American Blowback: Cop-on-Cop Crime in LA

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By George Ciccariello-Maher and Mike King
February 9, 2013

Christopher Dorner

Yesterday was not simply a day like any other, and yet an entire system is grinding into motion to ensure that the peculiarities of the day be promptly forgotten: another crazy person lost it and committed unthinkable acts. The act of killing stands in and speaks for the person: look what he has done, of course he must be crazy. Case closed.

What they want you to see is just another Adam Lanza, just another inexplicable act, and when the act speaks for the assailant, words are secondary and there is no need to listen. But this is not, and has never been, a good way to understand reality.

What they want you to forget is the sheer strangeness of what is happening in Los Angeles. Christopher Dorner allegedly killed a police officer and two civilians. This was not a random shooting by a right-wing gun-nut mourning the loss of the “Real America.” Here is a man with good things to say about liberal democrats, a supporter of heightened gun control, a former LAPD officer and Navy reservist, targeting his own institution, which he accused of racism, violence, and corruption.

Dorner’s “Last Resort”

We know all of these things because what is most peculiar about this entire case is the written testament that Dorner has left us. In a letter titled only “Last Resort” and addressed to “America,” he makes clear his grievances, his objectives, and the rationale behind his actions – a chilling declaration of war on the Los Angeles Police Department.

The press is busy citing only those bits of the statement which make Dorner seem crazy: when he addresses Tim Tebow or Larry David, for example, or when he laments the fact that he will not survive to see The Hangover 3. (See for example, Buzzfeed’s “Everything You Need to Know,” which conspicuously says very little). But the vast majority of the letter paints a picture of someone who, while clearly undergoing some sort of mental break, is astonishingly lucid as to the causes and candid as to what he intends to do about it. These causes and these intentions, regardless of what you may hear on MSNBC or Entertainment Tonight(both will essentially carry the same message), begin and end with the LAPD.

The LAPD has long played a vanguard role in white supremacist policing in the United States. Whether it be the conscious recruitment of racist cops from the south in the 1960s under William Parker (sparking the 1965 Watts Rebellion) or the continuity of well-worn brutal methods under Darryl Gates (sparking the massive 1992 L.A. Rebellions), there has been little new under the sun. Even after 1992, when change seemed for a moment inevitable and when the Bloods and Crips had, themselves, laid down arms and put forth a plan to rebuild the city, this long-needed transformation didn’t materialize. Instead, South Central became South L.A., Gates was canned, and the LAPD forcibly destroyed the gang truce. Nothing had changed.

It wasn’t long before the next scandal. Toward the end of the 1990s, what many had already known became public knowledge: that the LAPD, and especially the Rampart Division, routinely brutalized suspects and planted evidence. As a result of this revelation, the LAPD was charged under the RICO Act (as a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) and placed under the federal oversight of a consent decree that would only be lifted in 2009.

Not coincidentally, “Globocop” Bill Bratton, currently en route to advise the Oakland Police Department, amidst widespread public opposition, is credited with cleaning up the LAPD, and Dorner’s statement appears on many websites alongside a picture of the former officer beaming alongside Bratton (it has emerged that Dorner mailed evidence to Anderson Cooper last week, including a gift from Bratton, on which he wrote “Thanks, but no thanks Will Bratton”).

According to Dorner’s statement:

“The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse. The consent decree should never have been lifted. The only thing that has evolved from the consent decree is those officers involved in the Rampart scandal and Rodney King incidents have since promoted to supervisor, commanders, and command staff, and executive positions… Are you aware that an officer… seen on the Rodney King videotape striking Mr. King multiple times with a baton on 3/3/91 is still employed by the LAPD and is now a Captain on the police department? … As a commanding officer, he is now responsible for over 200 officers. Do you trust him to enforce department policy and investigate use of force investigations on arrestees by his officers?”

One indication of this is the fact that, during the course of more than a decade of investigation of the Rampart case, only five officers were terminated, which suggests just how shallow the investigation efforts were. Dorner ominously adds that “I will correct this error,” and deems his actions a “necessary evil” not only to clear his own name, but to force “substantial change” within the LAPD.

According to Dorner, he was suspended in 2008 after reporting a superior for use of excessive force against a suspect, and eventually terminated in 2009. Dorner goes on to describe the prevalence of white supremacy in the police force: from anti-Semitic taunting to openly anti-black sentiment. After one incident involving use of the n-word, Dorner recalls confronting other officers physically, for which he was reprimanded. In retrospect, he reflects, with regard to the speaker of the word, “What I should have done, was put a Winchester Ranger SXT 9mm 147 grain bullet in his skull.” On the day that his fellow officers were given what were effectively paid suspensions, “That day, the LAPD stated that it is acceptable for fellow officers to call black officers niggers to their face and you will receive a slap on the wrist.”

A Bloody Fight for Honor on the Other Side of the Blue Line

“I am an American by choice, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a military service member, I am a man who has lost complete faith in the system, when the system betrayed, slandered, and libeled me. I lived a good life and though not a religious man I always stuck to my own personal code of ethics, ethos and always stuck to my shoreline and true North. I didn’t need the US Navy to instill Honor, Courage, and Commitment in me but I thank them for re-enforcing it. It’s in my DNA.”

–Christopher Dorner

It is clear from Dorner’s communiqué that he feels that he is following a code of honor against an unlawful body that has sullied his name; his objective being to reclaim his honor. Through his spectacle of violence he is also overtly drawing attention to his self-identity – as a black man, as an “honest officer”/ conscientious worker, and as a veteran – counter-posed against institutions of corruption, deceit and abuse. In an effort that he clearly self-defines as terrorism, Dorner invokes old-West, rugged individualism: “Unfortunately, I will not be alive to see my name cleared. That’s what this is about, my name. A man is nothing without his name.” At length, Dorner goes through ideal-types of various officers’ grouped by race, and explicitly cites their role in reproducing white supremacy. He makes clear that he is patriotic and loves the government (and Chris Christie); his war is with the LAPD.

Not unlike many mass killers, Dorner’s writing exhibits a hyper-vigilant(e) feeling of betrayal and unwavering need for revenge. His writing reflects a self-conscious awareness of this role, a self-forged morality that invokes clear Zarathustra-like qualities of the Overman imposing his will on weak and vile petty tyrants. Dorner says:

“I am here to change and make policy. The culture of LAPD versus the community and honest/good officers needs to and will change. I am here to correct and calibrate your morale (sic) compasses to true north.”

Dorner’s writing also features a list of thanks to everyone from George H.W. Bush to Charlie Sheen. The following quote has extensively repeated in the press, and bears some interrogation: “If possible, I want my brain preserved for science/research to study the effects of severe depression on an individual’s brain.” To dismiss this as simple madness, is to individualize this man and his actions (however they are interpreted) as apolitical and random, another tragic coupling of broken people with fully-functional weapons. It is clear, through his chronicling of long-past slights un-avenged, interspersed with calls for more gun control and an endorsement for Hillary Clinton for President, that he is troubled. Dorner writes, “Ask yourselves what would cause somebody to take these drastic measures like I did. That’s what is important.”

This is surely a discussion the LAPD would not pine over if it did not happen. It is a discourse that is foreign to the press, even the likes of liberals like Chris Matthews, that Dorner lauds. Soldier-Officer Dorner sits, using his training against the force that trained him, waiting to unleash his next attack. The extent to which we go to Dr. Drew for helpful insights in the next few days and not victims of police brutality or whistle-blower cops or to analyses of race and policing in our cities, the extent to which we talk about gun control and not how and why the men who beat Rodney King got to run the LAPD instead of being run out of it, is the extent to which we sit and wait, feeding ammunition to the next Christopher Dorner.

A Defection in the Occupation Forces

Now Dorner has declared war on the LAPD and he has named targets: “The enemy combatants in LA are not the citizens and suspects, it’s the police officers.” To a list of different offenders, he adds the ominous promise: “You are a high value target.” The parameters of the violence he has seen meted out to everyday poor residents of Los Angeles structures his own response, such as when he urges:

“Citizens/non-combatants, do not render medical aid to downed officers/enemy combatants. They would not do the same for you. They will let you bleed out… don’t honor these fallen officers/dirtbags. When your family members die, they just see you as extra overtime at a crime scene and at a perimeter. Why would you value their lives when they clearly don’t value yours or your family members lives?”

He has studied the new counterinsurgency doctrine, as rewritten in 2006 by General David Petraeus, and he turns its language against its authors, comparing himself to insurgent forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty. ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] is my strength and your weakness. You will now live the life of the prey.”

Frantz Fanon argued pointedly that exploitation, occupation, and colonization simply cannot exist without racism and torture of one form or another. As a result, it is useless to oppose the violence of occupation, or the torture made so palpable in Zero Dark Thirty, without opposing the occupation itself, of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of South Central L.A. Yes, something similar could be said of the LAPD, and here we begin to grasp why this most violent of institutions has so rigidly resisted change: because its historically brutal and terroristic tactics, the daily oppression and humiliation exerted most directly at poor black and brownAngelinos, are merely symptoms of the LAPD’s structural function.

When Fanon resigned his post as a psychiatrist to join the Algerian Revolution, he was merely putting into revolutionary practice what he had practiced in the analyst’s chair for years. For Fanon, mental neuroses, especially among people of color, were the result not of any inherent trait or familial trauma, but of the profound trauma imposed by white supremacist and colonial society. And since social structures generate many mental illnesses, we cannot hope to cure these without destroying the institutions that make people sick in the first place.

It was this imperative that led Fanon to throw himself into the armed struggle, and when he did so, he wrote that: “A society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced.” There can be no more powerful symptom of desperation, no more direct indicator of the non-viability of existing institutions, than this hunted man named Christopher Dorner.

There’s nothing pretty about the desperate actions of a soon-to-be-dead man, but we owe it to ourselves, and to the world, to at least attempt to understand. To be clear: Dorner’s statement is not a revolutionary manifesto, and he certainly didn’t grasp the structural relationship between occupation and LAPD brutality, but his statement and his actions are deeply symptomatic of a social illness that it does not name. If the adage “you reap what you sow” were not already the slogan of the week when unrepentant Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who embraced the murderous dehumanization of his profession, was killed at a Texas gun range last Saturday, this is now undeniable.

Shoot to Kill: Counterinsurgency and Collateral Damage

Given its social function, the LAPD simply cannot be anything but racist and brutal, and as though attempting to prove Dorner’s point, the response to his attacks has been as brutal as anything. The thin blue line of secrecy among officers has been replaced by a thick blue line, protecting officers and their families while unleashing unrestrained violence on southern California. In only the most infamous incident of yesterday, two women delivering newspapers were shot by trigger-happy officers who, it seems, mistook their royal blue truck for Dorner’s gray one. Dozens of bullet holes riddled the back of the pickup, their clusters suggesting a clear intent to kill without identifying. Within the context of legitimate, open threats to officers, the “shoot anything that moves” approach is perhaps an accentuation, but hardly an aberration, from the norm.

The application of a counterinsurgency model of urban policing in cities like Los Angeles is longstanding. In Los Angeles alone, from bulldozed houses in “Operation Hammer” and the invention of gang injunctions in the mid-late 1980s, to the racialized use of checkpoints, and the routine abuses Dorner points to today, the “War on Crime” is a war in every sense of the word. The LAPD gang unit trains troops headed to Afghanistan in how to develop informants and use counterinsurgency tactics to control “hostile” populations and spaces. The abuses that Dorner lists are the effects of this logic of occupation, a term officers themselves use to describe their work. As with criminal Ramparts officers getting promotions, Dorner sees the daily routines of abuse as morally wrong, but without seeing the logic of the broader structures in which those practices are embedded.

The violent overlap between modern warfare and domestic policing, of which Dorner is a strange byproduct of, is especially acute among police officers that are returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. The increased levels of PTSD and violence among veterans in general, is amplified, not only by holding a job that empowers, and sometimes requires, the use of deadly force, but because the current methods of contemporary urban policing have become enmeshed with the overall objectives, strategic logic, and daily practice of counterinsurgency.

As Oakland brings on former LAPD Chief William Bratton to add a play or two to Oakland’s counterinsurgency manual, the OPD, City Council, and District Attorney continue to refuse to fire and criminally charge Miguel Masso, an Iraq veteran who had previously tortured a man in custody when with the NYPD, before shooting and killing 18-year old Alan Blueford in East Oakland last May, as he laid on the ground and cried “I didn’t do anything.” Despite Masso’s account of what happened seriously conflicting with the coroner’s report and witness accounts, Masso still has his job. Without pathologizing veterans it is clear that there are serious concerns here. For the time being, Masso is another one of those cops who gets paid leave, who gets to walk the streets, who may get a medal or a promotion down the line – though there are many people in Oakland continuing to try and see otherwise. It is the commonness of excuses for police abuse/murder, the erasure of the victims as collateral damage that should be highlighted when trying to make sense of this broken, rogue former-LA cop.

A Gravedigger in Uniform

“I am the walking exigent circumstance you created.”

– Christopher Dorner

Much like Dan Freeman, the main character in Stan Greenlee’s classic book and film, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, Christopher Dorner is the dialectical gravedigger of a dying system: armed, trained, and prepared by a system which prizes cop culture, which massively arms the police and unleashes them on the poor and racialized, and which in its late stages demands that black people do the work of white supremacy. In this circumstance, those skills are being utilized against the police. Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz said, “This is a somewhat unprecedented, or at least rare occurrence – a trained, heavily armed person who is hunting for police officers.”  LAPD Chief Charlie Beckadded, “Of course he knows what he’s doing; we trained him. He was also a member of the Armed Forces… It is extremely worrisome and scary.”

For Marx, capitalism would sow the seeds of its own destruction and produce its own gravedigger, the proletariat. Fanon recognized, however, that this gravedigger might be characterized more by the “desperate solutions” to which they turn than by their class consciousness. In the United States today, late capitalism is equally shot through with white supremacy and upheld by brute force by increasingly heavy-handed police. It should not surprise us when the gravediggers assume an ominously different form.

George Ciccariello-Maher is assistant professor of political science at Drexel University. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

Mike King is a Ph.D candidate in sociology at UC Santa Cruz, and can be reached at mikeking0101(at)gmail.com. Both study policing and counterinsurgency.

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