Shots In The Dark: "Murder By Proxy" Takes On The History Of Workplace Violence

At one point in his documentary Murder By Proxy, director Emil Chiaberi attempts to advance the theory that school shootings like the one this week in Chardon, Ohio, have roots dating back much further than just the Columbine massacre of 1999. In revisiting some of the workplace shootings that inspired the term “going postal” during the 1980s, Chiaberi argues that each set of killings was spurred on by similar motives – most specifically institutionalized harassment and alienation of “undesirables.”

Produced by Michael Rosen and Oscar-winner James Moll (The Last Days), Proxy’s strongest moments occur when it zeroes in on one particular case: postal worker Thomas McIlvane’s rampage in Royal Oak, Mich., in 1991. Besides showing news footage from the day of McIlvane’s attack, that left three people dead and six others wounded, though, Chiaberi follows one survivor, Charlie Withers, who becomes the viewer’s primary guide into a culture he says bullied McIlvane and others into retaliating in the most extreme way possible.

Withers’ experiences, it turns out, led him to become a crusader for his fellow employees; as the film opens, we see him arrive in 2008 to testify to Washington state legislators on behalf of the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill. Supporters of the bill point out that the U.S. is the only Western industrial nation to lack this kind of protection for its’ workers, and in the film, the Postal Service is name-checked early on as “a great case study” for the consequences of that lack of support.

During his testimony, Withers says of McIlvane, “He loved his job. They ruin people, and that’s what they do.” And astonishingly, several more of Withers’ co-workers express a measure of empathy for the man who tried to kill them.

“It’s complicated,” one says. “he took mothers away from their children, fathers away from their children. On the other hand, I understand why he did it.” Later, when a former postal worker, seemingly well-adjusted and all smiles, calmly lays out how easy it would be for her to walk into the office and “throw a Molotov” if she had been pushed far enough, it’s a chilling affirmation of Withers’ concerns.

But the problem is, these statements are largely left alone. There’s virtually no representation from people higher up the corporate ladder. Sure, OSHA might advise employers to “establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence,” but without a statement from a government official as to why these kinds of incidents keep happening—there were 506 reportedly workplace killings as recently as two years ago—there’s moments when Proxy suffers from having too many experts on the same side of the argument.

It’s also problematic that the only USPS official interviewed for the film in the present day, former Postmaster General William J. Henderson, appears very briefly to offer two conflicting statements: in the first, he cites a USPS study from August 2000 that concluded that postal workers “are only a third as likely as other individuals in the workforce to be victims of homicide at work.”

Henderson blithely says the study proved “going postal” was a myth. But what isn’t mentioned—either by him or worse, by Chiaberi—is that Henderson set up that report. It’s also left unsaid that the study found that 14 percent of postal workers identified as victims of sexual harassment, and that one third of the 15,000 respondents said they had been verbally abused at work.

In other words, some of the root causes of workplace violence cited by Withers and other postal workers were plainly identified in the study. No one challenges Henderson directly on his statement, nor is he given time to offer any statement on the study’s methodology, or to provide his own defense against allegations by Withers, or the experts Chiaberi consulted.

Which makes his only other appearance – toward the end of the film, when he says, “The Postal Service is an absolute mirror of society. Nothing protects you from violence” – seem incongruous. If the USPS’ study proved its’ postal workers weren’t in any more danger of being attacked than anybody else, why would he make such a somber statement? And if Chiaberi omitted Henderson’s responses – or, worse, didn’t even push him to talk about these issues – that mistake plays out glaringly in the film.

Proxy’s narrative also stumbles when it tries to explicitly link workplace shootings with school shootings. It’s a potentially compelling argument, but one left under-developed, since it’s only brought up towards the end of the film. But it’s certainly the kind of subject that Chiaberi – an otherwise effective storyteller – will hopefully consider tackling in more depth in the future. Especially if he can push back on the people who should be held accountable.

At press time, the film is set to screen in Royal Oak on March 13, before showing in one-night engagements at the E Street Cinema in Washington D.C. on March 20 and New York’s Landmark Street Theatre on March 27.

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