t lend screwdrivers to our kind.

I sold the car for $10 and the tape deck for $20 and we hitched the rest of the way, stopping in the Grand Canyon for a few days, where a degenerate hippie ripped off our stash while we were skinny dipping in the Havasu.

The hippie scene was extinct by 1972.  Heroin was becoming the drug de jour.  “Grow up.  Turn off.  Sell out.” That was the mantra, much like today.

We got to Southern Cal and lo and behold, Mike’s sister wasn’t expecting me.  No room for Dougie.  I sat on their front door step, with $40 in my wallet, wondering what the fuck.   And at that moment Tommy Henschel pulled up in his VW, got out, and said, “Hi!”

Tommy had gone to high school with Mike and me.  He’d fled the draft to Alberta and knew we were heading out West and drove down to meet us, all very impromptu.  Tommy and I got an apartment in Anaheim and jobs at a sheet metal factory where I met a Chicano guy named Danny who’d just done five years for a marijuana importation from Mexico bust.

Tommy soon retreated from sooty Orange County to pristine Canada, and Danny and I hitched to Eureka to get a job on a fishing boat, but it was December and no jobs were available, just lots of rain.  We were broke and sang for our supper at the local Salvation Army.  On Christmas Eve we hitched down to San Francisco and spent Christmas Day with his grandmother, feasting on homemade tacos.  She was a full blooded Apache Indian, then in her 80’s, who’d run a brothel in San Francisco at one time.

Danny got busted on Christmas Day night for pulling a knife on a cop, and I fell in with a bunch of transients who introduced me to some street people down on Market Street who knew how to hustle the system in San Francisco in December 1972.  It was easy.  You got on Welfare.  They gave you money for rent and food stamps and, as a bonus, Medical scripts that got you uppers and downers from participating physicians.  Mine was from Argentina.  You could sell the pharmaceuticals for extra cash or eat them yourself.

Thus began life in North Beach in 1973.  I moved into the New Rex Hotel on Broadway with aspirations of infiltrating the City Lights Book crowd.   You could see Brautigan sipping espresso at Enrico’s, and Bob Kaufman racing around in a psychotic haze, pan-handling and eating crumbs off tables in cafes.  But I never got in with them.  Instead I started hanging out with the barkers and strippers.  I made friends with Sam, an old black heroin addict and B&E man.   I let him use my room and in return he protected me from the predators.   I made friends with a big armed Jewish guy from NYC who hired himself as a bodyguard for serious drug buyers who came into town to cop quantity.  Sonny, a former jazz drummer who’d been given electric shock, lived down the hall and so did Jesse, who’d spent 15 years walking the Big Yard at San Quentin

The New Rex was populated with alcoholic ex-cons, transients, glue-sniffing transvestites, promiscuous gays (this was before AIDs), outpatients like Sonny from local mental facilities living on SSI (these folks were ripped-off by the predators minutes after cashing their monthly check), and black guys who rotated in and out of jail and aspired to make an easy living off the steady stream of white suburban girls that came into town in pretty skirts, went dancing at the black clubs, and sometimes ended up hooked on smack and turning tricks.

There was an opportunity to commit some new felony on every street corner.  It was enticing.  Sam introduced me to his fence, Billy Justice, who liked me because I could hustle pool and quote poetry.  Late one night we were walking home from a pool hall on Mission Street and crossed paths with an old guy dressed in a trench coat, wearing a fedora.  He pulled out an envelope and opened it up under a street light.   Diamonds sparkled.  But Billy demurred, as none were large enough to invest in.

The cops were totally corrupt.  One night they raided the New Rex, kicking in doors, stealing anything of value, passing whatever drugs they found to their drug dealing relatives for re-sale.   I made friends with a big Samoan guy (no shit, this is true) who played pool at a place on upper Grant.  One night we’re out riding around in his car and he gets pulled over.  The cops tell me to get lost.  A few days later I see the Samoan again.   It was a stolen car but the cops let him go in exchange for the quantity of heroin they removed from the trunk.  (They couldn’t make the car seizure and grab the junk.)  Business as usual.

I hope there is a spiritual statute of limitations for some of the things I got involved in.  I’ll leave all that to your imagination.  The point is that Christopher Dorner wasn’t even born in 1973.

Where did he come from?  What on earth made him join the Navy and the LAPD?  Like Glen Ford at Black Agenda says, he bought the bill of goods.   It’s easy, enticing.  The powers that be (Left and Right) spend billions twisting and mutating our warped attitudes to exactly that end.

There were black cops in San Francisco in 1973, yes indeed.  One of them even called me a nigger while I was being booked.  Me, a good-looking white guy!

I’d gotten in a street fight with two undercover SF detectives.  I wound up facedown, handcuffed on the sidewalk in front of the New Rex, my head in a puddle of Colt 45 and broken glass.  All I could see was the jack boots of a motorcycle cop.  The cop held my glasses in his hand in front of my eyes. “Are these yours?” he inquired.  I replied in the affirmative, at which point he stomped on them.

Milton, the black guy I was arrested with, was freaking out in the paddy wagon on the way to the booking station.  “They’re going to take me into an alley and shoot me in the head,” he kept shouting.

“Oh shut up,” I said with studied insensitivity, “You’re not George Jackson.”

Back then George Jackson was fresh in peoples’ minds.  There was a different collective consciousness, which was fading fast into PTSD too.

Like Milton, who was wanted on a few warrants, I was never jailed for political crimes, although it’s hard in America to distinguish a political crime from some other kind of crime, especially if you’re black and or poor.

Likewise, it’s almost impossible to categorize the many and varied punishments doled out by the Left (represented by MSNBC, The Nation, Mother Jones) and Right (Fox KKK News, CNN, The NY Times) branches of the capitalist system for being black or poor and committing “economic” crimes.

Some things never change.  Everyone individually has to learn for himself, if you ever learn at all, what your enlightened elders knew – which is why I doubt that in the black hole of historical truth that characterizes today’s poisonous political climate, many readers have ever even heard of George Jackson.

I’m sure Chris Dorner (who was frequently and snidely referred to as a “wannabe martyr” in the days leading up to his incineration) never heard of Jackson, a full-fledged martyr.

Jackson, notably, was shot and killed in a botched prison escape in August 1971.

Jackson was not an aberration in 1971, like Dorner was in 2013.  Convicted of robbing a gas station at age 18, he was sent to San Quentin, a cornerstone of the American prison gulag.  He didn’t adjust well and got involved in repeated attacks on corrupt guards and white racist prisoners.  Facing life in a cage, he studied the Viet Cong, whose tactics he adopted.  He converted to Marxism and co-founded a black power group in 1966.  Placed in solitary for being overly-aggressive, he wrote revolutionary letters that were compiled into a book and earned him fame and the love of white, mostly French, intellectuals.

After being transferred to Soledad, he became increasingly desperate.  Lifting a page from the VC terror manual, he advocated “selective retaliatory violence” against corrupt guards and white racist inmates.

Things got wild.  In August 1970 his younger brother, seeking to free George and several other black prisoners, took several hostages at the Marin County courthouse.  Four people were killed during the getaway, and Angela Davis was tried and acquitted for murder.  It was said she had given the younger Jackson his guns.

The Davis trial was quite the cause célèbre and fashion statement.

A year later, in August 1971, a month before the Attica Massacre, George Jackson pulled a gun – perhaps delivered to him by his lawyer – and, referencing Ho Chi Minh, freed a number of fellow prisoners, and took a few guards and white prisoners as hostages.  Four guards and two of the hostages were later found dead in his cell.  Jackson escaped to the prison yard where he was allegedly shot and killed, in what several white intellectuals, and Jim Jones of the infamous Jonestown commune in Guyana, believed was a political assassination.

A lot of blacks doubted that the true story of George Jackson’s demise was told.  Official accounts of what happens in prisons and jails are as reliable as a politician’s promises or the opinions of Glen Beck or David Corn.  It’s still Left or Right capitalism – Coke or Pepsi.

Individual cases like Dorner’s or Jackson’s, where it’s impossible to understand the motive, are easily exploitable and an endless source of hype for the Left and Right pundit classes in their endless quest to shape public attitudes and sell subscriptions.  It’s certainly true that the American slave state persists thanks to this relentless anvil chorus, as both sides have an equal stake in perpetuating the underclass.  (It’s also true that the slave state exists largely under the guise of a war on drugs – and that blacks bear the brunt.)

Dorner probably never thought deeply about the context in which he was operating.  He certainly had an inkling, based on his personal situation.   But he was no more involved in the Civil Rights Movement than Barack Obama who, in a speech today (February 15) urged blacks to abandon their evil ways, stop having unprotected sex, get married (no hint that half of white American marriages end in divorce) send their kids to good schools that don’t exist (as opposed to the prep-prison schools that do exist), buy nice houses with money they can never save, and most of all, to get good jobs that also don’t exist.

And never will exist in a capitalist system.  No mention on Obama’s part that capitalism relies on a poor class of exploited workers and under-employment to keep wages low.  Obama can’t challenge the system, any more than Chris Matthews or Al Sharpton or Glen Greenwald, all of whom profit from it.

If only Dorner had known the history, which in 1974, wasn’t history at all.

I got out of jail and thanks to a quirk in the justice system was able to continue in my pursuits.  By 1974, I was living on Stockton Street in a quaint apartment with a girlfriend who had a steady job.   I ventured over to North Beach daily and was there in May 1974 when one of the scion’s of the American media, William Hearst, was underwriting the delivery of boxes of food to the area’s hungry underclasses.

Hearst was not doing this out of the goodness of his black heart.  A black guy named Donald Defreeze and his gang, the Symbionese Liberation Army, had kidnapped Heart’s 19 year old daughter Patty and were holding her hostage.  Defreeze demanded that Hearst feed every needy Californian, and Big Daddy quick as a flash sent trucks into the city.  I wandered over and got a box off the back of a truck parked on Broadway.   Among the items was a canned ham.  The food lasted a few days.  It was not a long term solution.  And poor Donald Defreeze didn’t know what to do next.

Meanwhile Patty, aka Tania, went over to the dark side and in April 1974 participated in a bank robbery in San Francisco.  People weren’t quite sure what to make of that!    Had she been brainwashed?  Or had she been restored to sanity…..

The SLA was accused of a number of murderous crimes and in May the gang was cornered in a house.  A Dorner-style a shootout ensued and, back to the future, the authorities set the house on fire.  The gang members probably committed suicide rather than burn.   His family didn’t believe the corpse identified as Defreeze’s was actually his.

There was more disbelief than what surrounded the media accounts of Jackson and Attica (but not Jonestown), given that Defreeze was a graduate cum laud from Vacaville – the same institution that produced electric Sonny at the New Rex.

Defreeze’s mentor at Vacaville, Colston Westbrook, was a certified CIA psywar expert.   He’d been an adviser to the Korean CIA and CIA agent Lon Nol in Cambodia.  From 1966 until 1969 Westbrook reportedly worked (undercover as an employee of Pacific Architects and Engineers) as an adviser to the Vietnamese Police Special Branch.  In 1970 he returned to the US and got a job at the University of California at Berkeley.

According to venerable Mae Brussell, Westbrook’s control officer was William Herrmann, who was connected to the Stanford Research Institute, RAND Corporation, and Hoover Center on Violence.  In his capacity as an adviser to Governor Ronald Reagan, Herrmann put together a CIA-style pacification plan for California at the UCLA Center for Study and Prevention of Violence.  As part of this pacification plan Westbrook, a black man, was assigned the task of forming a black cultural association at the Vacaville Medical Facility. Although ostensibly fostering black pride, Westbrook was in truth conducting an experimental behavior modification program.  Westbrook’s job, claims Brussell, was to program, MKULTRA style, unstable black persons, drawn from California prisons, to assassinate black community leaders.

Westbrook designed the SLA’s logo (a seven-headed cobra), gave Defreeze his African name (Cinque), and set Cinque and his gang on their Phoenix flight to cremation, care of the Los Angeles SWAT Team, the FBI, and U.S. Treasury agents.

I left the Left Coast days after that event and took a bus back East.  I got a job with a tree service, working for low wages, and picked up where I’d left off.   What else can you do?  A life of crime is only feasible in a capitalist system if you wear a white collar.

Some things never change.

When I was in jail in San Francisco, there were, in the block of cells I was in, 26 black guys, me and another white guy (whose girlfriend had turned him in for stealing her jewelry) and a Chinese guy who fell off a top bunk, split his skull wide open, and died from the fall.

Today there are more blacks in prison than were enslaved in 1850.

Many more are in the military and law enforcement, shoring up the system that enslaves all the poor.

I ask you, What do you make of that?

DOUGLAS VALENTINE is the author of five books, including The Phoenix Program and The Strength of the Wolf, which are available at his websites http://www.members.authorsguild.net/valentine/ and http://www.douglasvalentine.com/index.html .

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