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“I wanted a roof for every family, bread for every mouth, education for every heart, light for every intellect. I am convinced that the human history has not yet begun–that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is diffused with rays of the new millennium.”
— Bartolomeo Vanzetti
The execution of the Italian immigrants and revolutionaries Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti took place 80 years ago in August. A new documentary, Sacco and Vanzetti, provides an insightful portrayal of a case that still resonates with people fighting for justice today.
Sacco and Vanzetti were born and raised in remote towns in Italy. They met when they emigrated to the United States in 1908. Sacco found work in a shoe factory, and Vanzetti was a fish peddler.
This was a time of political persecution against both immigrants and radicals. Immigrants worked the worst and most dangerous jobs, in conditions of stifling oppression and inequality.
By the time of the Red Scare of 1919-20, repression was extreme. Thousands of immigrants were swept up and deported without any trial or hearing. Historian Howard Zinn, who is interviewed in the documentary, speaks about how 500 immigrants were chained together and marched through the streets of Boston, and then deported.
Like many others, Sacco and Vanzetti were drawn to anarchist politics not only because they saw the need to advance and better the conditions of the working class, but they felt there needed to be a structural change in society as well.
“Many people subscribed to the philosophy of anarchism,” Zinn says. “They believed that the economic resources of society should be collectively owned and distributed in an equitable way so that everybody could have a job and have the necessities of life. They were opposed to the government, to the state. They felt the state was oppressive and on the side of the rich.”
* * *
In April of 1920, a robbery and killing took place in Braintree, Mass. Gunmen stole more than $15,000 and shot a paymaster and his guard as they carried a factory payroll through the town’s main street.
Police picked up Sacco and Vanzetti while they rode a streetcar one night three weeks later. Neither were told why they were apprehended. Both men were armed, though this wasn’t uncommon for the time.
Police asked whether the two were anarchists, and both Sacco and Vanzetti lied, fearing this is why they had been picked up. Only a few months earlier, an anarchist had been held and interrogated for eight weeks in the Boston FBI office regarding a recent bombing–before “jumping” to his death from the 14th floor. After this tragic incident, word spread among radicals to lie low and hide incriminating evidence.
The case against the two was flimsy. Therefore, prosecutors first attempted to secure a conviction against Vanzetti for a different robbery in 1919.
Vanzetti had a rock-solid alibi–more than a dozen people testified that they bought eels from him the day of the 1919 robbery. Another man testified that he sold alongside Vanzetti the entire day. But because of the anti-immigrant hysteria, the prosecutors easily cast doubt about the testimony of the Italian-speaking witnesses.
Vanzetti was convicted of this earlier robbery, which made it much easier to build a case against the two men in the South Braintree crime.
The courtroom was infected with an unapologetically patriotic and anti-immigrant atmosphere. Every day, the jury foreman would come in and salute the flag. The judge, Webster Thayer, made his bias plain. “Although this man [Sacco] may not have committed the crime attributed to him,” Thayer told the jury at the start, “he is nonetheless culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”
During one exchange while Sacco was testifying, a prosecutor badgered him about whether he “fled” to Mexico rather than serve in the First World War:
Q. Did you say yesterday you love a free country?
A. Yes sir.
Q. Did you love this country in the month of of May 1917?
A. I did not say–I don’t want to say I did not love this country.
Q. Did you love this country in the month of 1917?
A. If you can, Mr. Katzmann, if you give me that–I could explain–
Q. Do you understand the question?
Q. Then will you please answer it?
A. I can’t answer it in one word, Mr. Katzman.
Q. You can’t tell this jury whether you loved the country or not?
A. I could explain that, yes, if I loved–
A. I could explain that, yes, if I loved, if you give me a chance.
Q. I ask you to answer that question. Did you love this United States of America in May 1917?
A. I can’t answer in one word.
The badgering went on and on: “And in order to show your love for this United States of America when she was about to call upon you to become a solider you ran away to Mexico?” and “Would it be your idea of love for your wife that you were to run away from her when she needed you?”
What did any of this have to do with the Braintree robbery and the killing of the paymaster and guard, you might wonder? Yet Thayer allowed this line of questioning, and it even held up on appeal. “Their trial was entirely fair,” the New York Times reported after their conviction. “In short, every right was granted to the defendants.”
Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial lasted seven weeks, yet in a few short hours, the jury found the two men guilty, and they were sentenced to death by electrocution.
Historian Michael Todd points to research in the 1970s that discovered the prosecution knew all along that Vanzetti’s gun could not have been used in the Braintree crime.
Even during Sacco and Vanzetti’s lifetime, evidence surfaced that should have proved them unequivocally innocent. Carlos Maderios of the Morelli gang admitted committing the crime and gave details that supported his claim. But the courts decided Maderios’ confession was “unreliable.”
Historian Mary Anne Trasciatti recalls Fred Moore, the leading attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti, saying that “an Italian accused of a murder in Massachusetts stands about as much a chance of getting a fair trial as a Black man accused of rape in the south.”
* * *
Both men understood what they were up against and had little hope of winning justice from the courts. Unfortunately, they were right.
As Vanzetti said in a courtroom speech before Thayer passed sentence, “I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that…if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.”
Despite a huge worldwide protest movement numbering in the millions, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by the state on August 23, 1927. There were protests around the world–in London, Paris, Geneva, Berlin, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Rome, Moscow, Barcelona, Milan, Havana, Tokyo and Lisbon–not to mention across the U.S.
Sacco and Vanzetti doesn’t go into any depth about the fight that was organized to try to save these two men–and in one unnecessary slight, it points out that a communist once said Sacco and Vanzetti would serve the movement better if they were executed. That was certainly not the sentiment of the movement as a whole, and belittles what it was about.
Nevertheless, this documentary is well worth watching. It illustrates an especially painful and infuriating example of what the U.S. government will do to try to victimize people with radical beliefs.
And lest we think it’s merely a dark chapter in our history books, the film ends with clips of Guantánamo Bay detainees shackled and led around the prison camp. Point made.
MARLENE MARTIN, is national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP).