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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.

Christopher Dorner was a "bad man" in the literal sense: he killed, and was the target of a massive manhunt, and one who went out, quite literally, in a blaze of gunfire and violence.

In the literary sense, Dorner is not a badman...yet. But, that is the power of cultural memory.

Perhaps, Christopher Dorner will be transformed through popular culture and storytelling into a figure talked about for decades and centuries to come, with multiple versions of his tales and exploits, shaped by the griots and bards for their respective audiences?

While Dorner has many attributes that locate him firmly within Black (American) folklore, popular culture, and memory, I would argue that he is most accurately described as an Age of Obama version of The Spook Who Sat By the Door.

Penned by Sam Greenlee, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is an underground book (and then film) classic. The story focused on the exploits of Dan Freeman an African-American CIA agent who in an epiphanic moment came to realize that he was working for a corrupt and racist government. The main character then goes rogue, just as Dorner has done, and organizes a cadre of Black Nationalist freedom fighters to "take down the man." The Spook Who Sat by the Door was later remade as a film during the blaxploitation film cycle of the 1970s.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door would be caricaturized and mocked by many who saw it as "typical" "black paranoid" thinking born of the failed revolutionary dreaming of the 1960s and early 1970s. The Spook Who Sat by the Door would also be marginalized by its later association with blaxploitation--what some cultural critics have described as "degraded cinema."

The Spook Who Sat by the Door has endured as a book and a movie because it spoke to the realities of Cointelpro, police brutality, the CIA connection to the crack cocaine epidemic, Iran-Contra, the evils taught at places like The School of the Americas, and because it validated what many black and brown folks have long-known: the United States has historically operated in such a way that White Power and White Government are inseparable.

In total, Christopher Dorner is a Rorschach test. We will see in him what our life experiences, cognitive maps, and life worlds, have taught us about violence, trust, the State, racism, and the police. Irrespective of how individual members of the public perceive Christopher Dorner, institutional power sees him, and folks like him, quite correctly, as a threat.

He is a heretic of sorts. As such, special punishments, contempt, and rage are reserved for those who defy conventional norms, wisdom, and authority.

In a similar example, more money is often spent apprehending bank robbers than was stolen in the heist. This occurs because the banking system cannot allow a person to escape because such a choice would be a sign of weakness. Consequently, such a short term cost benefit analysis would encourage more robberies in the long term.

Christopher Dorner dared to tell his version of the truth regarding the LAPD's history of corruption and racism. They do not like tattletales and "snitches." Dorner was a particularly noxious threat to the status quo both because of his violent actions, as well as the symbolic power of his words and deeds.

You can call him Django, Bigger Thomas, a badman, a bad nigger, or Dan Freeman. Regardless, Christopher Dorner will not live to tell anymore tales. I would suspect that he knew such a fact and had already accepted it. Such a decision made him all the more lethal.

As he sat, surrounded, in that cabin with his foes having now encircled and closed in, was Dorner meditating on his role as an anti-hero to some, a villain to others? Did he make peace with the outcome and the consequences of his decision to shoot and kill several people? He fought “The “Man.” But, in the end, did “The Man” really win? Given the bloody end of the Christopher Dorner saga the public will likely never get a clear answer.

Christopher Dorner will live a life much longer than the 30 years he spent on terrestrial earth. The 24/7 news cycle will quickly move on. But in many communities Dorner is going to be discussed—both positively and negatively—for quite some time to come.