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?