Had Christopher Dorner been a different kind of camera-ready body, he might have been invited to tell his story by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or Rachel Maddow. Had his story been appropriately juxtapolitical, calibrated to suture and intensify an affect-saturated media-scape, he might have been invited to tell his story by Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters. We might have been invited to feel for him and feel with him. Instead, Christopher Dorner was that most banal of all things: a black man eaten by a system in which he once believed. He was that most banal of all things: the conjunction that makes race possible: a(nother) n(igger) d(ead) (and).
He believed, perhaps, that like the Haitian maroon Makandal or the Hollywood fantasies—Rambo, John Q, Django—one man could disrupt a system long enough for something, anything, to happen. He learned, as so many do, that those charged with protecting us are as driven by careerism and narcissism as they are by whatever altruistic motives they might have. He learned that minorities in the police, those desperate to fit in, assume the racist practices and beliefs that always subtend the impossible dream of cultural and racial assimilation in the U.S. He learned that justice, fairness, and honor are color-coded words, and that believing in them and working to realize them did not mean that one could benefit from them. This is part of a long history of black military service. It is, perhaps, the long story of black military service.
And because he loved America, this “tortured hell” that “feeds . . . bread of bitterness,” he wrote a love letter. He wrote the most difficult kind of love letter, the only one that really matters: a love letter that dares to risk it all.
As bold in its denunciations as it is intense in its passions, Dorner’s love letter “puts it all out there.” It hectors and cajoles, threatens and seduces, states facts and indulges fantasies. And believes, as it must, that writing can make a difference. It is a love letter that is as impassioned as Claude McKay’s “America,” which exemplifies cruel optimism: an attachment to a destroying object or situation.
He asks: “What would you do to clear your name?” Refusing to take for granted that language is shared, he defines name as “your life, your legacy, your journey, sacrifices, and everything you’ve worked hard for every day of your life as an adolescent, young adult and adult.” This definition is crucial, for definition lies at the heart of his dismissal from the force in 2008. In 2007, he reported that a police officer had “kicked” a suspect, a statement corroborated by the suspect’s father and by video footage. The evidence of testimony and corroboration was deemed insufficient. Instead, after a subsequent incident in which Dorner reacted to being insulted by a fellow officer, Dorner was labeled a “bully.”
Here is what Dorner writes:
Journalist, I want you to investigate every location I resided in growing up. Find any incidents where I was ever accused of being a bully. You won’t, because it doesn’t exist. It’s not in my DNA. Never was. I was the only black kid in each of my elementary school classes from first grade to seventh grade in junior high and any instances where I was disciplined for fighting was in response to fellow students provoking common childhood schoolyard fights, or calling me a nigger or other derogatory racial names. I grew up in neighborhoods where blacks make up less than 1%.
My first recollection of racism was in the first grade at Norwalk Christian elementary school in Norwalk, CA. A fellow student, Jim Armstrong if I can recall, called me a nigger on the playground. My response was swift and non-lethal. I struck him fast and hard with a punch an kick. He cried and reported it to a teacher. The teacher reported it to the principal. The principal swatted Jim for using a derogatory word toward me. He then for some unknown reason swatted me for striking Jim in response to him calling me a nigger. He stated as good Christians we are to turn the other cheek as Jesus did. Problem is, I’m not a fucking Christian and that old book, made of fiction and limited non-fiction, called the bible, never once stated Jesus was called a nigger. How dare you swat me for standing up for my rights for demanding that I be treated as an equal human being. That day I made a life decision that i will not tolerate racial derogatory terms spoken to me. Unfortunately I was swatted multiple times for the same exact reason up until junior high. Terminating me for telling the truth of a Caucasian officer kicking a mentally ill man is disgusting. Don’t ever call me a fucking bully. I want all journalists to utilize every source you have that specializes in collections for your reports. With the discovery and evidence available you will see the truth. 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.
Christopher Dorner has been called many things by the LAPD and by those who report on him. His name has been maligned and destroyed and destroyed even more. In mainstream media reports, he has been the problem we are glad to eradicate. And in non-mainstream sources, he has been a “radical” with a bad method. He has been misnamed and unnamed and even de-named. For writing a love letter.
I have insisted on calling what he wrote a love letter because we miss its optimistic tenor when we label it a manifesto or, as one news source has it, a “so-called manifesto.” It is a love letter because it believes that truth-telling can make a better world, a more livable world. It believes that critiquing racism makes a difference. It believes in the promise of America, even as it knows that America will kill him.
Dorner writes: “Self Preservation is no longer important to me. I do not fear death as I died long ago on 1/2/09. I was told by my mother that sometimes bad things happen to good people. I refuse to accept that.” He refuses the too-easy wisdom that permits injustice to flourish, insisting, instead, “I am here to change and make policy.”
Yet, Dorner does not merely inhabit the register of policy; instead, like the mythical Makandal I invoked, he also inhabits the register of the oral performative, as he invokes a series of curses toward the end of his love letter:
Wayne LaPierre, President of the NRA, you’re a vile and inhumane piece of shit. You never even showed 30 seconds of empathy for the children, teachers, and families of Sandy Hook. . . . May all of your immediate and distant family die horrific deaths in front of you.
Westboro Baptist Church, may you all burn slowly in a fire, not from smoke inhalation, but from the flames and only the flames.
Cardinal Mahoney, you are in essence a predator yourself as you enabled your subordinates to molest multiple children in the church over many decades.
May you die a long and slow painful death.
Here, Dorner is writing what Brian Norman describes as a “curse-prayer” that, as a form, “seems to exist outside of historical time,” even as its transcription “brings the curse and curser into the present.” Norman argues, “As a subjunctive utterance, the curse-prayer is forever in search of its own obsolescence.” And adds, “There is something one can do to avoid to subjunctive from happening in the present. That is, a curse needn’t be a prophecy.” The “curse-prayer,” as a ritual, subjunctive form, is not outside of “change and policy,” but a method to drive “change.”
But change is hard, even impossible. And so, for me, the saddest section of this love letter:
To my friends listed below, I wish we could have grown old together and spent more time together. When you reminisce of our friendship and experiences, think of that and that only. Do not dwell on my recent actions the last few days. This was a necessary evil that had to be executed in order for me to obtain my NAME back. The only thing that changes policy and garners attention is death.
The danger of the Hegelian wager, that risking death might bring recognition, is precisely that it is a wager, not a promise. The LAPD has promised to perform a self-examination in response to Dorner’s accusations. But who will watch the watchers? Who will dare to say that heroes should be scrutinized? Power is not self-correcting, except to amass more power.
Dorner’s manifesto ends without ending: “We need to hold ou”
Was he writing “our”? If so, how does the incomplete word speak to the impossibility he occupied? How does the missing legibility, the urgency of that “need,” the promise of that “we” register the truncation his life and name became? And how do we read his truncated words and life in our ongoing, truncating now?
I do not know how to read Christopher Dorner. I have no interest in diagnosing or interpreting him. Not yet. Not now. Perhaps never. I do want to read him. With love. With care. Because he wrote a love letter to America.