Christopher Dorner and the LAPD: America’s Native Sons

This evening I want to talk about Bigger Thomas. I’m teaching a course this semester entitled “Race and Existence,” in which I include the work of the ingenious African American novelist and essayist Richard Wright.

Wright created the character Bigger Thomas in his 1940 novel Native Son, which portrays how the racism and cruel criminal justice system of the United States gave birth to Bigger Thomas’s personified brutality as its mirror image. Wright’s famous introduction to the second edition concluded with a warning of Bigger Thomas being created wherever there are houses built on human degradation.

It is difficult not to think of Bigger Thomas as we reflect on the culmination of the Los Angeles Police Department’s manhunt for Christopher Dorner, the former U.S. Naval reservist and police officer turned rogue cop, who targeted members of the police and their children. That he was incinerated in a cabin in San Barnadino has its own mythic quality. The Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who also went on a murderous rampage against his creator by targeting his family, also died by fire, a cleansing ritual in many societies (see chapter 3 of Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon, Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age [Paradigm Publishers, 2009]).

Wright’s basic point hits home, however, if we imagine—and there will be one—a future cinematic dramatization of these events. What could be said as the LAPD—and, indeed, much of the urban police force across the nation—attempt to account for their behavior of ongoing racial injustice and violence for which they are the brutal, preserving force of where many back people meet the state in the flesh?

Wright’s genius was that he made Bigger Thomas’s guilt or innocence irrelevant. He reminded his readers that an unjust, racist society produces its native sons, those born of its values and deeds. What else was Christopher Dorner (aka Bigger Thomas), Wright seemed to have called out from nearly three scores ago, other than the product of the LAPD, and what is the LAPD other than one of the country’s native sons from which so many of us continue to suffer and with which we must all continue to contend?