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How Do We Interpret Christopher Dorner?


An image released by Irvine Police Department shows suspect Christopher Dorner on February 3, 2013. Dorner was pinned down Tuesday after exchanging gunfire with police near a California ski resort, officials and reports said.

It is only in Hollywood movies that the anti-hero or social bandit gets away. As with most outsiders and social deviants they are brought to “justice,” the State is simply too powerful, with too many resources, and the inexorable will to persist and pursue, without exhaustion, that deems escape a relative impossibility.

According to still-developing news reports, Christopher Dorner, the rogue Lost Angeles Police Department officer who has been the subject of a manhunt in California by thousands of police and other personnel after killing four people (Monica Kwan, her fiancé Keith Lawrence, and two police officers), has apparently committed suicide. Despite the outcome--it appears that he chose death--Christopher Dorner is now part of the American cultural mythos. While it is uncomfortable for many to think of him as part of a grander narrative, Dorner is in fact a symbol that speaks to our collective subconscious.

Thus, he is a canvas onto which we can project our national anxieties and obsessions. Christopher Dorner is racialized as an African American. He is gendered as a male. Christopher Dorner represents authority, conformity, and State power, as a (former) police officer. Those identities are  intersectional.

For some,  Christopher Dorner was a hero who dared to speak truth to power and rode roughshod over the LAPD and those  he identified as his enemies who were guilty by virtue of their support of a racist police organization. To them, Dorner has Eric Hobsbawn's  "social banditry" flowing in his veins.

For others, he was a criminal who went "crazy" and offered up a manifesto like those "liberals" have a habit of doing. As with Trayvon Martin, what you see may largely be a function of where you sit politically, ideologically, and racially. Ultimately, Dorner is the object who represents the intermixing of several long-standing American cultural and historical narratives; he is a nexus, a focal point for the birth of many memes.

Dorner is the African-American,  "hulking, 270-pound former college football player" who was armed and dangerous. He was the 21st century echo of the  "giant negroes" who attacked "innocent" white people as heralded in sensationalistic American newspaper headlines in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.

Some others would like to argue that he was  Bigger Thomas or Tarantino's reimagined Django.

I would suggest that Dorner has little if anything in common with the former, Richard Wright's iconic character, except for being black and male.

Jamie Foxx's Django is more compelling. However, while the allusion is pithy and timely, Dorner was not fighting the white slaveocracy, living out a fairy tale slavery counter-factual, and willing to die (and kill) for the love of a good woman. Dorner and Django are both forces of vengeance; however, their goals are not the same. Those differences are not to be overlooked.

Was Christopher Dorner either a bad nigger or a badman,  two of the classic archetypes in Black (American) literature and folklore?

I have no ready answer, as either formulation is compelling, while also being insufficient to capture Dorner's deeds and words. The bad nigger was a black person (usually male) who defied white authority, norms of black respectability, and did not care about the consequences. He usually was feared by the mass of black folks because we would be left to suffer for the consequences of his actions. Decent black folks were also the victims of his mischief, violence, and anti-social behavior.

The badman was just that, he was a "bad man." He was Stagolee or the Blues Man who did his own thing despite white racism and cowardly black folks who simply wanted us to be quiet to get along. The badman was a trickster figure who had the finest clothes, carried a pistol, enjoyed the prettiest women, and possessed the baddest car or horse. The badman was the king of the block--and dared someone to tell him otherwise.