Category Archives: Arts: Movies

Tell It Slant, Excerpt #6: Going Postal on EEO & Vietnam at USPS

Tell It Slant, Excerpt #6

[Chuck worked for the Postal Service from late 1985 to mid-1994. He first delivered mail on a rural route, then moved inside to work as a Mailhandler at a huge mail processing facility in Merrifield VA, an outer D.C. suburb. After four years of moving mail, there was a change]:

Chuck: I noticed around 1991 a posted opening for a part-time EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Investigator at Merrifield. I applied, showed them my books on Selma and the Poor Peoples Campaign, and was selected; spent two weeks outside Chicago in training to do investigations and reports.

Chuck ready to do some EEO work

Thereafter, I was called periodically to the EEO office, for some weeks at a time. To make the switch I traded my work clothes and union apron for a suit and tie left over from my years on The Hill; the transition was from one work culture to another: blue collar/calloused hands to white collar, college-educated office guy with a primitive laptop.

At first it was good to be back dealing with racial justice issues concretely. This was not protest or jail, but the humdrum nitty gritty of making the legal progress achieved through struggle and sacrifice work, day-to-day.

There was a possibility I could have been transferred to EEO permanently, but I didn’t pursue it. I did not want to “advance” in the USPS ranks, as that would involve at least a tacit commitment to stay for a career. Also, such jobs often required taking work home (like complex cases), and I didn’t want to do that. Mailhandler work, despite the tedium, could be left behind when I clocked out, and the rest of my time, packed with family and Quaker projects, was too precious to intrude on.

Even so, I learned much during my stints on EEO duty. With two to three thousand employees of many different ethnicities, Merrifield was both a testament to the “success” of integration in the federal workforce — and simultaneously its reality as an always simmering pot of subdued race-tinted conflicts.

This was, I should note, in the years when “going postal” became an accepted term for mass workplace shootings (twenty-eight USPS employees and bystanders had been killed by postal workers in several rampages during my tenure); the year I left, it even became a visual punchline for a slapstick movie series, The Naked Gun. Fortunately, we didn’t have any such in my time at Merrifield, but the tensions were always there.

A postal worker murdered 14 other employees in this Oklahoma massacre, wounded six, and then shot himself.

I saw telltale signs of hate in the men’s toilet stalls, scrawled on the doors. A lot of it was aimed at Asian-Americans. This didn’t surprise me; there were a great many middle-aged Vietnam-era veterans in the USPS workforce. PTSD was plentiful, and the sight of Asians, particularly from the defeated South Vietnam, now working nearby, set some of them off.

Two personal examples: one of the most confusing EEO cases I had was brought by a woman against her supervisor, based not on race but religion. The complainant was Hindu, and her crew included mainly South Asian persons, some Hindu and some Sikh. The supervisor was, I believe, a Sikh. The complaint was that he chronically favored other Sikh employees when assigning overtime (many employees sought to maximize better-paid overtime; I did not).

Since I knew very little about either religion, it wasn’t easy to sort this out. The supervisor stonewalled, stoutly denying everything.

The case went nowhere; I did not have the “rank” in the system to actually compel the supervisor to produce records or sign a sworn statement.

So, I learned then about the weakness (and protect-management-above-all-else bias) of the EEO machinery, as well as the difficulty in resolving many cases.

The other example was the “biggest” case I ever had, and it also taught me much, especially about gaming the system.

Background: among the many Vietnamese refugees at Merrifield, most were exemplary employees: good at the repetitive work and memorization, rarely absent or sick. They stuck together, and didn’t complain.

However, there was a white male employee, let’s call him Arthur, a Vietnam veteran, who had a thing for Asian females. He habitually stalked the Vietnamese women.

It was creepy: he followed them to the restrooms, repeatedly approached them in the cafeteria, propositioned them (even clearly married ones), ignored brushoffs.

When someone in EEO advised him to cut it out, he proceeded to file complaints against the EEO office Director and staff. I was not named in those complaints, but only because I hadn’t been there when this started.

Which meant the case landed on my desk, as the newbie. Or a piece of it did, one very fat file. But this was just the tip of the iceberg: the EEO supervisor showed me a filing cabinet, in which the Arthur files filled two drawers.

Arthur was like a “jailhouse lawyer.” He was clever and had studied all the regulations I had just recently been introduced to.

One of them was that, if a complaint alleged more than one type of discrimination, each type had to be separately investigated and reported on. At the time, the EEO regs recognized seven types or “purviews”: race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, plus reprisal for filing. On each complaint, Arthur had checked every single purview. (Disability? What the heck was that about?) And each time he was interviewed by an EEO staffer or supervisor, he filed a new complaint, all purviews checked.

His output had quickly brought the EEO machinery to a standstill, while he continued to stalk the Vietnamese women.

So, I was supposed to master all this material, gather testimony from the women and other witnesses, and put it into a report solid enough to withstand his counterattacks and move some senior official to action.

What kind of action? Theoretically Arthur could be fired; but in fact, such firings were all but unheard of. Between union rules, civil service protections, and just residual racism, Arthur had better job tenure than any professor I ever knew of.

But long story short, though: I pulled it off. Sort of.

Besides burrowing through the mountain of paperwork, the hardest part was getting testimony. I needed the women to tell me what had happened, and then sign statements summarizing it, usually one I wrote and read back to them.

But to a person, they were petrified at the prospect. Several refused and hid. More than one sat across from my desk sobbing and trembling, afraid not only of Arthur, but also terrified of me.

Why me? “I’m on your side,” I protested. “I’m here to help.”

Yeah, sure.

An older veteran explained much of it: back home, besides the North Vietnamese invaders, there were petty and cruel dictators in the South. Official violence, interrogations with torture, unsolved disappearances, were routine. Plus, they or their families had worked for the American military during the war, which was why they had to leave the country after the Communist victory in 1975: they were enemy collaborators and lucky to escape alive. One survival skill they all had developed was that of keeping their head down and saying nothing.

But here they now were: away from their friends, sitting across from me, a strange white man with a beard, a power necktie (and for all they knew, a pistol tucked under my suit jacket, like the Postal Inspectors), interrogating them again, about another white man, and talking English just like that other white man who was after them).

I felt for them. I hated that my very presence was retraumatizing. But there was a job to do, and I really was on their side. After many tears, but without any physical torture, I finally extracted enough admissions for a report.

My senior EEO colleague was Quincy, a Black man who had no legs. He got around on leg-size prosthetics and long crutches. He looked at my report and his eyes widened. “That,” he pointed, “is a piece of art.”

That wasn’t exactly true, but it was Quincy’s highest compliment. And the report worked.

As I said, sort of. A high manager somewhere read it, likely consulted legal counsel, and told Arthur to go home.

On his way out the door, Arthur filed new complaints, again checking all the boxes, and now with my name at the head of the defendants list.

And the supervisor, to stay on the right side of the union, lower the risk of a lawsuit, and generally to cover his butt, did not fire Arthur. Or even suspend him.

Instead, Arthur was put on “administrative leave.” That meant: with pay. And benefits. Accruing seniority and retirement credits.

The term? Indefinite.

That is, Arthur got to sit home (or travel, learn a useful trade, whatever) and collect paychecks, until the matter was settled, which could take years.

That was my big achievement.

On the upside, Arthur was finally off the workroom floor. The Vietnamese women could now eat meals redolent of their pungent fish sauce, chatter in their tuneful tongue about hopefully non-traumatic topics, tend to calls of nature without being accosted.

Was this a piece of the “justice” I stepped into the streets of Selma for, 29 years earlier, walking behind Dr. King, ready to stop a bullet? Was it worth the sacrifice that Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner made a year earlier?

(Gimme a minute ….)

Yeah, I think so.

* * * *

Emma Lapsansky-Werner: How did Arthur’s case finally turn out?

Chuck has no idea.

About the time the report on Arthur was filed, in spring 1994, Chuck got a job offer from a Quaker center near Philadelphia. It paid less than half of what Chuck was making at Merrifield. But, “It was my longed-for escape from postal captivity,” he said. “I jumped at it, and never looked back. Somebody else had to pick up Arthur’s case.”

From “The Naked Gun, 33 1/3”: “O my God, it’s the disgruntled postal workers , , ,”

At about the same time, a new movie was released. Wikipedia notes: “The 1994 comedy film Naked Gun 33 13: The Final Insult (the third and last entry in a “Naked Gun” comedy series) includes a scene where the main character must deal with a series of escalating threats, including the sudden appearance of dozens of disgruntled postal workers, randomly firing automatic weapons in every direction.”

One critic said, “By the time the disgruntled postal workers show up, you’ll howl with laughter. The laughs don’t stop there. … “

Chuck got the jokes, but didn’t laugh.

The film co-starred former football player-turned actor O. J. Simpson, in his last film role before being arrested for two real, non-postal murders in June of 1994.

 

How to order.

More excerpts  from Tell It Slant are online at:

> Excerpt #1: A Quaker’s Life in Our “Interesting,” Tumultuous Times:
> Excerpt #2: “Fighting for A Future”:

Excerpt #3: A Whippersnapper & His Elders:
>Excerpt #4: “Tell It Slant”: Author Emma Lapsansky-Werner Speaks

> Excerpt #5: San Francisco & “Going Naked for a Sign “ — or at least a job

Donald Sutherland! Donald Sutherland!

Two Hundred plus movies! How can I pick a favorite?

Breaking from the New York Times:

By Clyde Haberman

June 20, 2024Updated 3:23 p.m. ET

Donald Sutherland, whose ability to both charm and unsettle, both reassure and repulse, was amply displayed in scores of film roles as diverse as a laid-back battlefield surgeon in “M*A*S*H,” a ruthless Nazi spy in “Eye of the Needle,” a soulful father in “Ordinary People” and a strutting fascist in “1900,” died on Thursday in Miami. He was 88.

His son Kiefer Sutherland, the actor, announced the death on social media. CAA, the talent agency that represented Mr. Sutherland, said he had died in a hospital after an unspecified “long illness.” He had a home in Miami.

With his long face, droopy eyes, protruding ears and wolfish smile, the 6-foot-4 Mr. Sutherland was never anyone’s idea of a movie heartthrob. He often recalled that while growing up in eastern Canada, he once asked his mother if he was good-looking, only to be told, “No, but your face has a lot of character.” He recounted how he was once rejected for a film role by a producer who said: “This part calls for a guy-next-door type. You don’t look like you’ve lived next door to anyone.”

Yet across six decades, starting in the early 1960s, he appeared in nearly 200 films and television shows — some years he was in as many as half a dozen movies. “Klute,” “Six Degrees of Separation” and a 1978 remake of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were just a few of his other showcases.

And he continued to work well into his last years, becoming familiar to younger audiences through roles in multiple installments of “The Hunger Games” franchise, alongside Brad Pitt in the space drama “Ad Astra” (2019) and as the title character in the Stephen King-inspired horror film “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” (2022).

Mr. Sutherland’s chameleonlike ability to be endearing in one role, menacing in another and just plain odd in yet a third appealed to directors, among them Federico Fellini, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci and Oliver Stone. . . .

 

In “Klute” (1971), another early triumph, Mr. Sutherland was a small-town policeman crossing paths with a big-city call girl played by Jane Fonda. He and Ms. Fonda then began an affair that lasted three years; their relationship dovetailed with his most conspicuous burst of political activism, which matched hers.

Image

A woman rests her head on the chest of a man as they lie in bed.
Mr. Sutherland as a police officer and Jane Fonda as a call girl in “Klute” (1971). Offscreen, they had an affair that lasted three years.Credit…Warner Bros., via Everett Collection

In 1971, he joined Ms. Fonda and other actors in a comedy troupe called F.T.A. that toured military towns, performing satirical sketches infused unmistakably with an anti-Vietnam War spirit. The group’s initials stood for Free the Army, though soldiers recognized a far less dainty meaning.

The One That Didn’t Get Away– FTA, Sutherland’s Vietnam era antiwar documentary with Jane Fonda and a vigorous, sharp-witted troupe, made a splash, but was gone in a flash.

Although Mr. Sutherland’s politics leaned leftward, he told Playboy: “I didn’t like doing anything political within the United States because I am, after all, Canadian.” But, he added, “there was a huge Canadian participation in the war, and so I felt, on this, I had a right.”

So  maybe I can pick a favorite film which was the one that very few people ever got to see:  FTA which is short for several other “memes,” from “Fun, Travel & Adventure,” an actual  recruiter’s slogan, to a protester’s “Free The Army,” to a disgruntled grunt soldier’s curse “F*ck The Army.”  The film of the title, according to Wikipedia,

“was released in July 1972, “within days of Fonda’s infamous visit to Hanoi” and seems to have suffered from the political fallout of Fonda’s travels. The film “was in theatres barely a week before it was pulled from circulation by its distributor, American International Pictures.” Even more, “[m]ost copies were destroyed”, which seems to indicate an attempt to prevent any future for the film. Many have suspected the film’s disappearance “was the result of government intervention.” According to Parker, the film’s director, “the film disappeared after Sam Arkoff, head of AIP, received a call from the White House.” David Zeiger, who has been involved in resurrecting the original film, has been quoted as saying he believes Parker. “There’s no proof, but I can’t think of another reasonable explanation for Sam Arkoff, a man who knew how to wring every penny out of a film, yanking one starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland from theaters at a big loss (and, apparently, destroying all of the prints, since none were ever found).”

The bravado of the top line of the mobie poster “The Show the Pentagon Couldn’t Stop “ is exaggerated: the troupe did did perform at several big bases to big applause from disgruntled, war-weary troops; but their tour was stopped before it was completed, and the movie vanished.

I’m on the government suppression side of this argument: I watched FTA during the Iraq war, on a rare, almost samizdat VHS tape, and the roaringly supportive reception Sutherland and Jane Fonda got from the soldiers they performed for was still  amazing; it must have driven the Pentagon brass and the Nixon White House bonkers. (Even the summary of the film in the Wikipedia entry makes exciting and subversive reading  more than 50 years later.)

Anyway, Sutherland and Fonda’s careers survived this flap, and he was a pleasure to watch almost every time. Two hundred movies, with top directors like Robert Altman to hacks to keep busy, that was quite a life, and quite a record.