On 19 March of this year, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino was ambushed by a suspect just outside of Cleone in a fatal encounter. One week later, I attended his memorial, an event that drew law enforcement officers from across California as well as from Eugene, Oregon (the suspect’s crime spree had originated in Oregon). The service was so filled with law enforcement officers that civilians couldn’t even get inside, unless they were partners of law enforcement, or, like me, members of the media. The ceremony itself was highly ritualised, heavy on religious overtones, and darkly sombre, even as people tried to lighten the mood by telling stories of Del Fiorentino’s life to highlight who he was as a man and an officer.
The event struck a pall over Fort Bragg, because while bad things happen in small towns all the time, and they usually slip under the radar, even a small town can’t ignore the death of a police officer. It becomes a huge, momentous event, something that ultimately involves not just a tragedy for the family, but a procession of incoming law enforcement that blocks off portions of major roads, floods the community, sends ripples of sorrow and fear as people come together in dress uniform to mourn one of their own.
It becomes easy to slip into the intense rhetoric of the ceremony, but under it lies something much darker.
In 2013, 105 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty. Some, like Deputy Del Fiorentino, died of gunfire. Others died in car accidents, electrocutions, and other hazards that come up in the line of duty for people who work in law enforcement. At the same time, though, 4,693 workers total died on the job in that same year, working out to roughly 13 a day.
Every death on the job is a tragedy. No worker, ever, should die while at work, whether on the line of a meatpacking plant, behind the wheel of a police car, inside a corn silo, up a telephone pole, or anywhere else. All of these deaths should matter, intensely, because the impact for family members and loved ones is the same whether someone is an undocumented worker who died of heat exposure in the strawberry fields or a law enforcement officer who was struck by a car while attempting to control an intersection. These deaths mean that someone is wrenched away from a family, and no amount of compensation can make up for that; though it’s worth noting that the police officer’s surviving spouse will receive a pension in most cases (depending on the state’s position on same-gender marriages and whether the officer was married) while the farm worker’s partner gets nothing.
Yet, there is an outsized reaction to the deaths of certain workers, a casting of some people as heroes and others as garbage, collateral damage. The teen who dies in a grain silo is a hero, too, though perhaps not in the way conventionally viewed by society. All workers are heroes, because they are doing something important to help support society and maintain a functioning world. The people who feed us are heroes. The people who provide emergency medical assistance are heroes. Fire personnel are heroes. Police officers and their canine coworkers can be heroes. Caregivers are heroes.
Every single person who performs work is a valuable, needed part of society — though do not confuse this with the common belief that one must perform work to be a valuable and needed part of society — and that person’s labour is heroic; the nature of that labour isn’t what determines whether someone is a hero or not. People who come to work when they are ill because they have families to support and don’t want to risk being fired are heroes — but they’re also being exploited. People like agricultural workers who labour in conditions made deliberately dangerous by their employers are heroes — but they’re also being exploited. Why don’t we react with such outrage and grief when these courageous, brave people are cut down in the line of duty, when exploitation finally ekes out its final, exacting payment on people who were trying to survive and contributing something important to society?
Law enforcement officers are idolised in some communities because their work is seen as inherently dangerous, putting them directly in the line of fire thanks to their interactions with criminals and potentially dangerous situations. Other people who plunge into danger, with the exception of fire and ambulance personnel, aren’t accorded the same hero-worship, though. Why is that? Why are we troubled and thrown into paroxysms of collective grief when a police officer dies, but we can’t be bothered to fly the flag at half-mast for a farm worker killed by careless and abusive labour practices?
What makes one worker’s life more valuable than another, and how do we reconcile living in a world that is supposedly equal with the reality of a world in which some labourers are raised on a pedestal, while others are ignored? Imagine if the death of a utility lineworker was accompanied by a huge procession of lineworkers from across the state, an emotional memorial, floral tributes, the appearance of the governor. Or if highway workers struck by cars were accorded similar respect at their last rites. What would happen if every farmworker death merited a memorial on this scale, one that filled the venue to the point of overflow and forced people out into the street because the secondary overflow room overflowed too? What would change about the society we lived in if we acknowledged that every worker matters, and every worker death is tragic?