Bee Lee did not recognize the man who followed him as he delivered mail in Compton earlier this year.
Lee, a longtime letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, was wary but “had a job to do” and kept walking his route.
When Lee stopped to get a drink from his truck, the man punched him in the jaw — so hard that he blacked out — and ran away.
Lee, 62, of Torrance, has struggled with his memory since the March assault, saying his brain feels “like it’s shut down.” He retired — earlier than he wanted to — after three decades of carrying mail for the Postal Service.
Violent attacks, such as the one that cut Lee’s career short, have become more common in Southern California and beyond since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Association of Letter Carriers, the union representing Postal Service carriers.
Dozens of postal workers this week rallied outside a Compton post office on Santa Fe Avenue, decrying the robberies, assaults and intimidation they face on the job.
The signs they carried read: “Enough is Enough — Protect Our Letter Carriers.”
Brian Renfroe, president of the postal workers’ union, said the violence is perplexing because letter carriers have been able to walk down “the meanest streets of the country without a problem” for the nearly 250 years since the Postal Service formed.
“Nobody messed with us,” Renfroe said. “Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.”
Since 2020, there have been more than 2,000 violent attacks on letter carriers represented by the NALC, which has more than 30,000 members in California, union leaders said this week.
In the first eight months of 2023, there were 20 robberies involving letter carriers in Lakewood alone, said Eli Torres, an NALC branch vice president.
Natashi Garvins, a USPS spokeswoman, said the Postal Service and its law enforcement arm, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, recognize the increasingly challenging environment and have partnered with local and federal authorities to protect the carriers and the mail they are delivering.
“We will continue to adapt to evolving security threats and implement expanded measures to safeguard our employees and preserve the security of the mail that our customers expect and deserve,” Garvins said.
“We have been — and will continue to — implement an engaged, robust nationwide initiative to harden blue collection boxes, enhance collection box key and lock technology and institute dual authentication for change of address protocols.”
Union leaders say recent attacks in Compton have been among the most violent in California.
Last year, a Compton letter carrier was pistol-whipped in the head while making a delivery.
And in September, another Compton carrier — a colleague of Lee’s — had a gun pulled on him while delivering mail.
That carrier, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety on his route, had just dropped off some mail at a residence when a man started yelling at him and cussing him out.
The resident was furious that the mail banged during a delivery, the letter carrier said.
The carrier said he did not report the verbal assault to his bosses because he worried residents would know it was him who snitched. He returned to the street two days later — and the resident who had yelled aimed a gun at his face.
“I’m thinking, ‘Dude, this is it for me,’” he told the Los Angeles Times.
The carrier still walks his route, but he avoids the man’s street, he said.
“This problem is growing,” Renfroe, the union president, said in a speech to workers at the Compton rally this week. Targeted armed robberies, assaults and shootings, he said, have become “part of our job.”
Renfroe called for the federal government to help. An estimated 14% of crimes against letter carriers have been federally prosecuted and resulted in an arrest, he said.
“You know what that tells me?” he asked. “That 86% of the people that do this get away with it. That has to change.”
Keisha Lewis, a union representative who oversees carriers in Nevada, California, Hawaii and Guam, said she receives two to three emails every week about a letter carrier being robbed or attacked — something that was, until recently, unthinkable.
The most effective deterrent, she said, will always be customers speaking up and telling authorities when they see something.
Sharon Whitaker rolled up to the rally late — in her USPS truck, laying on the horn.
Whitaker, a 63-year-old letter carrier and union steward who grew up in Compton, said the job feels a lot more dangerous these days. She prays every day before taking off on her route.
“I ask God to bring me back home safe,” Whitaker said. “But every time a car comes down the street I’m ducking. Because you never know what will happen.”
Ever since a shooting last September near South Park in Compton that left two men dead and a woman injured, Whitaker won’t park her mail truck in the area while she walks her route.
Customers called the day after the shooting, warning her not to come out.
Whitaker said she has had her safety threatened numerous times during her nearly four decades working for the Postal Service.
While delivering mail in Compton early one morning in 1991, a gunfight broke out. Her shirt and shoes were grazed as she ran for safety to a nearby home, banging on the door until someone let her in.
“I was so afraid,” Whitaker told The Times. “So afraid.”
Once, a man put a gun to her head during a delivery at an automotive store near Rosecrans Avenue, she said. One of her customers rushed out to scare the man away.
Whitaker reported the incident, and her bosses told her she could head back to the post office if she did not want to finish the route that day.
“But I did (finish) because I knew customers were waiting on me,” she said. “I had their paychecks. I had all they needed to survive.”
Despite the scary incidents, Whitaker described her job as “the best in the world” — one that makes her long days well worth it.
Whitaker wakes up at 4 a.m. each day, caring for her 84-year-old mother and for her 30-year-old son, who has congestive heart failure and needs assistance. By 8 a.m., she’s out the door, headed first to McDonald’s for a caramel frappe and then to the post office.
She usually starts her route by noon.
Some customers have become like family — offering her iced drinks when it’s hot outside and homemade sweet potato pie around Thanksgiving.
Whitaker was inspired to become a postal worker by her older sister, Robin Baker, one of the first Black women to work at the post office in Lakewood.
Whitaker started in 1985, walking Route 6 on central Compton Boulevard. There was no automation back then, so Whitaker sometimes came to work around 5 or 6 a.m. to manually sort the mail.
Carrying cash from grandparents, paychecks, love letters, mail carriers used to be greeted like celebrities when walking down the street. Now, what they carry makes them a target for robbery — which saddens Whitaker.
“The world is getting worse,” she said.
Most of the people along her residential route are seniors, so she understands if they can’t physically step in if someone tries to harm her. But keeping an eye on the streets and on letter carriers goes a long way toward making the job safer, she said.
One customer who is “always looking out” for Whitaker is 93-year-old Veola Baker.
Baker, who has the same name as Whitaker’s grandmother, makes the letter carrier feel less scared and not so alone while she’s out there delivering mail.
As she was discussing the uptick in violence before the rally, Whitaker’s phone rang.
It was Baker calling to check on her.
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