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Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case (Part 2)

In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. These raids took place in several cities and became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.

James Larkin, an Irish trade unionist living in New York City, was charged with "advocating force, violence and unlawful means to overthrow the Government". Larkin's trial began on 30th January 1920. He decided to defend himself. He denied that he had advocated the overthrow of the Government. However, he admitted that he was part of the long American revolutionary tradition that included Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also quoted Wendell Phillips in his defence: "Government exists to protect the rights of minorities. The loved and the rich need no protection - they have many friends and few enemies."

The jury found Larkin guilty and on 3rd May 1920 he received a sentence of five to ten years in Sing Sing. In prison Larkin worked in the bootery, manufacturing and repairing shoes. Despite his inability to return to Ireland, he was annually re-elected as general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union.

When the May revolution failed to materialize, attitudes towards Palmer began to change and he was criticised for disregarding people's basic civil liberties. Some of his opponents claimed that Palmer had devised this Red Scare to help him become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1920.

The anarchist movement in America at this time was incredibly small at this time. What is more, they tended to follow the neo-pacifist views of Peter Kropotkin rather than those of Sergi Nechayev, who favoured terrorist activities.

There was also no link between anarchism and communism. In fact both groups hated each other with a passion. At this time the Bolsheviks were busily arresting and executing anarchists in Russia. The most interesting example of Nestor Makhno, who along with his anarchist followers, had played an important role in overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II and then winning the Civil War against the White Army and their foreign supporters.

The leaders of the American Communist Party decided to use this case as propaganda. Liberals, fearing the threat to their own civil rights, also joined in the campaign.In 1925 Celestino Madeiros, a Portuguese immigrant, confessed to being a member of the gang that killed Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli. He also named the four other men, Joe, Fred, Pasquale and Mike Morelli, who had taken part in the robbery. The Morelli brothers were well-known criminals who had carried out similar robberies in area of Massachusetts. However, the authorities refused to investigate the confession made by Madeiros.

Important figures in the United States and Europe became involved in the campaign to overturn the conviction. John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Heywood Broun, William Patterson, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Felix Frankfurter, John Howard Lawson, Freda Kirchway, Floyd Dell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells became involved in a campaign to obtain a retrial. Although Webster Thayer, the original judge, was officially criticised for his conduct at the trial, the authorities refused to overrule the decision to execute the men.

Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, called for trade union action against the decision: "The supreme court of Massachusetts has spoken at last and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, two of the bravest and best scouts that ever served the labor movement, must go to the electric chair.... Now is the time for all labor to be aroused and to rally as one vast host to vindicate its assailed honor, to assert its self-respect, and to issue its demand that in spite of the capitalist-controlled courts of Massachusetts honest and innocent working-men whose only crime is their innocence of crime and their loyalty to labor, shall not be murdered by the official hirelings of the corporate powers that rule and tyrannize over the state."

By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti would be executed. Vanzetti commented to a journalist: "If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, justice, for man's understanding of man, as now we do by accident. Our words - our lives - our pains - nothing! The taking of our lives - lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler - all! That last moment belong to us - that agony is our triumph. On 23rd August 1927, the day of execution, over 250,000 people took part in a silent demonstration in Boston.

The United States system of justice came under attack from important figures throughout the world. Bertrand Russell argued: "I am forced to conclude that they were condemned on account of their political opinions and that men who ought to have known better allowed themselves to express misleading views as to the evidence because they held that men with such opinions have no right to live. A view of this sort is one which is very dangerous, since it transfers from the theological to the political sphere a form of persecution which it was thought that civilized countries had outgrown."


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