Going Postal: There is no such thing as a "typical" workplace shooter
When the shooter in yesterday’s brutal live TV double-murder was identified as a gay African-American middle-aged male named Vester Lee Flanagan (aka Bryce Williams), a lot of people seemed quietly surprised—as if blacks and other minorities aren’t the type who “go postal.”
(Some of that surprise was of the gleeful rightwing variety, such as yesterday’s race-baiting slime by Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro.)
This gets to the generally assumed myth that there’s a profile of the typical “disgruntled employee” workplace shooter—assumed to be a white male loner type, Tea Party gun-nut. It’s a myth fed by media and Hollywood films like Falling Down; but despite some half-baked attempts at creating a profile of a likely workplace shooting, the fact is that law enforcement agencies who study this problem have not been able to come up with a useful profile, useful in the sense that it could help employers protect themselves and their workers.
In fact, as I learned as I was researching my book on workplace shootings, “Going Postal,” it’s basically impossible to create a profile of a disgruntled workplace shooter because the range of that profile is too great—shooters have been white, black, Latino, Asian, Native American, female, gay, straight...
It’s true that a majority of the rampage killings are by white males, but the majority of all killings are done by white males.
A sample of some of “going postal” workplace attacks carried out by those who don’t fit the media profile:
- David Burke, Jamaican-American, who after being fired by PSA he believed unfairly, shot and killed the pilot and copilot of a PSA commuter jet over San Luis Obispo, killing all 43 passengers on board;
- Ron Thomas, African-American husband and father of two, killed two co-workers at his real estate company in San Antonio in a workplace dispute;
- Robert Mack, General Dynamics employee brutally fired after 25 years on the job, killed his labor rep and critically wounded his former supervisor during his grievance hearing;
- Elijah Brown, who killed 5 and himself at a ConAgra meatpacking plant in 2003;
Women workplace shooters are more rare, as are women murderers in general—but there have been a few since the whole “going postal” craze started in the late Reagan years: from Elizabeth Teague, who shot and killed her supervisor at an Eveready plant in Vermont, wounded three co-workers and tried setting the plant on fire; to Charlotta Colton, who shot and killed six postal workers and herself at the Goleta, California post office where she worked.
The real culprit has been the change in the workplace— a savage spike in inequality and all the job insecurity, stagnant pay for more hours, slashed vacation time and benefits, and huge increases in job stress and workplace time on the job—all that is optimistically described in economics parlance as “increased productivity.” Before the mid-late 1980s, the “going postal” phenomenon simply didn’t exist—disgruntled workers “snapping” and shooting up their workplaces and supervisors and fellow workers, often in the midst of wrongful termination disputes, pay cuts, union-busting efforts, mass downsizings, and the rest of the post-Reagan corporate culture we’ve grown so used to these days, a culture that we accept as “just how it is”, rather than a deliberately manufactured reality that has been hugely beneficial to a few, and catastrophic to most.
News media—Vester Flanagan’s industry—has been decimated, despite all the cultural bashing of journalists as “elites.” The number of “news professionals” has been slashed by 40% since 2006, according to Poynter. Reporters’ wages have steadily declined relative to other industries, and are now below the national average.
Even with his "manifesto" and the sick videos making the social media rounds, it's far too early to say for certain what led Flanagan to commit murder. He was clearly sick; that’s pretty much the definition of someone who can murder people in cold blood. He also clearly felt victimized by what he claimed was racial job harassment and discrimination, having filed a failed lawsuit against his former employer.
Research shows that getting bullied on the job and having little or no recourse for your grievances can trigger and/or exacerbate mental illness. As the American workplace has become meaner, more stressful and less forgiving—coinciding with Reagan shutting down and emptying out the nation’s mental hospitals, as a matter of policy and principle, because we’re all on our own now, and all of our problems are our own damn faults—it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a growing number of workplace killings, and schoolyard rampage shootings.
Stuff every nook and cranny of that stressed, mean, desperate workforce of American dead-enders with all the guns ‘n ammo their thumping angry hearts desire, and you have what Flanagan called in his manifesto a “human powder keg... just waiting to go BOOM!!!!”