The last 100 years of the US’s history has been punctuated at regular intervals with crusades not just against the enemy without but the enemy within. That has involved the legal death sentence and extra-legal lynchings and assassinations.
Each of these crusades has strong echoes of today’s “war on terror” and injunctions to support the state in its battle with a merciless “totalitarian” enemy.
The best known are the US state’s McCarthyite witch-hunt against Communists in the late 1940s, and the FBI’s attack on the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the biggest such attack was the government’s red scare after the First World War. This saw tens of thousands of immigrant workers deported, many more arrested, union halls raided and literature destroyed.
An initial wave of arrests and seizures took place on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution in November 1919. An even bigger round up of dissidents took place in January 1920. Many were beaten.
These raids were particularly intense and violent in the industrial towns surrounding Boston. Prisoners were driven through the streets of Boston chained together in fours.
The “red scare” followed the socialist revolution in Russia and a strike wave across the US.
There were a number of reasons for the ruling class attack. One was to decimate the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which had organised many of the strikes.
Another was to divide a left wing movement that had won nearly a million votes for Eugene V Debs, the Socialist candidate, in the 1912 presidential election. It also wanted to isolate the newly formed Communist Party, which argued that revolution was needed in the US.
This was the background to one of the most notorious legal murders in US history – the execution of two Italian anarchists, the shoemaker Nicola Sacco, and the fish seller Bartolomeo Vanzetti which took place 80 years ago last month.
On 15 April 1920 robbers snatched wages at a shoe factory in South Braintree in Massachusetts. During the raid the paymaster was shot dead. Three weeks later Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with participating in the robbery.
Both had strong alibis that they had been nowhere near the factory when the robbery occurred. Nevertheless they were thrown into jail and charged with the crime of first degree murder.
Later in court Vanzetti was asked why he thought he was being held. He replied, “Because the first thing [the police] asked me is if I was an anarchist, communist or socialist.”
Sacco was repeatedly quizzed by prosecutors as to why he dodged the draft rather than fight in the First World War.
Intitially divisions affected the defence campaign. The anarchist Italian Defence Committee split between those who wanted to carry out bomb attacks to force the men’s release and members of the IWW who worked to build a broad campaign.
When Sacco and Vanzetti were brought to trial it was in the wake of a bomb attack on New York’s Wall Street, the heart of US finance, which was carried out by another Italian anarchist in retaliation for the arrest of the two anarchists. Forty people died and 200 were wounded.
The red scare went into overdrive in the wake of the bombing.
The presiding judge Webster Thayer told the jury at the outset, “Although this man [Sacco] may not have committed the crime attributed to him, he is nonetheless culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”
After they were sentenced to death a friend of Thayer’s reported that the judge told him, “Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards the other day?”
For seven years a massive defence campaign fought to save the two men. The evidence supporting the men’s innocence piled up, but it was ignored by the legal system. This meant that the case touched the lives of millions. A massive and diverse campaign grew up in the US and across the globe in their support.
The defence of Sacco and Vanzetti helped bring together the disparate radical forces that had been thrown into disunity and isolation in the preceding years. As they campaigned to save the two men they found an audience among working class people.
The International Labor Defence group enlisted Eugene V Debs to write an “Appeal to American Labour” which it distributed by the thousand. It sponsored rallies of 15,000 and 25,000 in New York City’s Madison Square Gardens and Union Square.
Similar sized protests took place in Milwaukee, San Jose, Boston, Denver, Seattle and Chicago. Legal challenges and mass agitation helped keep the two alive for seven years. Yet the US ruling class was determined to see the men die. In April 1927 the legal challenges were brought to a halt and Judge Thayer ordered the execution of the two men, which was set for 23 August.
In Colorado, IWW miners walked out on strike for three days on 21 August. In Scranton in Pennsylvania machines were sabotaged to stop production. Sacco and Vanzetti’s names were scrawled on the machines.
Mother Bloor, the veteran socialist, trade union organiser and communist, was arrested in Boston as she addressed a crowd near to the prison where the two men awaited execution.
On the evening of 22 August hundreds of thousands stood in the streets across the US on a “Death Watch”.
Shortly after midnight on 23 August 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti were strapped into the electric chair at Boston’s Charleston prison. The electric switch was thrown and the two men were burnt alive.
At the funeral of the two rebels 100,000 workers marched, arm in arm, defying the police. Similar marches took place elsewhere. Behind the grief of the marchers was a determination that workers would not be cowed into submission.
When the two men were sentenced to death Vanzetti stated in court, “If it had not been for these things, 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 failures. 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 belongs to us – that agony is our triumph.”