I was a teenager when the Manson murders went down, in the autumn of 1969 – of course, the cruel and inexplicable murder of a movie star and several of her friends made all the headlines, and had lots of law-abiding citizens looking over their shoulders and being very careful about locking the doors and windows of their homes at night. It wasn’t until some time later that the associated murders of an elderly retired couple also hit the headlines of the LA Times, and other national newspapers. A blood-drenched, hippy cult with a weirdly charismatic leader had committed those murders in order – so they claimed – to trigger a devastating racial war, which they termed ‘helter-skelter’ from a Beatles song moderately popular at the time. Well, it was the late 1960ies; after assassinations, race riots and anti-war protests, ordinary citizens were pretty shell-shocked. A lot of extremely deranged people held equally deranged beliefs back then, and continued to do so for a good few years – cults and communes like Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple, for instance. My parents often resignedly repeated the truism about the US having been tilted at a steep angle, and all the unmoored nutcases, nonconformists and grifters sliding west and ending up in California. Having both been born there, and with recollections of how it used to be, they would grumble about how they wished such people would slide the hell back to where they came from, and stop embarrassing hard-working and relatively conservative citizens of the Golden State.
Helter-skelter didn’t happen – well, not then, anyway. Reading this week about Christopher Dorner, the ex-LAPD cop and former Navy reserve officer, with a chip on his shoulder the size of an an aircraft carrier and a string of revenge murders on his slate … now, I could see helter-skelter happening now, forty years later. A lot of things have happened over forty years in Los Angeles, not many of them for the better. One of them is that the LAPD are nowhere near as respected now as they were formerly. It might very well be that they were no more or less competent or corrupt then than they are now, but it is the public perception of them now that sets the bitter tone. Corruptions scandals like the slow train-wreck of Rampart division, the beating of Rodney King, the perception of racism among police officers which allowed OJ Simpson’s legal team to plead for acquittal on those grounds … all of those incidents and accidents have blotted the LAPD’s reputation in the eyes of ordinary citizens of all races.
So, is Christopher Dorner a good and moral man driven mad by the system, or a race-card pulling manipulator with a very hot temper? Big boastful talker or a cold and calculating planner of a campaign of murder? The various stories in the news about the matter have it both ways and every gradation in between. One can take away anything that one wishes to see in his posted manifesto; in any case, the man has gone Rambo, and gone to ground, leaving at least fifty families under police protection, and three people – who looked nothing at all like him, but merely had the misfortune to be driving pickup trucks with a likeness to his vehicle – injured by panicky LAPD officers opening fire. Where is he now? Lost and dying of exposure in the woods at Big Bear, or blending into the background in a comfortable hide-out in Compton. Heading into Canada, or into Mexico, or just laying low until the row dies down? When and if he emerges again, and encounters the LAPD – or any other law enforcement body – the chances of it ending quietly with an uncontested arrest are pretty small. And should it end quietly or not – what are the chances of riots breaking out, regardless?