Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal

| January 19, 2012

Back in the day, the Mailman was an icon as American as baseball and apple pie. Praised as one of the hardest working members of the community, who would deliver your mail “through rain, or snow, or sleet, or hail.” Nowadays, that catchy credo has been replaced by a term altogether ugly and demeaning: “going postal.” The once well respected mailman is now often depicted as a pop culture punch line; a stereotype of unchecked anger and mental instability.
In 1986 Patrick Sherrill, a letter carrier at the Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office, went on a violent rampage, shooting 14 fellow postal workers to death, and wounding 6 others, before taking his own life. Since that massacre, in the following 25 years, there have been close to a dozen other violent incidents – some equally as horrific and some much smaller and not so widely-publicized – in Post Office facilities across America. A new documentary Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal explores the series of infamous post office massacres, and how they’ve changed the way we view violence and the workplace.
From these massacres came a new pop culture slang – “going postal.” The news media, following the lead of the US Postal Service, latched on to the term, and the rogue postal killers were portrayed as madmen, unstable and powder kegs about to blow. Murder by Proxy director and writer Emil Chiaberi would argue that these postal massacres are not simply isolated acts of madmen, but are the systemic result of a hostile work environment. He exposes that it had been documented that postal management was allowed to belittle and terrorize their workers, in order to get more work out of them. It was no coincidence, it appears, that the management team were always among the victims of these massacres. This is not an endorsement of the killer’s acts, but an observation that the news media decided to overlook.
At the center of Murder by Proxy is the story of Charlie Withers, a 39 year veteran of the postal service – still delivering the mail in Royal Oaks, Michigan. After the Edmond, Oklahoma massacre, and a handful of other PO massacres (not all covered in this doc), Withers, who was also the union steward in Royal Oaks, had begun to take the grievances filed by postal workers more seriously. On November 14, 1991 – just a month after the latest PO massacre in Ridgewood, New Jersey – Withers visited the Royal Oaks Post Office, where a carrier by the name of Thomas McIlvane had complained he was unfairly fired just a week previous. Unbeknownst to Withers, Thomas McIlvane was planning a visit that day, as well. McIlvane returned, armed with a sawed-off rifle, and shot 9 people, killing 4. The dead included his former boss, and the labor arbitrator who turned him away when he asked for support. Withers, and others, were spared when McIlvane walked past their locked door. Since that day, Withers has been speaking out about the unfair work conditions his fellow postal workers are subjected to.
Through a series of interviews with fellow workers and massacre survivors, along with analysis from experts in the history of the evolving workplace, and in workplace violence, Chiaberi opens a discussion that even though these individuals may have their own problems, the environment where they work and make their living is where they find the pressure that put them over the edge. And just as the phenomenon of these massacres has moved out of the post office, and into general workplace (as well as in schools and colleges), the discussion expands outward, eventually asking that if the corporate interests towards profit and productivity eclipses the needs of the workers, how far will the violence spread?
At the film’s conclusion, Wither’s attempts to develop laws to protect workers against a hostile workplace fell on deaf ears, demonstrating how numbed we are, as a society, to these terrible acts of violence. 25 years ago, the massacre in the Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office was a complete shock to the American people. It had unsettled us to our core. We no longer saw the workplace as a safe haven. When the massacres spread to schools and malls and workplaces, we no longer felt safe out in public. And now, frighteningly, these massacres have become regular events in our lives, occurring all over the world.
Chiaberi’s film does what the news media has failed to do for decades, and goes inside the story, exploring the growth of the postal service itself, and the fact that, like most corporations do, it had put productivity ahead of the well being of the workers.
America has gone postal, and Murder by Proxy is an unsettling wake up call. Chiaberi’s first-hand accounts of the massacres, with vivid details from the mouths of the victims, and horrific workplace video footage, Murder by Proxy is meant to shock and move us – “us” the people who have grown much too accustomed to horror stories of workplace violence, and who have trivialized it all down to a pop culture stereotype. In the “occupy” climate of today, Murder by Proxy moves beyond these post office massacres, and examines how the interests of profit and productivity eclipses the value and well-being of the workers. Chiaberi anxiously reminds us of how quickly “going postal” moved from the post offices and out into the workplace in general… and then into public places, into the schools and malls. Then, with visions of nuclear power plants coupled with news stories of lax security in vital areas – we can’t help but ask: where will it go postal next?

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