EXCERPT: Breaking Down at the Post Office

The following is an excerpt from Mark Ames' recently released book, "Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion -- From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond" (Soft Skull, 2005).

Q: What does it mean when you see a flag flying at half-mast outside of a post office?
A: They're hiring.
--Contemporary American joke

The "going postal" phenomenon began with U.S. Post Office massacres. In the popular mind, these post office murder sprees still have no context. They were too bizarre, too ridiculous. Post offices are quiet, colorless places in the public eye. Nothing could be more dull, even comically bland, than a United States Post Office. And no one could be more harmless than the mailman in the blue-gray shorts, driving his white delivery truck or power-walking in his pith helmet.

Think of a postal employee and you tend to think of a friendly neighborhood fixture, a kind of fiftees throwback to the happy days of community-oriented neighbors waving hello to each other. A general assumption is that a postal employee is someone who wanted a simple job for reliable wage and benefits. Some are liberal arts intellectuals who want to live the kind of life you imagine a Western European bureaucrat lives -- relaxed work, steady pay, plenty of spare time to work on the great American Novel. Others come from run-of-the-mill stock attracted to the womb of a large, secure structure, including former military people.

Unlike the DMV, a post office feels almost as quiet, relaxed, and clean as a community library. It is, in a sense, Middle America itself, the Middle America of the Andy Griffith Show. This hasty misperception of the post office culture made the murders there seem completely out-of-the-blue, surreal, and without context. If that can happen in a post office, where next?

When massacres started breaking out in our post offices, most people reasoned that it was merely another symptom of our violent culture. The post office massacres just confirmed the fear that the country is full of nut cases and they could be anyone, not just your neighbor, but even your mailman. Killerus Americanus was merely innovating and morphing, launching a new post office product to add to its line of murder styles. And that made some people proud in an ironic, contemorary way -- hence, the water cooler jokes, the "going postal" expression, the absorption into black humor.

One reason the whole rage murder phenomenon may have started with post offices is that the 800,000-employee-strong service, the nation's second-largest employer, was one of the earliest and largest agencies in the post-New Deal era to be subjected to what was essentially a semi-deregulation and semi-privatization plan, in what the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute calls "the most extensive reorganization of a federal agency." The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, signed by Republican President Richard Nixon, aimed to make the USPS self-sufficient, running on its own profits. Before then, the USPS operated at a loss for 131 of the 160 years that it was in operation.

The reform was pushed through in the wake of a growing nationwide postal worker lockout in 1970 to protest falling wages, a strike so effective that Nixon called the National Guard to New York to end it. Under the act, the postal workers union could no longer call or threaten strikes, but rather were required to solve all disputes through collective bargaining, and failing an agreement, hand the dispute over to binding arbitration.

Postal workers have never gone on strike since. And the postal market was opened up to greater competition. In 1973, Federal Express started delivering. In other words, the postal service was the first post-New Deal experiment in loosening a large number of workers' rights and opening up their company" to the brutal world of competition. Today, even with competition, USPS employees earn better wages and higher benefits than FedEx employees, something that the postal service is criticized for by reformers.

The U.S. Postal Service was able to function more profitably through the familiar tactics of pushing its workers to work harder and of creating an increasingly stress-jammed atmosphere, thereby squeezing more work out of them, or "increasing worker productivity" in the value-neutral language of economics. Oddly enough, the first year that the federal government stopped subsidizing the USPS, 1983, was also the year of the first post office shooting, in Johnston, South Carolina.

Perry Smith worked for the USPS for twenty-five years. In late 1982, his son committed suicide, devastating Smith. The death of his son naturally affected his work. He lost weight, stopped grooming himself, and generally looked and behaved like a man in a downward spiral. His supervisors responded not by showing sympathy, but by reprimanding him for every minor violation they could find. One time, a supervisor discovered that Smith left his letter satchel unattended for a few minutes and warned him that he faced disciplinary action. When it happened again, he was suspended.

They rode him hard if he exceeded his lunch break or if he delivered a letter to a wrong address. The stress was pushing this already cracked man beyond the threshold, and the constant harassment by his supervisors fed his anger. He blamed his downward spiral on the station's new postmaster, Charles McGee. Everything got more stressful and malicious after McGee took over.

Perry resigned from the service, miserable and harassed, about six months after his son's suicide. In August, he heard that McGee was leaving the post office job. Smith had not gotten over the postal service's mistreatment at the worst time in his life. On the postmaster's last day at work, Smith appeared at the post office, carrying a 12-guage shotgun.

He told the first former coworker he saw, "Jo, don't move." Then he told the others, "Don't move or I'll kill all of you."

McGee was in an office down the hall. He caught sight of Smith brandishing the shotgun and bolted out through a side exit. One employee who had worked there for ten years saw McGee take off and decided to make a dash with him. That was a bad mistake. Smith fired at McGee, but wound up dropping the younger employee behind him, tearing his ear off and damaging his spine.

McGee ran across the street into The Pantry, a convenience store. He yelled at the two clerks inside, both women, to take cover and then locked himself in the storage room while the clerks hid in the women's locker room. Smith followed McGee into The Pantry, reloaded the shotgun, and headed straight to the storage room. He broke down the door and faced McGee. "I told you I'd get you," he shouted, blasting McGee in the stomach. He pumped and fired a second time, blasting McGee in the chest. "I told you I'd get even with you, you sonofabitch!"

Smith ran out of the convenience store then raced across to the rear of the post office. There he was confronted by a police officer. Smith fired and hit him with buckshot. The cop gave him one more chance to surrender, and Smith did, as if suddenly losing all of his anger. The object of his oppression had been taken down. There was no reason to continue. As the cop cuffed him, Smith looked into his eyes and finally realized who he was. He told the cop, "Oh, I didn't know it was you. I didn't mean to shoot you."

The judge at his first trial declared Perry Smith mentally incompetent to stand trial. Smith apparently thought that he was Moses. A court-appointed shrink testified, "It was [Smith's] mission, like it was the mission of Moses, to rise up against these forces of evil." One is reminded of Nat Turner and the voices he thought he heard.

A few months later, a fifty-three-year-old postal employee in Aniston, Alabama, shot and killed his post master after taking his grievances about forced overtime and under-compensation first to his union, and then, when the union failed him, to the National Labor Relations Board for mediation. In the final settlement, the postal employee, James Brooks, agreed to drop his complaint. Brooks was not satisfied with the arbitration, so he took his complaints directly to the post master, Oscar Johnson -- shooting and killing him with a .38 caliber handgun. After killing Johnson, Brooks ran upstairs to the second-floor office of his immediate supervisor, Butch Taylor. Employees heard Taylor beg, "Please man, no! No!" before hearing two loud bangs, silence, and then another shot. Taylor survived with wounds to his stomach and arm, but Johnson died from gunshot wounds to the head.

Just over a year later, in Atlanta, Georgia, a postal employee named Steven Brownlee took the rage torch from Brooks. As is the pattern with these shootings, the initial reports painted Brownlee as a lunatic who had snapped for no apparent reason and who fired at random. It was only later that his workplace was considered as a possible reason his attack. Brownlee, a thirty-year-old African American, had been forced to work seventy to eighty hour workweeks to keep up with the supervisor's demands and the heavy volume of mail. He worked the night shift sorting letters on a wrenchingly loud machine.

Brownlee was already mentally fragile, but as his lawyer contended, the stress and overwork, combined with the nature of the job, pushed him over the edge. On the day of his murder spree, the mail load was so exceptionally large that he and other sorters were asked to come to work two hours early. At midday, Brownlee produced a .22 pistol and shot and killed his supervisor and two coworkers on the sorter line. As one employee said, "I don't think it was random."

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