By Mathew Cunningham-Cook / Jacobin / Originally published Feb. 13, 2013
Bradley Manning: imprisoned, tortured. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo: lost her career at the Environmental Protection Agency. Karen Silkwood: died in a suspicious car accident. Gary Webb and Deborah Jeane Palfrey: committed suicide, the former having lost his career, the latter under threat of a 55-year prison sentence. Adrian Schoolcraft: involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric ward.
This isn’t a country that necessarily holds whistleblowers in the highest regard.
For the past week, the media has been struck by Dorner fever, anxiously covering the most minute developments in Southern California’s hunt for an ex-cop alleged to have killed four people: a daughter of an LAPD officer and her fiancée, and a police officer in Riverside county, and an officer involved in the shootout at a cabin in the wilderness.
We can infer that all this has taken place; there will never be a trial. Dorner’s “manifesto” has been selectively quoted, focusing on the sections where his mental illness and homicidal rage come into full view, while the allegations of racism and human rights violations by the LAPD have been slyly deemphasized.
What are those allegations, exactly? Usage of the n-word among colleagues, the lack of institutional self-reflection in the aftermath of Rodney King, retaliation against deputies for breaking the “blue line,” officers singing songs celebrating the burning of Jewish ghettos by Nazi stormtroopers, assaulting a woman in her 70s, and assaulting a man who suffers from dementia and schizophrenia by kicking him in the face. Throughout, Dorner attacks the LAPD’s pervasive culture of institutional racism: something that most Angelenos of color will confirm.
Two other black officers have since come forward, largely confirming Dorner’s account of the racism on the force (the former, however, defends the role of the current chief of police). No one seems to have seriously considered giving in to Dorner’s one demand: that the record be set straight by releasing all of the documents related to his disciplinary hearings, and clearing his name from the prior disciplinary actions against him. He pledged to end his warfare if the LAPD would do so. Considering his apparent death last night, one wonders if that life could have been saved at the price of the department’s momentary embarrassment. “A man is nothing without his name,” repeats Dorner.
Dorner’s reaction is partly rooted in a corrosive version of American masculinity — his response to institutional corruption is uniquely Jack Bauer and John Wayne. Gratuitous violence included. Dorner is a wholesale product of a society gone mad on racism and war, of a state that aggressively punishes dissent, of an intellectual milieu where telling the truth has become a dangerous act. There was no internal institutional outlet for him to address injustices against him: the blue line prevented that.
Dorner’s obsession with reclaiming his name made me go back and re-read James Baldwin’s signature essay “Nobody Knows My Name,” from the eponymous book. I paused on two passages.
I remembered the soldier in uniform blinded by an enraged white man, just after the Second World War. There had been many such incidents after the First War, which was one of the reasons I had been born in Harlem. I remembered Willie McGhee, Emmett Till, and the others. My younger brothers had visited Atlanta some years before. I remembered what they had told me about it. One of my brothers, in uniform, had had his front teeth kicked out by a white officer. I remembered my mother telling us how she had wept and prayed and tried to kiss the venom out of her suicidally embittered son. (She managed to do it, too; heaven only knows what she herself was feeling, whose fathers and brothers had lived and died down here.)
Baldwin’s mother was able to muster up the capacity to kiss the venom out of her deeply embittered son. Not all mothers are able to do so. It is very much in actuality a game of chance, given the realities of white supremacy and economic inequality. But the broader point here is this country continues to be a place where the lives of those on the receiving end of the class and color war are disposable.
If we can liken life, for a moment, to a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion. Any honest examination of the national life proves how far away we are from the standard of human freedom from which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person.
The initial response to the Dorner phenomena — like most phenomena involving madmen — has been to isolate it as an individual event, extrinsic to our society. Why does he hate us? Indeed, the presentation of most criminality is as something monstrous. This formulation ignores something crucial: it is impossible to arbitrarily separate some parts of our lives from the others. It is as foolish to presume that criminality is monstrous as it is to presume that the leg operates independently of the hip.
And so the Dorner incident, like all incidents involving madmen, requires us to consider the madness that structures life in America.
Baldwin’s midcentury injunction still holds today, absent the male normativity: we do need to take a hard look at ourselves. Why has Dorner attracted such support online, especially in communities of color? Why have two more LAPD officers, at great risk, come forward to address the free-flowing racism that characterizes their worklife? The questions we might ask will be fraught with peril, but there could be great positives: one of the key things that this experience has exposed is that a broader social consideration of what it means to live life ethically is gravely absent.
In Dorner’s case, the allegory of life to a furnace takes literal weight — he has died, consumed by fire. The police will celebrate, the chorus will quiet, the lives of his victims mourned. It is unlikely that the fire that burned away Dorner will burn away any illusion: this is unfortunate, and disturbing. His allegations will be dismissed as the rantings of a lunatic, things will return to normal. Until the fire, next time.