Chiewelthap Mariar, a 26-year old Sudanese immigrant meatpacking worker at the Seaboard Foods plant in Guymon, Oklahoma, was murdered on the evening of January 9 by local police while at his job. He was tased and shot while at his workstation, and management kept the line running up until his death. The next day, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) announced that they were investigating this “officer-involved shooting” and released a statement with their understanding of the events. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) District Union Local 2 called for a federal investigation into the death of Mariar.
Specific details of the incident remain cloudy. According to the OSBI, Guymon police answered a call at 8:19 pm on January 9 “in reference to an agitated and disgruntled employee.” It’s unclear why Seaboard management called the police in this matter. According to Kristen Kinsella, a former Seaboard employee who spoke to me for this story, witnesses say that Mariar was showing signs of needing psychological help that day. But there are no set procedures for dealing with psychological issues among employees, and Kinsella told me that management has a track record of ignoring complaints of workers’ behavior. Moreover, according to David Alvarez, a maintenance worker who was at the plant that day, Mariar’s mother works at the same factory and was not notified of anything amiss until his body was at the hospital.
Alvarez tells me that Mariar had been fired by a supervisor but had been told by HR to complete his shift. He apparently bumped into the supervisor, whom Alvarez calls “a real cocky guy,” in the hallway, which led to his calling the cops. Whatever happened, when the police arrived, they confronted Mariar at his workstation. It’s very rare in most companies for law enforcement to be called directly to the shop floor, and Kinsella tells me that this has only happened when an employee has been incapacitated or is putting another employee in serious danger. There are no reports that he was threatening anyone at the time.
The OSBI reports that the situation escalated once Mariar “produced a knife and began advancing on officers.” At this point, “officers attempted to de-escalate the situation before eventually deploying a taser. The taser was unsuccessful and Mariar continued advancing on officers at which point an officer fired his service weapon striking Mariar.” Mariar was then “transported to the hospital where he was pronounced deceased.”
According to Alvarez, who took a video of the event, the knife in question was a band cutter, an extremely common tool in meatpacking plants. While a band cutter can be used as a weapon, it is hard to understand why police felt the need to tase Mariar, why that wasn’t sufficient, and why they then resorted to deadly force. In Alvarez’s video, the cops do not appear to be de-escalating, while Mariar appears distressed but not threatening. The OSBI statement claims he was “pronounced deceased” at the hospital, but Alvarez says that he was dead on the plant floor. Mariar’s union, UFCW District Union Local 2, has called for “an immediate federal investigation” of what it calls a “horrific incident by Guymon City Police.” In the union’s statement, its president Martin Rosas says that “the local police did not take sufficient measures to protect [its] members and this worker- brandishing their weapons and ultimately taking the life of a 26-year-old young man who had his whole life before him.”
Many stories have been written about how immigration, mainly driven by meatpacking jobs, has transformed small towns across the Midwest and Great Plains since the 1980s. But while a city like Guymon, which is more than 70 percent non-white and 33 percent foreign-born according to latest census data, is no longer a rarity in the region, immigrants have found it hard to change the underlying power structure. Guymon’s city council is majority white, and Oklahoma is 64 percent white overall. A 2020 article in the Texas Tribune profiling nearby Dumas, Texas, puts it bluntly: “Political and social wealth remain largely centered in a white power structure deeply settled in the southern Great Plains.”
This power structure has often brought with it extreme racism, most notably in the case of former U.S. Representative and white nationalist Steve King. This racism was, in fact, found in Guymon back in 2020 by The Oklahoman, which reported that many residents blamed a spike in COVID to “the people at the plant” due to their “crowded housing,” poor hygiene, and lack of social distancing. An Associated Press report from the same time period quoted South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, and Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack as expressing similar sentiments.
Meanwhile, the actual conditions at meatpacking plants were dire. In Guymon alone, six workers died of COVID, and UFCW District Union Local 2 filed an OSHA complaint after finding workers “crowded together nearly shoulder to shoulder,” and eating meals together in crowded cafeterias with no social distancing. Kinsella told me that, during the height of COVID, Seaboard Foods instituted bonuses for perfect attendance, basically encouraging workers to come to work sick. And while over 40 percent of the plant had tested positive for COVID by Spring of 2021, only one percent of those cases were reported to OSHA.
Investigate Midwest found a rampant neglect and underreporting of workplace injuries at Seaboard Foods in a report from Fall 2021. Among the many current and former employees interviewed for the article was Melissa Bailey, an immigrant from Jamaica. Bailey complained of widespread racism at the plant, detailing incidents such as being accused of stealing from the cafeteria and being told to dig through the trash to recover a cracked face shield she had thrown away. This treatment extended to supervisors, she alleged, including one who called her a “troublemaker” for slipping and falling, and another who called her illiterate.
According to Kinsella, racism against Black workers is widespread among Seaboard supervisors. The company regularly brings in Black workers from Mississippi, whom she heard being referred to as “lazy, or aggressive,” or unwilling to work. Whenever problems arose on the line, Black workers were targeted for blame first. Kinsella says that, during her time as a steward, workers from Mississippi would regularly complain to her about this and she personally witnessed instances where a Black worker was singled out for blame among a whole group of workers doing something improperly. Alvarez says that the supervisor who fired Mariar and called the police on him “sure does target the Black community.”
It is this track record of racism and negligence around COVID, workplace injuries, and mental health that leads Kinsella to place the primary blame for Mariar’s death upon the company. Alvarez likewise blames Seaboard for its poor training of supervisors, who are given free rein in the plant.
Seaboard is definitely acting like it has something to hide. In Alvarez’s video, there are employees visibly working during the incident. In fact, Alvarez tells me, after the shooting the company put plastic sheeting over the crime scene and told the workers to continue until the end of the shift. Before they did this, though, supervisors gathered the workers who had witnessed the shooting and told them that Mariar had been threatening the police with a knife. The next day, Seaboard Foods had all witnesses sign prefilled statements. When Alvarez refused to, objecting to the statement claiming Mariar had a knife, the company fired him. While there are other workers who witnessed the incident, and there were many videos floating around on Snapchat locally the night of the shooting, none are talking. And although there are security cameras all over the plant floor, Alvarez tells me a supervisor he is friendly with claims that they were erased the next day.
Like Deng Manyoun, Patrick Lyola, Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, and many others, Chiewelthap Mariar represents another name in the countless number of African immigrants killed by the police in recent years. One can add to this the outrageous COVID death toll of the primarily immigrant meatpacking workforce, as well as the industry’s long track record of negligence around workplace injuries. Mariar was only 26 years old and had left Sudan to build a better life for himself and his family. His death leaves another shameful mark upon this country.
Featured Image credit: video by David Alvarez via Twitter; modified by Tempest.
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Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.