The State of the Union Amidst the Ashes of Extrajudicial Death
If the murder of Oscar Grant on an Oakland transit platform marked the dawn of the Obama era, the cold-blooded murder of former Naval reservist and Los Angeles Police officer Christopher Dorner might just mark the end of whatever optimistic hope people can muster in his administration. Whether an innocent young man just trying to get home, shot in the back after being racially profiled and slurred, or a man driven to his breaking point after being fired from a similar police force that operates according to its own warped morality and overarching objectives, the state of the union is a powder keg whose wick has gotten shorter due to decades of looking the other way.
Just minutes before Barack Obama began his state of the union address, San Bernardino County Sheriffs, knowing full well what they were doing, burned Christopher Dorner to death. From police brutality and racism to political unaccountability, from lack of economic opportunities to the extrajudicial murder of anyone deemed an enemy of the state, Dorner’s life and death offers us a much clearer picture of the state of this union than last night’s speech or media commentary.
In the years between the murder of Oscar Grant and Dorner’s last stand, March of 2009 to be specific, we were among those observing the case of Lovelle Mixon in Oakland, a parolee who decided he was not going to return to prison, opening fire on police at a traffic stop, killing two. Police went in to execute Mixon, not expecting that he would be holding an SKS. Two more cops died as a result. The logic of Dorner’s desperation, and the chain of events that led to his ultimate death, parallels Mixon’s; proud men without hope, cornered, deciding to go out fighting.
Neither man was a self-understood revolutionary and it would be inaccurate (or perhaps too accurate a reflection of the dearth of revolutionary activity in contemporary society) to try and declare otherwise. However, the material conditions that produced Dorner, as with Mixon, are not uncommon. The meaning and the effects of their actions speak volumes about the depth of racialization, criminalization and hopelessness in Obama’s supposed “post-racial” America.
LAPD Endgame: Street Justice on a Snow-Capped Mountain
The scene could not be more surreal: the remains of a cabin south of Big Bear still smoldering, the President delivered his State of the Union Address. To be fair, they had yet to confirm that the person they were incinerating in a cabin near Big Bear actually was Dorner. Earlier in the day, San Bernardino County Sheriffs received a call reporting a stolen vehicle driven by someone matching a description of Dorner. If the experience of the past five days is any indication, this narrowed it down to Black men, Asian women, and skinny white men. The $1 million dollar reward offered for information leading to Dorner’s capture or death, also offered a measurable rubric for the value of the lives of police officers, as traditionally rewards in homicide cases are closer to $20,000.
In the gathering of hurried interviews some interesting truths from the public made it into the TV news. An MSNBC reporter asked a witness: “Where you worried when you learned that Christopher Dorner was so close to your house?” But the witness responded “Actually, I was just afraid of the cops.” Given the unrestrained violence unleashed in recent days by the LAPD, this sentiment is perhaps unsurprising, but demonstrating a degree of hubris matched only by an utter absence of ironic intent, LAPD chief Charlie Beck said, evidently with a straight face, “To be targeted because of what you are… that is absolutely terrifying.” To which many nationwide responded with an audible guffaw: welcome to the club.
An interview with the man who was allegedly carjacked by Dorner said that, while police had told the man not to tell the whole story, he reported that Dorner had simply said “I don’t want to hurt, take your dog and go.” When sheriff’s deputies found the vehicle yesterday, the driver allegedly retreated into a cabin, at one point re-emerging amid the smoke of a diversionary device to exchange more than 100 rounds of fire with deputies. Two police were injured, with one later dying. Police quickly established a large perimeter, closing highways around Seven Oaks, south of Big Bear up to twenty miles away.
Establishing the perimeter also seemed to mean keeping the media at an arm’s length. While press helicopters had been providing live shots of the cabin in which Dorner was allegedly holed-up, the SBSD quickly requested that media withdraw to roadblocks miles away and that news choppers cease to transmit live video for fear of providing strategic information to Dorner himself. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department requestedthat media outlets and individuals cease and desist from even tweeting about the manhunt and shootout.
Even more astonishing than the request was the immediate compliance: press outlets abruptly ceased to tweet about the developing story, and duly retreating to the roadblocks, abandoned their task of reporting the news and waited for it to be fed to them. To paraphrase but one of many incredulous observers, we speak of press blackouts in China, but all the police had to do here was ask nicely and the press complied without batting an eyelash.
With a voluntary media blackout in effect, the Twittersphere, punctuated with a plethora of indignant and sharply worded refusals to comply with the police, became one of the only sources of developing news. What we know about what happened thereafter owes almost entirely to those who scoured the web for scanner feeds from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and intently followed the story these feeds told.
“The Burn Plan”
Shortly after 4pm Pacific Standard Time, the cabin was engulfed in flames, with CNN helicopters broadcasting plumes of black smoke from a distance of five miles. A single gunshot is reported from within the house. A narrative quickly emerged among the mainstream media, which we should recall was conspicuously absent from the scene, that police agencies had only deployed tear gas, and that perhaps Dorner himself had set the fire. Soon, what seems to be a cache of ammunition is exploding sporadically.
But for those of us listening to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department radio frequency, there was little question what had occurred. Nearly a half hour prior, officers had referred to “going ahead with the plan with the burner,” with another adding that the plan was to “back the Bear down and deploy the burner through the turret.” (Live audio during the preceding shootout seems to confirm this intention). Soon, the message was straightforward and expected: “Seven burners have deployed and we have a fire.” No surprised tones, no suggestion that the fire be extinguished.
In fact, there was the exact opposite: a female voice on the scanner repeatedly asks if the fire crews should be allowed to approach, and is told that it’s not time yet, that we need to wait until all four corners are engulfed, then that we need to wait until the roof collapses. At one particularly repulsive point, those on the scene realize that the house has a basement, and an authoritative male voice indicates that the fire crew would not be called until the fire had “burned through the basement.” They were going to let him die.
References to the 1993 massacre at Waco, Texas, the murderous 1985 bombing of the MOVE Organization in Philadelphia were immediate, and will serve as opposing frames for Dorner’s death in the days and weeks to come.
A murder? An assassination? A lynching? An execution.
State of the Union: Flammable
This is a day of a million possible metaphors, but central among these should be the image of the burning house. In an effort to distinguish what he called the “house negro” from the “field negro,” Malcolm X had once observed that the two responded differently when the master’s house caught fire: “But that field negro, remember, they were in the majority, and they hated their master. When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try to put it out, that field negro prayed for a wind.” While the metaphor may seem a strange one, given the fiery death of a man some have compared to a runaway slave. But as many Americans choose to gaze, mesmerized, at the glowing embers of the Dorner saga rather than watching the State of the Union, it’s worth wondering: whose house is really on fire? And who is praying for wind?
The eclipsing of the State of the Union, with some networks airing a split screen of the President’s speech alongside images from Southern California, or omitting pre- and post- speech coverage to report on Dorner’s likely death (a speech given in the context of ongoing war and occupation, unending recession and social crisis and a heated debate about, well, gun control) speaks volumes about our society, the conditions which produced Dorner and has helped produced a surge in mass killings generally. Persistent racist policies couched in the language of security, and failed imperial ventures with war tactics re-imported into American policing, are routinely covered over by the trite conflicts of celebrities, whether they be Kardashians or Congressmen.
Dorner was not just a product of a racist police department, he also no doubt adored his ‘fifteen minutes,’ stealing time from the President he nevertheless supported during the biggest planned speech of the year. Although Dorner’s actions were not driven by a radical consciousness, they are ‘as American as cherry pie’ in an apolitical vacuum that (at least on the surface) resembles Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers far more than the political contexts of the 1960s.
As Obama was taking to the lectern, police agencies were insisting that they had not set the fire that killed Christopher Dorner, and the compliant media were parroting this clearly implausible message. As members of Congress stood and sat on cue to rapturously applaud the Commander-in-Chief, more than 14,000 people have liked just one of the Facebook pages in support of Dorner, some because they know what racist policing is like, some because ours is a time of resisting injustice by any means, and some simply for the joy of backing an outlaw to the grisly end.
Dorner was not a radical, but his short war was not simply the story of broken man or of individualistic vengeance. The issues of brutality and racism perpetually covered up by a corrupt police department created the insurgent Dorner and resonated with many people who endure the reality of urban policing on a daily basis. The sympathy and the support Dorner received is a clear indicator of the very real and deep structural inequalities that helped forge the path of Dorner’s life and his fiery death. The great radical historian Mike Davis concluded a recent articleon Dorner with a peculiar question: “Does anyone cheer Dorner?” What is peculiar is that, for better or worse, there’s no denying that the answer is “yes.”
There’s no telling what sort of a fire they could start tomorrow.
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.