Racism & sick economy bring tragedy
By Larry Hales
Published Aug 11, 2010 6:06 PM
Early on Tuesday, Aug. 3, Omar Thornton was in a meeting with officials of Hartford Distributors and the Teamsters local that represents drivers at the beer wholesaler in Manchester, Conn. The company alleges that employee Thornton had been stealing beer and that it had videotaped evidence after being allowed by the union to use surveillance against Thornton.
According to Steve Hollander, whose family owns the distributor, Thornton was given the option of being fired or permitted to resign. He said Thornton chose to sign resignation paperwork, but before leaving pulled out a pistol and began shooting.
In all, nine people died after being shot at the warehouse — Thornton and eight others who worked there. Thornton’s family, his companion and her mother, an ex-partner and her family all say that Thornton had taken pictures of racist images in the plant, had recorded conversations of co-workers and had complained to them about racist harassment.
Hollander describes Thornton both as having been very calm and as having gone on a rampage — a seeming contradiction. Dr. Keith Ablow, who once was brought in to psychoanalyze a white supremacist to help his defense attorneys prepare an insanity plea, claims that deep-seated rage, not racism, caused Thornton to commit the acts he is alleged to have committed.
Ross Hollander, president of Hartford Distributors, and the company’s lawyer report that no complaints of racism had been filed. Officials of the union local have corroborated the company officials’ story and proceeded to trumpet the beer distributor’s long-standing commitment to the city of Manchester, a small town in Hartford County, Conn.
To be sure, the events of that Tuesday were terrible and can’t be made light of. The act itself cannot be condoned nor can one dismiss the hardship and heartache of the families involved, including the loved ones of Omar Thornton.
Teamsters official Christopher Roos said the shootings had “nothing to do with race” and labeled the 34-year-old Thornton as merely a “disgruntled employee.” This statement is, at the very least, irresponsible. Political people have to scrutinize the events that led to the shooting and also see them in a larger context of national oppression.
Thornton made a 911 call after he spoke to his mother and shortly before taking his own life. He explained his rationale: The company and the town of Manchester, where he worked but did not live, are racist, and he had been subjected to ill treatment since he began with the company. He said, “They’re treating me bad over here. And treat all other Black employees bad over here, too. So I took it to my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have got more of the people.” He added, “But yeah, these people here are crazy. And they treat me bad from when I started here. Racist company. Treat me bad. I’m the only Black they’ve already got here. They treat me bad over here, treat me bad all the time.” (www.masslive.com/news, Aug. 6)
Thornton began working at the company two years ago and was more recently promoted to driver, a position with a better salary and benefits.
His companion, Kristi Hannah, describes him as happy at the change in position but says he complained of racism at the warehouse. He took pictures of racist graffiti in a bathroom and showed them to her. He attempted to file a complaint but got no response to his attempts.
Friends corroborate racist treatment
Friends and family describe him as loving, generous and calm. Bruce LeFebvre, owner of Chemstation New England and a former employer of Thornton, remarked about how nice he was when he worked at that company. (Hartford Guardian, Aug. 4; all the following quotes are from this article)
The Hollander family, Teamster official Roos and town officials may claim there was no racism, but they are not people of color. Their denial of and refusal to acknowledge that is the type of behavior that can contribute to an employee feeling isolated, with few options for recourse. Thornton, reportedly either the only Black person or one of four Black people at the warehouse, told his companion that his complaints were ignored.
Latroy Dale Jr., who attended the same truck driving licensing school as Thornton in 2000, said that his friend spoke to him about having made nine complaints about his co-workers’ abusive treatment.
Thornton got his truck license before he applied for the job at the distributor but was denied the position of driver. Latroy Dale Sr. said, “They had him in that warehouse for about a year and a half, talking about he was slow. They said he wasn’t ready. Omar made about eight or nine complaints to those people . … Omar let it got to him, and he snapped.”
Thornton’s brother, Edward Kinder, said that on the job Thornton was called “n—-r” and “porch monkey.” Another friend, Lou Daniels, who worked at a gas station in Bloomfield, Conn., remarked that Thornton had complained to him about the difficulties he had on the job the last time they spoke. Daniels said, “He was such a low-key kind of a person. He was quiet. I think something drove him to that point.”
Thirman L. Milner, who was the first Black mayor of Hartford back in the 1980s, said, “I don’t think the young man would’ve made up those kinds of allegations. … He probably didn’t know he could turn to organizations to file his complaint.”
There is little indication that there will be any investigation into the racism at this company, but racism is pervasive in U.S. society. There is the systemic racism, evident in the overwhelming numbers of Black people and other oppressed people in the criminal justice system, the legal and extra-legal targeting of Latino/a immigrants, and the high unemployment rates of people of color. In many inner-city areas, unemployment for young Black men is as high as 60 percent.
When Latroy Dale Sr. told the Hartford Guardian, “Everybody who is Black knows what happened,” he was speaking an irrefutable truth. An oppressed person understands the anger and frustration that can build up and also knows that people who do not face such daily indignities cannot understand the feelings that well up inside a person.
The media focus on whether or not Thornton stole cases of beer is obfuscation. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But that is beside the point in a society where even the president of the country, a man who is 100 percent behind the wars abroad, has been subject to racist campaigns against himself and members of his cabinet, like the environmentalist Van Jones and other people of color in high positions, which ended in Obama bending to the whims of the reactionaries.
Omar Thornton was not in a high position. He was a worker who, like many others, was deep in debt and couldn’t walk away from his job in a period of serious economic crisis and an epic unemployment rate among Black men. He had suffered for two years through racist taunts. He got no help from his union. All workers should be asking themselves: What can we do to keep such a tragedy from happening again?