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The most striking fact about ex cop Christopher Dorner’s rampage against his brothers in blue is that it stems from the LAPD’s apparent cover-up of a single, minor excessive force incident of the kind we seldom talk about, ubiquitous though it is.
Beyond that, the story intersects so many contemporary issues it reads like a morality play: A seething police mob hunts a renegade black cop who declared war on them and their families for firing him for reporting his training officer’s use of excessive force. They go on a rampage themselves, shooting several innocent people along the way before cornering their quarry in a cabin and, it appears, deliberately setting it ablaze – all amid a national debate about whether anyone other than the military and police should be allowed to keep assault weapons under the Second Amendment, which some are arguing was drafted to protect the power of militias to hunt fugitive slaves and crush revolts. You might say the Dorner story takes a manifesto to understand it properly.
Pundits across the spectrum, from former Portland and D.C. Police Chief Charles Moose to civil rights activist Van Jones, say don’t examine Dorner’s motives; doing so only dignifies the actions of a cop killer and domestic terrorist. Despite their command, though, a healthy riot of discussion has sprung up in the blogosphere and social media among citizens exasperated with perpetual police brutality, racism, and lying. Dorner is not a hero, he is a wanton murderer who targeted not only those he claimed wronged him, but their families and random officers. But the notion that he forfeited his grievance because he resorted to violence robs us, not him, of the lessons to be learned.
Whether or not Dorner’s training officer unnecessarily kicked a mentally ill man in the head and chest and covered up the incident in 2007, there is no question the LAPD fired Dorner for violating the police officer code of silence by accusing his trainer, not because he lied, as the Department absurdly found. First, it is virtually unheard of for police departments to terminate officers for false reporting. Lying is not a disqualifier but a virtual criterion for the job of police officer, as former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper observed in his memoir, Breaking Rank. Second, there was ample evidence the brutality in fact occurred, including Dorner’s several pained inquiries to confidantes about what to do before he officially reported it. He had no incentive to breach the code of silence, and everything to lose by doing so.
But even if the evidence had not fully supported Dorner’s allegation, there was no basis for concluding he lied, let alone firing him for reporting it, a move which is also contrary to the basic principle of encouraging whistleblowers to step forward. As such, at least part of Dorner’s gripe is valid on its face, namely that despite the LAPD’s success in diversifying its ranks since the Rodney King and Rampart scandals of the 1980s and 90s exposed a culture of bigotry, brutality, and dishonesty, it has not remedied the second and third items on that list – problems which are endemic to police forces.
The reality, too well known to the marginalized and dispossessed, but little known to their affluent fellow citizens on the other side of town, is that modern paramilitary police operate with virtual impunity, in a vacuum of both institutional accountability and societal ignorance and apathy. They patrol the urban streets with a siege mentality, regularly harassing and administering street justice to people they know wouldn’t dare complain, or whose word wouldn’t stack up against theirs anyway.
There is a degree of alienation which stems from having your complaints fall on the deaf ears of people in the hierarchy of repression, such as captains, district and city attorneys, judges, and mayors. But a different and more explosive kind of alienation builds from watching members of your own supposed community coddle and worship the oppressor, deny there’s a problem because it isn’t part of their experience, and at regular intervals negate your own experience as jurors of your so-called peers. As a former cop, Dorner is not the typical victim of a police gang up. But when his fellow officers walled him off for trying to do the right thing, it festered in him like a regular victim of police abuse, as he made clear in trying to wake us up with his manifesto.
Those who would lay this tragedy exclusively at Dorner’s feet and table further inquiry play into the hands of people who prescribe more social control as a panacea for all that ails us domestically, including more laws, more police, and more powerful police arsenals. To such fortress Americans, the blue line will always be too thin, because they hide themselves and their wealth behind it. They start from the anti-historical notion that every act, or mere utterance, of anti-government violence or rhetoric is necessarily the product of a diseased mind which must be neutralized. Yet they thrill to the truly insane spectacle of thousands of cops in military tech fanning out over hundreds of square miles in vague pursuit of one armed assailant, all itching to be the gunslinger to put a bullet in his skull, menacing the public in countless untelevised ways along the path on top of shooting several innocent people. In cheering for such demented drama, we also help produce it, collateral damage and all. Like in war. The real disease is systemic apathy to the plight of others making us all complicit but detached drone pilots. Whatever lip service we pay to the nostrum that violence is a last resort, we want and expect it like a Hollywood ending, so much so that we have confused reason and patience for a boring plot.
This is the point where the journalist is virtually conscripted to say: Dorner was a lunatic who clearly was not going to let himself be taken alive. But that conclusion is really code for, he deserved to die, and we experienced collective catharsis by killing him. The question isn’t whether anyone will miss him. The question is, what so constrained his choices that he so constrained ours, spilling so much blood? Because government is far mightier than the individual, it has more choice and greater responsibility to pause, reflect, and avoid an emotional responses. Instead, we’ve spiraled into a vortex of emotional responses. We’re more bravado and cowboy swagger, more shoot first ask questions later, than we were when those frontier myths were getting made. Our romantic fascination with police makes us practical extensions of their viscera, causing us to over-feel and under-question their behavior. In so doing, we helped to write both Dorner’s violent beginning and his violent end.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff denies deliberately torching the cabin where Dorner made his last stand by deploying pyrotechnic tear gas canisters known for their propensity to start fires. But intercepted police audio reveals an officer yelling early in the shootout, “Burn that fucking house down…Fucking burn that motherfucker.” Later, another officer exclaims, “burn it down.” The Sheriff and various spinmeisters dismiss this as the emotional upwelling of a few individuals unrelated to the tactical decision to smoke Dorner out, not burn him out, after he refused to surrender. They add condescendingly that the gas canisters are called ‘burners,’ hence our confusion. But the grammar doesn’t make sense. “Tear gas that fucking house down?” Numerous police experts question the decision and the explanation. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time police intentionally set fire to an occupied structure. Witness the FBI’s execution by fire of white supremacist Robert Mathews on Whidbey Island, the Philadelphia police firebombing of the MOVE house, and of course, Waco. The Sheriff is promising an inquiry – not into the decision, but into the cops’ careless utterances. Already, the cover-up has begun. But given the public’s apparent comfort with assassination, it might not be long before police can openly embrace ‘the tactical use of fire.’ From an online troll’s lips (burn that motherfucker) to a policymaker’s ear. So progresses American democracy.
Those who clamor for unfettered police power to confront the Dorners of the world are oblivious that Dorners are also the products of state violence and control, which expects total obeisance in the midst of widening structural inequality, and puts you down on the ground – or in it – just for questioning authority. You don’t have to be a political scientist to understand that this combination produces quiescence in the masses for only so long before it ignites rebellion.
Had Dorner’s narrative not culminated in such tragedy, it might be a thing of allegorical beauty. The LAPD created a monster who, fueled by rage and unbridled by reason, set out on a rampage to avenge the sin of his twisted creation. Had the LAPD sincerely investigated the claims of a whistleblower, nine fewer people would be dead or injured. What goes around comes around. We’re all in this together.
Ben Rosenfeld is a civil rights attorney in San Francisco, and a Board Member of the Civil Liberties Defense Center based in Eugene, Oregon.