Last week's annual commemoration of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti -- for being anarchists, Italians, for being in the wrong place when the state wanted to make an arrest; for having their names on a government list of subversives -- seems to me a good occasion for looking backward, and forward, and all around us today for important social and political currents in American society.
Today many Americans are saying that America is changing too fast. And that people who were born here, who’ve lived here all their lives, who believe that they "built this country," are being left behind. Jobs are being shipped overseas, the industries that made their communities prosperous are drying up. In some parts of our country cities and towns are turning into ghost towns. People like “us” (and when Americans say "us" they most often mean native-born white people) aren’t doing better than previous generations, they’re doing worse, and in some cases they're barely hanging on economically to their place in the social ladder.
They’re looking for somebody to blame for their declining circumstances. There are some obvious candidates, such as (number one) corporate wealth and domination of government. And, two, closely related, the increasingly steep gap between the super-rich and everybody else.
Instead, however,we're seeing the rise of demagoguery as a major party candidate seeks to scapegoat immigrants, religious minorities, and nationals from certain countries who seek work and opportunity in the US, some of them without papers.
That's today. But what were things like back in Bartolomeo Vanzetti's day? Vanzetti came to America in 1908. It was not an unusual choice. Between 1880 and 1920 an estimated 4 million Italians entered the US; many other immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, came to the US at the same time. Vanzetti left his home in the Piemonte region after the death of his beloved mother; and after nearly dying himself from the effects of over-work in the unhealthy atmosphere of pastry-making factories.What did Vanzetti find in the America, the new world, the land of freedom and opportunity. He found many poor, exploited laboring people. And a few very rich who owned most everything and dominated a government that had no interest in improving the lives of ordinary people. The material well-being of ordinary Americans was not a subject government need concern itself with.
Like many others who arrived here without family or friends in this country, Vanzetti found a place at the bottom rungs of the social ladder. He worked at the laboring jobs typically available to immigrants in NYC and surrounding areas for several years, sometimes sleeping in doorways.
When I began thinking about writing a book about Vanzetti's life in America, I asked myself what kind of man was Vanzetti? Here are some of my answers.
An exploited child laborer – sent off by his father at age 13 to work in factories as an apprentice pastry maker. A man who loved children, who regarded himself according to Beltrando Brini, a child of five when Vanzetti became a boarder in his family's household, as his "spiritual father." A man who exhibited great kindness and courtesy to women. A man for whom the model human being, the most important person in his life, was his mother, the woman who nursed him back to health when he was sent home from a factory with a lung disease, pleurisy, from which he was not expected to recover.
And yet this man does not marry, does not court. As Beltrando Brini insisted many years later in a book of oral histories: "Vanzetti did not have affairs." And a man who despite his radical political beliefs was widely respected within a community of socially conservative people, more likely (as daughter Lefevre Brini recalled in the same book) to be observant Catholics than anarchists.
Yet this is the man who, with his fellow anarchist Nicola Sacco, was charged with the cold-blooded murder of two factory payroll officials in the course of robbing a payroll that the families of hundreds of shoe factory workers depended on. They were convicted by a so-called jury of their peers -- all white men of old New England stock, Protestants, old-fashioned views. A jury systematically purged of any members who were critical of the government, admitted they read books, or in any way struck the prosecution as too "intellectual." People who read books might be sympathetic to some of the criticisms of society made by anarchists.
As Vanzetti would say to the court before his sentencing. "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..."
Why was being an Italian held against him? Because in an era of heightened fears of social disorder, crime, and unemployment, ordinary unsophisticated Americans had been taught by their leaders, by newspapers, and by the same ownership class that benefited from cheap immigrant labor that Italians belonged to an inferior "race" that could never be trusted to understand democracy or become good citizens. President Calvin Coolidge said as much when he signed a law sharply curtailing immigration from Italy.
Laughable, ridiculous -- shameful! -- to recall that Americans could believe such scurrilous nonsense.
But they did. And what does this past say about the future? When we hear whole classes of people -- whole nationalities and religious faiths -- denounced as dangers to our national well being. Called threats to our security, criminals, drug traffickers.
Might not similar injustices take place in the American future envisioned by the demagogues who seek votes and power by the same old appeal to the lowest emotions -- racial stereotyping, scapegoating, what today we call "profiling"?
In my novel "Suosso's Lane," a young academic, a history teacher who has yet to find his true subject, moves to North Plymouth, to the street where Bartolomeo Vanzetti found lodging with the Brini family.... and learns to his surprise that a key figure in an internationally famous case in which the bigotry and the shortcomings in American justice scandalized the world, was living in apple-pie, Thanksgiving story, squeaky-WASP Plymouth at the time of his arrest. His story, the internationally infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case, the trial of the century, is a telling chapter in national history that Massachusetts and, I would say, American society as a whole, chose to forget. Why? How?
My answer is that the Plutocracy, and the political establishment it controlled, changed the story. The threat to justice and security came not from the abuses and inherent flaws of monopoly capitalism, but from an outside power: international Communism, the Soviet Union, Red China. Just as laws passed during WWI banned criticism of America's participation of the war, the draft; then banned Anarchist literature, or being an anarchist. Or a "radical' such as Vanzetti confessed himself to be in his final speech before the court.
Wealth and power told the nation to forget. The nation complied.
"Suosso's Lane" tells an old story, but also a new immigrant story about a man from Africa who asks himself whether he should go on working for a big-box retailer (situated where Plymouth Cordage factory building once stood), a job he hates, or join the sub-rosa effort to organize a union of retail workers. If he gets caught, he'll be fired; he may be deported.
And my young historian, after studying the forgotten period of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, concludes that America was in some respects a better and more hopeful place way back then, when ordinary Americans were free to talk about, study, and attend lectures or meetings that offered fundamental critiques of the American system -- its inherently anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian capitalist economic system, paired with its theoretically open free-election system of choosing leaders. Before the American corporate and political establishment succeeded in demonizing the left.