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At 7 am on Tuesday, August 3rd, Omar Thornton attended a disciplinary hearing at the Hartford Distributors, a Budweiser distribution warehouse in Manchester, CT. Thornton, a driver for two years, had been caught on video swiping some beer and was attending a union-mediated hearing to determine his continuing employment. Faced with a choice between being fired and quitting, he chose to pull out a handgun and murdered seven fellow employees before fatally shooting himself.
Workplace mass murders (often accompanied by the assailant’s suicide) are popularly known as “going postal,” named after the Edmond, OK, post office murders that took place on August 20, 1986. At dawn on that hot summer day, Patrick Henry Sherrill, known as “Crazy Pat,” a letter carrier, reported for his shift in his blue uniform carrying a mailbag on his shoulder. Unfortunately, Sherrill’s mailbag concealed two .45-caliber pistols, a .22-caliber handgun and 300 rounds of ammunition.
Authorities later determined that the .45s had been legally checkout from the local National Guard Armory where Sherrill was a member. After shooting the shift supervisor, Sherrill prowled the building and, over the next ten minutes, discharged more then fifty shots, killing a total of 14 fellow employees; he then committed suicide.
Over the last two decades, random and isolated workplace murders have become part of the workplace landscape. According to FBI and other federal data, there has been a steady decline in workplace murders since 1992 mirroring the decline in crime and murder in general over the last two decades. However, the unexpected up-tick in workplace murders in 2000 and 2004 may be a bell-weather of a deeper crisis currently underway.
Thornton’s mass murder and suicide is but the latest of an alarming increase in recent incidents of workplace and domestic violence by working class men and women. These events explode onto front-page media attention for a day or so and then disappear, lost in the tide of dooms-day pronouncements that clutter daily reporting. Amidst the country’s deepening economic stagnation, one marked by the ever-present fear of unemployment and real poverty, the plight of ordinary working Americans has never been graver.
Other then the distracted rantings of Tea Party ideologues for lower taxes and smaller government, no one is demanding justice for working people, ordinary poor and middle-class Americans. This has been the greatest failure of the Obama presidency and the clueless Democrats. We are living through the greatest undeclared period of class war since the 1930s Depression era — and working Americans are losing.
Adding to the complexity of the Thornton shooting is the soft-spoken issue of race. Thornton was an African-American, in a common-law marriage with a white woman, and is reported to have mentioned to relatives that white employees harassed him. The alignment of class, race and mass violence exposes the deepest divide in American society. Failure to satisfactorily address it will only intensify the mounting social crisis.
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Over the coming weeks more will be revealed about Thornton’s troubled life, along with much speculation as to why he acted as he did. From preliminary reports, he appears to be an ordinary middle-aged, working-class black man living at the edge of social respectability who, unable to hold on, fell off the edge, taking others with him. Never arrested or imprisoned, he struggled to stay afloat in a financially precarious world but, finally, tipped over the edge, causing incalculable grief.
Once achieving middle-class respectability with a real job, Thornton got suckered. He got taken by the credit-card scam of free money and succumb to a debt burden that he could never resolve, ultimately being forced into bankruptcy. He never seemed to be able to move beyond the financial stigma and personal shame of bankruptcy. He was also a black man in an on-again, off-again long-term relationship with a white woman who he seems to have loved.
Sensitive to race issues, he confided to relatives that he encountered racism at work (a good-old and very white family business), including someone hanging a noose and scrawling racial epithets in the employee washroom. After the shooting and before he committed suicide, Thornton apparently called a relative and confessed, “I killed the five racists that was there bothering me.“ Adding, soulfully, “That’s it. The cops are going to come in so I’m going to take care of it myself.” Like all-too-many people feeling powerless, he never reported his grievances to the union, company or police.
Thornton was going to be fired for lifting some beer – how much, the company has yet to reveal. One can only ask: Who among the company’s management has not padded his/her expense account or walked off with company product with far more value than Thornton’s likely case of beer? Such is justice in America. At some point only the madness of murder seemed sufficient to make his life – and death! – worthwhile.
Over the last century, the popular culture industry reframed the forces of social struggle, redefining it as a dialectic between the “celebrated” and the “ordinary.” For eons, the classic confrontation model was one that pitted the aristocracy against the bourgeoisie and peasants. In the 19th century, this confrontation was reframed as a battle between capitalist and proletariat.
Unfortunately, in the 21st century, the historical tension of class relations has been reframed, now denoting the difference between the pop celebrity knighted by the culture industry and ordinary people thrown before the glare of the historical spotlight, rendered into passing curiosities. This distinction defines cultural landscape, whether involving a film/TV personality or an everyday criminal; it also distinguishes workplace mass murderers.
The most “celebrity” recent workplace mass murderer is Amy Bishop, Ph D, a University of Alabama biology professor, who was arrested in February for killing three of her colleagues and wounding two others during an academic review session. Also elevated to celebrity status is Raymond Clark, a “lab technician” at Yale University who, in September 2009, was arrested for the murder of Yale student Annie Le.
However, “ordinary” workplace homicides reach deeper into the daily life of American society. Earlier this summer, in July, Robert Reza stormed into the offices of Emcore, an Albuquerque, NM, solar manufacturing plant, and shot and only wounded his girlfriend, Adrienne Basciano, but then killed three other employees before shooting himself.
March 2009 was a bloody month. Phong Thuch Tran, 36-years, sitting in front of the Anaheim, CA, police station in his Toyota SUV, shot himself in the head. Tran was the lead suspect in the killings of two Southern California Gas Co. employees: Charles Santisteban, 43, a SoCal supervisor, was killed in his driveway Pomona; Hung Duy Dao, 37, was found dead in the driver’s seat of his car outside the company’s Anaheim offices. Although Tran had shot himself in the head, when the police approached his SUV he was repeatedly shot with beanbag rounds. He was finally pulled from the car and taken to a hospital in critical condition.
At the same time of the Tran incidents, Beacher F. Hackney, an employee at the Homestead, a luxury resort in Hot Springs, VA, shot and killed two supervisors. According to local law officials, Hackney, 59-years, of Covington, VA, walked into the Homestead’s kitchen and shot the supervisors with a .380 semiautomatic handgun. Without speaking a word, he reportedly fled on foot. Hackney seems an odd duck. Fellow employees describe him as “strange” and “almost painfully quiet”; one said, “I thought he was deaf and mute.” While there was no known report of disagreements or disciplinary incidents involving Hackney with resort officials, locals report that his hours at the resort had been cut. He is still on the run.
Also in March, Michael McLendon, a 28-year-old from Kinston, AL, shot and killed eleven people and four dogs in southern Alabama. After killing his mother and her pets, he burned down her house (with her dead body inside) and then moved on to shot his grandparents, aunt and uncle as well as the wife and child of a local policeman, along with bystanders, among others. McLendon had recently quit his job at Kelley’s Foods, a sausage factory. He ended his rampage at Reliance Metal Products, in Geneva, AL, a former workplace, where, in effect, he committed “suicide by cop,” provoking the police to shoot and kill him. Ironically, McLendon briefly served as a Marine but was discharged for providing false information and, in 2003, failed to complete training to be a police officer because he was unable to pass the physical.
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] tracks workplace homicides. In its latest report (2010), it found that there were 421 workplace shootings in 2008. About 4 out of every 5 homicide victims in 2008 were male. The type of assailants in these cases differed for men and women. Relatives and other personal acquaintances accounted for 28 percent of assailants of women, but only 4 percent men. Robbers and other assailants made up the largest segment of murders, accounting for nearly three-fourths (72%) of assailants for men and half (51%) of assailants for women. In 2008 there were 30 multiple-fatality workplace homicide incidents, accounting for 67 homicides and 7 suicides. On average, about two people died in each of these incidents. Of these, only 17 occurred in manufacturing facilities; the major take place in retail settings.
In a 2006 study, the BLS found that during the period from 1992 to 2004, an average of 807 workplace homicides occurred annually. Workplace murders peaked in 1994 at 1,080 and steadily declined, bottoming out at 551 in 2004. However, for reasons that the BLS did not identify, there was an upsurge in murders in 2000 (677) and 2003 (631). [NIOSH docs, 2006] One can only wonder whether, with the intensifying economic crisis, will we witness an upswing in workplace homicides, particularly mass murders?
The BLS details homicides at the workplace but, unfortunately, does not dig into causal factors that drive a working person to commit murder. Thus, it does not consider such issues as racism or work-related homicides that occur outside the workplace.
In July 2003, Doug Williams, an employee at a Lockheed Martin aircraft plant in Meridian, MS, went on a shooting spree that left six dead, eight wounded and the shooter committing suicide — five of those killed were blacks. On the day of the shooting Williams, a white man and who was known for voicing racist sentiments, was required to attend a mandatory ethics and diversity class with a mixed group of white and blacks – and he walked out.
Perhaps the saddest and most disturbing example of workplace violence is committed on oneself, loved ones or strangers but takes place outside the workplace.
In October 2008, Karthik Rajaram, an unemployed 45-year old (apparently) successful Los Angeles money manager fatally shot and killed his wife, three sons and his mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself. “This is a perfect American family behind me that has absolutely been destroyed, apparently because of a man who just got stuck in a rabbit hole, if you will, of absolute despair,” noted Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore. “It is critical to step up and recognize we are in some pretty troubled times.”
In July, 2008, Carlene Balderrama, a 52-year old housewife from Taunton, MA, hid her family’s mounting financial crisis from her husband and, when facing foreclosure, killed her three cats before killing herself with her husband’s hunting rifle; preparing for her death, she picked out the funeral parlor, left an insurance policy, a suicide note for her husband (“pay off the house with the insurance money”) and faxed a note to the mortgage company that read in part: “By the time you foreclose on my house, I’ll be dead.”
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American’s are suffering. Daily reports about the deepening economic stagnation detail the rising unemployment rate, increasing number of housing foreclosures, growing number of homelessness and hungry people (often intact families) and mounting piles of unpaid utility, medical and credit card bills. These are some of the most apparent signs of the profound economic crisis overwhelming working Americans.
We are living through an apparent up-tick in workplace murders, along with an increase in suicides, family killings, domestic violence, child abuse and abandonments, random shootings, break-ins, robberies and petty crime, and (most ominous) racist/ethnic hate crimes. They are the unacknowledged consequences of the deepening economic crisis. Collectively, these desperate acts of violence bear witness to finance capital’s seizure of a large portion of national wealth and the likely far deeper and more long-term social consequences, especially for the poor, particularly the white poor.
America is in crisis. In simplest terms, the “American century” is over. No one says it, but all seem to recognize that capitalism’s historical development is moving further east, to China and other Southeast Asian countries. A century ago, Europe was in crisis. World war followed world war, with economic destabilization fueling global crisis, resulting in the collapse of long-dominant empires and the revolutions that remade Europe. America inherited a European-centered world in crisis and became the anchor of a globalized world economy. It held firm to world dominance for half-a-century and still clings to post-modern imperialism through its role as the public military for the extraction industries.
The Tea Party movement recognizes, incoherently at best, that the American century is over. Its simplistic, if unstated neo-fascist, agenda speaks to the deeper structural crisis remaking America. The grand optimism that marked the generation that overcame the Great Depression and WWII is no where to be found; the confidence and radical exuberance that defined the ‘60s, the children of those David Brinkley called “the Greatest Generation,” is absent from today’s popular ethos. Since 1945, America’s half-century of economic preeminence and world dominance provided the material and psychological cushion for the ever-present insecurities and instabilities of working peoples’ lives. Today, as this cushion has evaporated a sad, mean-spirited rage in taking its place signaling a potentially ugly future.
The props of America’s past are collapsing. As the nation drifts, more and more people are feeling desperate, fearing – knowing? – that the grandeur that was once America is passing. And those most desperate, those dwelling at the financial edge are finding a variety of ways to live-out their desperation. For some, sadly, like Omar Thornton, this involves horrendous workplace murders and other acts of violence, including suicides, family killings, domestic violence, child and elderly abuse, racists attacks (including murders) and political murders.
It is time to reconceive the politics of interpersonal violence in America so that we can fully appreciate the level of social crisis that are driving it.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at email@example.com.