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Seeing Ourselves in Chris Dorner

Seeing Ourselves in Chris Dorner

What role, if any, does violence have in social change? This is a loaded question that needs careful dissection, starting with what we mean by violence. Last month the internet and mass media was lit up with news and conjectures about former US Navy reservist and ex-LAPD cop Chris Dorner, who went on a Southern California revenge killing spree. While most of course condemned his murder of LAPD family members and Riverside police, Dorner’s insider “manifesto” detailing the systemic corruption and unethical culture of the LAPD evoked a surprising amount of empathetic commentary. So much so, in fact, that officials had to remind the public that Dorner is not a hero.

In the US we actually have a warm cultural relationship with hyper-masculine lone wolf figures who take the law into their own hands, with Hollywood’s “one man against the system” films often racking up popularity at the box office, not to mention fascination with racialized “Wild West” films where the line between outlaw, vigilante, and hero are blurred. This is not too far removed from the right-wing version, where gun rights are valorized “just in case” the overbearing government comes after you. So it is not surprising that the most common reaction I saw to Dorner was a simultaneous sadness that he killed people, and general sympathy with the analysis in his manifesto.

LAPD’s reactions to Dorner during the manhunt did little to help their own case, with police shooting and injuring two Asian women and a white man, all driving vehicles similar to Dorner’s. A photo floating around Facebook during this period of a large black man shopping at a store wearing a t-shirt with “Not Dorner, do not shoot” written on it reminded us this was not the first time police had shot first at people of color and asked questions later. This highlighted what most of us might think of as common sense—an extremely stressed out, armed police officer whose subconscious biases are constantly reinforced may sooner or later be involved in tragedy. This was also not the first time a black military man’s sense of injustice and humiliation became blindly destructive.

Dorner was an individual who obviously felt isolated and unable to find peaceful restitution. He was not connected with larger movements for police accountability, demilitarization, or other communities. These movements have long raised the question of how to change the system together—one so thoroughly corrupt and debased that for Dorner, his only option seemed to be extreme violence. Since the system exists in a murky legal realm that excels at protecting itself, what kind of pressure can our communities hope to apply to force change? Can we offer true alternatives to the gun?

How do we reconcile cultural valorization of the vigilante-hero with our desires for true social justice? What role should violence play in social justice, if at all? It is possible to argue that even non-violent change is violent—for example, Gandhi contributed greatly to the overturn of an entire system of colonization in India—which would certainly have been experienced as violent by those benefiting from colonization. And as American Indian scholar Ward Churchill has argued, many non-violent movements for change were helped to achieve their goals by the simultaneous existence of a violent alternative, which made non-violent demands more palatable to the dominant system.

As hyper-individuated people in a hyper-isolating society that rewards hyper-masculinity, we may often feel impotent in the face of overwhelming injustices, or feel rage that we aren’t sure know how to hold. Watching Dorner and the LAPD brings up conflicting emotions—horror, anger, sadness, and for many (if we can bear to admit it), some empathy, though not necessarily empathy that condones murder. Dorner awakens the part of us that wishes we could just do something about it, while most of us wouldn’t actually pick up a gun. Still, there are other violent ways we might channel rage—against ourselves (anxiety, depression, addiction), our loved ones (abuse, domestic violence), and our communities. Hopefully we have creative, positive ways that build connection, connects us to social movements.

Clearly, dhamma practice helps us observe these feelings with kindness and make space around them so we try act from a place of choice rather than blind reaction. But everyday people are hurt, abused, and killed by this system we are part of. Our own money pays for it. How can we understand Dorner’s labyrinth of suffering at the level of his individual pain and the corrupt institutions that create the conditions for the labyrinth? How does dhamma help us act with fierce compassion and firmness to destroy both labyrinth and labyrinth makers?

Comments (2)

  • Richard Modiano

    It seems to me that there are different modalities of violence: Dorner’s deranged attacks, the calculated state response to them, the violence that accompanied the decolonization struggle in India, revolutionary violence, reactionary violence, not to mention degrees of violence, from trash can and bottle hurling demonstrators to rubber bullets and tear gas fired by cops and paramilitary forces to live ammo responses from same.

    There’s a dreary history of terrorist violence that followed in the wake of the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871 when organized resistance seemed futile and not dissimilar from Dorner’s rampage although hyper-masculinity seemed to have no part in motivating those particular attacks.

    Along the same lines, after the failure of May ’68 to reach the level of revolution in France and spread to the rest of Europe there was an outbreak of armed struggle by urban guerrillas in Europe, Japan and the USA in the early 1970s (the RAF in the GDR, the Angry Brigade in the UK, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Sekigun in Japan, the Weather Underground and SLA in the US, etc.) All of their actions were entirely counterproductive.

    The only successful recent instance of successful armed struggle was the Zapatista uprising of 1994.

    In today’s climate of cold violence wielded by the state armed struggle by small urban guerrilla bands doesn’t stand a chance and is sure to produce a crushing reaction that will extend to all dissident formations however legal and non-violent they may be. So non-violent resistance is the only realistic choice.

  • Bob

    Yeah its no wonder that Dorner immediately gained a reluctant following. He did what others only dream of. And if your a Buddhist who dreamed of that then SHAME ON YOU (just kidding). Dorner is in fact the stuff legends are made of. Who was Robin Hood? Who was Simone Bolivar? Do you think they were happy-go-lucky good time people to hang out with? Not likely.

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