Exterminating Angels

Mike Davis · Christopher Dorner

Racism, as readers of Richard Wright and Chester Himes know, sometimes drives its victims homicidally mad, as in the cases of Bigger Thomas in Native Son or the anonymous sniper in Himes’s extraordinary short story ‘Prediction'. But then again, ‘mad’ may be a cowardly liberal euphemism for a radical defiance that would rather kill and die than submit to further lies and humiliation. Both stories are so unsettling because they leave the reader to divide justice by horror and then ponder the terrifying quotient.

Christopher Dorner’s 'Manifesto', the product, we’re told, of the unendurable depression that descended on the author after his dismissal from the LAPD, veers between bipolar extremes. In one section, Dorner taunts his former comrades in sneering acronyms that boast his expertise: 'Your APC are defunct... My POA is always POI.' But the rant is followed by sentimental acknowledgments to friends and several pages of fan notes to eclectic heroes who include Hillary Clinton (his first choice for president in 2016), Chris Christie (his second choice), Dave Brubeck, General Petraeus and Ellen DeGeneres. He’s also a passionate advocate (and argument for) gun control.

Perhaps his brain synapses have been misfiring for a long time, but the core of Dorner’s Manifesto is a coherent account of how a police Explorer Scout realised his life’s dream as a LAPD rookie and then had his reputation and career destroyed for being an honest cop. He debunks the myth – propagated by the LA Times, Mayor Villaraigosa, and most of the liberal establishment – that thanks to Saint Bratton a kinder, gentler and more diverse LAPD now protects and serves Los Angeles.

Indeed Dorner’s eye-witness account of routine sadism, racism and conspiracy in the department is totally in line with its historical institutional culture and was inadvertently fact-checked by the LAPD’s wild shooting of two innocent women and Chief Beck’s kneejerk exculpation of the officers involved. (Those who think that there are no more Rodney Kings should look carefully at the case of the LAPD patrol woman who killed a mentally ill woman last summer by stomping on her genitals.)

If Dorner were standing on a skyscraper ledge or holding Rupert Murdoch hostage, the world might pay more attention to the injustices that he chronicles. But he has instead chosen, as he puts it, to make his enemies’ homes his 'war space' and their families his targets. Thus his spree began not with his Barrett .50 aimed at LAPD headquarters, but with the murder of a cop’s daughter and her fiancé.

Outlaw heroes are not this pitiless and there is no warrior honour in killing helpless family members. So who is Dorner? He will undoubtedly be buried in multiple coffins by competing theories and explanations. Some will fit him for serial killer lunatic, while on the AM dial he’ll be denounced as liberalism’s Timothy McVeigh. Obama will be blamed.

But I’m haunted by an eerie precedent to Dorner’s story: the legend of Mark Essex. He was a monster in the same sense as Dorner: his rage at injustice and humiliation became an annihilating violence.

A young Black navy veteran with almost no formal weapons training, Essex boldly attacked the headquarters of the New Orleans Police Department on New Year's Eve, 1972. After killing a black police cadet and wounding a white lieutenant, Essex escaped to a nearby warehouse where he ambushed a K-9 unit and killed another cop. For a week he eluded a vast manhunt before suddenly reappearing in the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street from City Hall. Going floor to floor, always warning the housekeepers to flee, he shot down hotel managers and white guests, setting rooms afire as he climbed toward the roof.

The New Orleans police rushed the hotel, but Essex with uncanny accuracy shot cops off fire ladders, mowed them down in stairwells and killed them as they stepped out of elevators or got out of their cars in the streets below. By nightfall on 7 January 1973, Essex – now bunkered on the roof of Howard Johnson – had militarily defeated the entire New Orleans Police Department. He had shot ten police officers (five dead, including a deputy chief) and eleven white civilians (four dead) while withstanding thousands of rounds of police fire without a wound. Ultimately a marine helicopter was brought in and after taking numerous hits from Essex in three runs at the hotel, a police sharpshooter killed the one-man black liberation army. When the coroner received what remained of Essex he counted 200 bullet wounds.

In his superb reconstruction of this New Orleans Armageddon (A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper) first published in 1978, Peter Hernon anticipates some of the key questions that may confront Dorner’s biographer. Essex grew up in Emporia, Kansas, the child of a blue-collar black family in an almost all-white town. (Dorner emphasises that he was the only black child in his classes until middle school.) Hernon finds nothing traumatic or disturbed in Essex’s life until he joins the navy in the late 1960s and trains in San Diego as a dental technician with the hope of someday going to dental school. The white navy dentist whom Essex assisted recalls him rather fondly to Hernon as a cheerful 19-year-old from Kansas.

But the navy in 1969 is anything but cheerful. In the white ranks there’s seething hostility against promotion of blacks and race riots have erupted on the flight decks of the big carriers. Many black sailors, as well as a minority of whites, are alienated by the war in Vietnam and the Nixon backlash at home. Hernon is stationed at a small naval base in Imperial Beach (last exit before Tijuana and the site of the hugely subversive and accordingly short-lived HBO series, John from Cincinnati) where he and other black sailors are tormented by racist CPOs. (Hernon quotes one as loudly proclaiming: 'God, it must have been beautiful twenty or thirty years ago. When a nigger went to sea it was below the decks, in the galley.') Finally, after one slur too many, Essex decks a white sailor.

He’s doomed. Like Bob Jones, the black shipyard worker in Himes’s ferocious 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, a single misstep and his life spirals downward. In the face of unfair punishments and continuing abuse, Essex loses faith in a naval career. He goes AWOL and is kicked out of the service. Unlike Dorner however, Essex is able to place injustice in a political framework; there are plenty of radical cats in the navy in 1970 and he gravitates towards the Black Panthers, first in New York and then in New Orleans. Police attacks on the Desire projects and the killing of local activists convince Essex that it is time for war. Hernon is very clear, however, that this was a solo project, ‘revolutionary suicide’ in the terminology of the time. But Essex doesn’t die entirely alone. As he kills cops from the rooftop of the Howard Johnson, young Black people in the street cheer him.

Does anyone cheer Dorner?


  • 12 February 2013 at 12:15pm
    Neil Levy says:
    This post is disturbing. It is possible to deplore the injustices that may be responsible for people turning violent without, as this post does, celebrating the violence itself.

  • 12 February 2013 at 1:34pm
    tomk says:
    The post is disturbing but not because it celebrates violence. I'm not sure why you would think that.

  • 12 February 2013 at 1:41pm
    Ingemar says:
    With the exception that Dorner is pitiless, clearly untrue, this was a good read. Since I foresee most pieces about this incident, easily accessible to white readership, will not be tethered to reality this is a good and welcome contribution. Thanks for,as always Mike, choosing humanity.

  • 12 February 2013 at 1:51pm
    nechaev says:
    Disturbed? Well welcome my friend to real life on the Planet of Slums.....thanks to Mike Davis for a characteristically brilliant post. Maybe some disturbance in the belly of the dinosaur itself is long overdue. And when the ruling elites have successfully sealed off any and all political routes to radical change, expect suicidal desperados to emerge.

  • 12 February 2013 at 1:57pm
    gustafus says:
    I spent a night in jail once, for tubing on a lazy river with no life jacket. I told the park police to pound sand - and they went ballistic. Wannabee cops are much more dangerous than the real thing... as they never get to beat or shoot anyone.

    My theory is that returning military should not be employed in police or prison work because the opportunity for licensed sadism is the magnet that draws these misfits to the jobs.

    My night in jail was instructive. I was a 47 year old white professional mother of 3 - no police record, no booze, drugs, guns or history of violence.

    But Colorado is bursting with former military looking for new and different ways to get paid to pillage the locals. DO NOT SPEED through any small hamlet in the Mountain State - it's all about passing revenue and institutional para military mentality there... Ditto for Wyoming.

    That said.. the prison guards were nasty bull dykes - just looking for an opportunity to rough somebody up. The entire experience changed my belief system.

    So... anybody who fights back with guns and body armor... they have my vote. I just wish he'd gotten a few judges.

    Too many dead dogs, imprisoned moms and children... the system has reached a tipping point... too many of us KNOW the goonies are more dangerous than the gangs and bank robbers.

    I personally root for bank robbers... WF and BofA could use a good fleecing.

  • 13 February 2013 at 10:00pm
    szielinski says:
    Before Donner Americans saw Andrew Joseph Stack destroy himself and part of an IRS field office in Austin, TX. Stack had legitimate grievances in his pocket, although his exploit failed to convey his outrage in a politically meaningful way. So also Donner’s murders, which can be counted as politically inarticulate replies to the injustices he witnessed and suffered. The task of turning the folly of men like Donner and Stack into politically meaningful action falls on those observers who can express in words what Donner and Stack tried to express in their violent deeds.

    To be sure, the American state system can easily tolerate and manage such violence as that produced by Donner. What it cannot tolerate at all is solidarity generated by and the movement activity of the “lesser people” (Alan Simpson). The well-armed state cannot beat and jail millions of individuals who can find hope only in their collective effort. It can only seek to wait them out. Every once in a while the belligerent state runs out of time.

  • 14 February 2013 at 10:40pm
    littlebird says:
    Thank you Mr. Davis, that was an interesting history I never knew. Its time for all us unemployed folk to form citizen review commissions, cop watch groups, and publish, publish, publish. These be apocalyptic times, that is to say, all will be unveiled.
    I don´t buy the story that Mr. Dormer killed anyone. Assassination is one way of keeping someone very quiet. So much of the gun violence in the US has the stink of psyops. They really want to disarm the population.

  • 16 February 2013 at 6:39am
    junebug61 says:
    I hope no one is cheering for Dorner's actions. But I believe he got screwed in his review for reporting a fellow officer, and became bitter and snapped. I have seen cases where white administrators feel white witnesses have more credibility in hearings because they speak their language. The liars are calm and matter of fact and the truthful witnesses are seen as angry and unprofessional. None of this excuses Dorner's actions. It does give us understanding as to how people are driven to desperate acts that only hurt innocent people.

  • 18 February 2013 at 3:37pm
    gustafus says:
    Lots of people are cheering Dorner... his actions, and the hope that our governors will finally begin to fear their charges.

    Police are not the fatherly corner cop we grew up with. They are often returning military goonies... looking for someone to hurt.

    LA is famous for this brand...

    We need MORE desperation... nore incidents... more revolt

    or we are doomed.

  • 18 February 2013 at 8:30pm
    K. Leander says:
    Re: "He’s also a passionate advocate of (and argument for) gun control."

    Here in America the Dorner killings just prolong our most recent season of gun violence, but it's worth noting that the parallel Davis draws between the Dorner and Essex massacres also illustrates just how far the debate over gun-control in America has swung since the early '70s. Back then the National Rifle Assoc—the powerful lobby that now believes a weapon in every adult hand will assure public safety—was actually pushing for stiffer gun laws, in large part because of the collective fear of vengeful, Essex-like African American males stirred up by the Black Panthers and their public protests brandishing weapons. Black males still rank pretty high among stateside bogeymen, of course, though individuals in law enforcement or the military don't generally strike fear in the hearts of gun owners.

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