Friday, August 31, 2012

Remembering Sacco & Vanzetti - 85 years on

1916-1927: The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti

August 23, 2012

The story of two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, framed for murder and then executed for their beliefs.

"Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?"
- Presiding Judge Webster Thayer

Sacco and Vanzetti (see picture, left) were committed anarchists who had been active in many workers' struggles. In 1916, Sacco was arrested for taking part in a demonstration in solidarity with workers on strike in Minnesota. In the same year he took part in a strike in a factory in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was here that he met Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who was one of the principal organisers of that strike. Like most anarchists, the two were also active in their opposition to the First World War.

Severe poverty in the post-war years meant that many workers were dissatisfied with the status quo. The authorities were terrified that workers might follow the example of the Russian Revolution, and were doing everything in their power to portray communism and anarchism as 'un-American', and to frighten workers way from 'red' propaganda.

In April 1920, anarchist Andrea Salsedo was arrested and detained for 8 weeks. On the morning of May 3rd, he 'fell' to his death from the 14th floor window of a New York Dept. of Justice building. 

Sacco and Vanzetti, along with other comrades, immediately called a public meeting in Boston to protest. While out building support for this meeting they were arrested on suspicion of "dangerous radical activities". They soon found themselves charged with a payroll robbery which had taken place the previous April in which 2 security guards had been killed.

The case came to trial in June 1921, and lasted for seven weeks. The state's case against the two was almost non-existent. Twelve of Vanzetti's customers (he was working as a fish seller) testified that he was delivering fish to them at the time of the crime. An official of the Italian Consulate in Boston testified that Sacco had been seeing him about a passport at the time. Furthermore, somebody else confessed to the crime and said that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had anything to do with it.

The judge in the case, Judge Webster Thayer, said of Vanzetti: "This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions." The foreman of the jury, a retired policeman, said in response to a friend of his who ventured the opinion that Sacco and Vanzetti might be innocent "Damn them. They ought to hang anyway."

Having sentenced the two men to death, the judge boasted to a friend "Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day"

There was no doubt about the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were on trial for their political beliefs and that the verdict when it came was a class verdict - the state was delivering a clear message to the US working class - steer well clear of anarchist thought or face the consequences.

Sacco and Vanzetti were to spend the next six years in prison as appeal after appeal was turned down. Finally, on August 23rd 1927, they were executed.

News of the executions sent hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets all across the world. 

The US embassy in Paris had to be surrounded by tanks to protect it from an angry crowd of protestors, a riot in London resulted in 40 injuries, the US Consulate in Geneva was surrounded by a 5,000 strong crowd, huge crowds wearing black armbands marched in Boston and New York.

Shortly before he was executed, Vanzetti said, "The last moment belongs to us - that agony is our triumph!" It is in remembering the moment of their deaths, and in continuing to fight for their vision of a new, fair society that we honour these men.

To commemorate the executions and to renew the commitment to the ideals they fought for, anarchists and labour activists in New York and around the world often hold commemorative events on 23rd August each year.

*Art by RiotKarma


Death penalty opponents remember Sacco and Vanzetti

Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Fred Contrada 

SPRINGFIELD — For years now, they have been gathering on the same day, Aug. 23, for the same reason.

It’s the anniversary of an event that encapsulates all they stand for and all they oppose. On Aug. 23, 1927, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts executed Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of murder, more because of who they were than because of what the prosecution proved they did.

The Hampden County Chapter of the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty has been carrying the torch for its cause since 1991. At times, it has seemed a hopeless one, but this year some members believe they can see their goal flickering faintly on the horizon: an end to capital punishment in the United States.

In conjunction with the Catholic Charities Agency of the Springfield Diocese, the group will hold its annual memorial to Sacco and Vanzetti at the Bishop Marshall Center of St. Michael’s Cathedral from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The ceremony will honor two long-time proponents of its cause. The keynote speaker, William C. Newman, directs the Western Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union and began fighting the death penalty before the ink was dry on his law degree. Saul Finestone, the chairman of the Hampden County chapter, will receive the Ken Childs Award for his years of dedication.

Anxiety was high in America when five armed men robbed a Braintree shoe company on April 15, 1920. The country was going through the “Red Scare” as Communism took hold in other parts of the world, and many people were suspect. The paymaster and a guard were shot and killed in the robbery, which netted about $15,000. The thieves got away.

A month later, police arrested Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler. Both men were carrying pistols at the time and gave false statements to police. Although they were self-proclaimed anarchists, neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had a criminal record and there was no hard evidence tying them to the robbery.

Their subsequent trial became the embodiment of what death penalty opponents believe is wrong with the judicial system. Eyewitness accounts that put the men at the scene have been called into question, and statements made by the judge and prosecutor were rife with prejudice, according to critics.

The anarchism of Sacco and Venzetti had less to do with terrorism than with the workers’ rights movement sweeping the globe. That both were Italian immigrants didn’t help. Some death penalty opponents see parallels to the case of James Halligan and Domenic Daley, two Irish immigrants who were unjustly convicted of murder and hanged in Northampton in 1806.

Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on Aug. 23, 1927. People still debate whether or not they were involved in the robbery, but many, notably death penalty opponents, are adamant that they did not get a fair trial.

Since the Sacco and Vanzetti case, death sentences have slowly diminished across the country. The last men executed in Massachusetts were Edward Gerston and Phillip Belino, who were electrocuted for murder in 1943. Richard Valliere, a Springfield man, was the last person sentenced to death in the state. Valliere was found guilty in 1972 of killing two people during a bank robbery in Chicopee. His death sentence was stayed, however, and ultimately reversed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which cited a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling four years later, but Massachusetts abolished the state death penalty in the meantime. There have been various attempts to reinstate it, notably a 1997 bill that failed on an 80-80 tie when Rep. John Slattery, D-Peabody, changed his vote from yes to no.

Newman has a simple answer to those who support the axiom “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
“Better that 10 guilty men go free than any single innocent man be executed,” he said.

Newman is among those who believe the Sacco and Vanzetti trial was a travesty of justice.

“There was a hysteria about their politics that had nothing to do with the case,” he said. “They were convicted of being different, not because they were guilty.”

According to Newman, the race of the victim and the defendant are the dominant factors in death sentences. He rejects the notion that the penalty serves as a deterrent to crime.

“The death penalty experiment in the United States only proves the government can spend massive amounts of money to kill innocent people with no benefit to the public safety,” he said.

Although the U.S. executes more people per capita than any country in the world, according to Newman’s figures, it has slowly phased out as individual states have abolished that punishment.

Death sentences, Newman said, have declined by 75 percent nationally since 1976.

Finestone, 85, a retired social studies teacher and Longmeadow resident, has been on the front line for decades. When nurse Kristen Gilbert faced the death penalty for murdering patients at the
Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2000, Finestone was among the protesters in Court Square carrying signs that said, “Don’t Kill Kristen Gilbert for me.” The jury opted to sentence Gilbert to life in prison.

Finestone believes state-sponsored execution is wrong in itself, but says the Sacco and Vanzetti case exemplifies the injustice of it.

“I don’t want to see innocent people killed,” he said. “We know that has happened.”

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