My friends from out of town want to know what I thought of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday. The answer is simple. I live in Los Angeles. I didn’t see or hear the State of the Union address. I was watching the Christopher Dorner manhunt.
In the days while Dorner was the most feared name in Los Angeles, my adopted city went through an emotional roller coaster: horror at the senseless murder of Monica Quan, a young basketball coach, and her fiancé, Keith Lawrence, a public safety officer at USC (where I teach and where it hit home hard) allegedly because Dorner was unsatisfied with her father’s defense of him at his Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary hearing; horror at the senseless and brutal killing of young Riverside police officer and former Marine Michael Crain; and sadness that some of what Dorner said in his manifesto about our police department took us way back, to the terrible days of the 1990s, to the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots, to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, who got away with murder by putting the LAPD on trial.
Was it even possible that anything this crazy, cruel, deranged murderer said could have any credence? Had we made so little progress?
Those last questions were being batted about, below the line, off the television cameras, during the weekend before Tuesday’s chase. The Los Angeles Times highlighted two stories on its front page: one about the murders in Irvine of the beautiful young couple; the other raising questions as to whether Dorner was, in fact, properly discharged, reviewing the testimony and concluding that it came down to a credibility contest.
The racial divide opened up again. Everyone condemns Dorner’s actions. There’s no dispute about that. But the fact that the LAPD shot at three totally innocent people, including a 71-year-old Hispanic woman and her daughter who were delivering newspapers in a blue Toyota, had many people muttering that maybe he was right about the department.
The fact that Dorner’s manifesto had nothing but praise for the military even as it damned the LAPD left a lot of folks shaking their heads. Not many people say such things aloud, or with their names attached. No one wants to be quoted showing sympathy for a cop-killer, nor do I have any. But the story is more complicated than a “simple” triple murder.
On Tuesday, a couple who owned a cabin in the Big Bear mountain resort area — just down the road from where police were staging the manhunt — entered the cabin to clean only to be confronted by Dorner. He bound and gagged them, but repeatedly assured them that he had nothing against them, that he would not harm them, that he was just trying to clear his name. Then he left the cabin and stole their car. Their 9-1-1 call led to the last stage of the manhunt, the murder of a sheriff’s deputy, the final shootout, the burning of a cabin, and the sigh of relief as the roads reopened.
It’s too bad, one African-American friend said to me, that he couldn’t find a way to draw attention to his complaints without committing murder. Yes. Beyond too bad. Tragic, for his victims.
Dorner did not clear his name. If that was his goal, he could not have chosen a worse way to accomplish it.
The errors in the manhunt — the fact that he was, as it is now being reported, “hiding in plain view” just down the road from the command post — will certainly raise issues about the way the search was conducted. But an examination of the legacy of the 1990s and to what extent the LAPD has changed will have to wait for another day.
At this point, no one wants to suggest that there is anything positive to be said about Christopher Dorner. I don’t know about the State of the Union, but my city has been through the wringer.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.