Tuesday, February 21, 2017

One Hundred Years Ago: Flowers Planted in the Garden of Hate



            At a time when Presidential orders seek to close doors on refugees and ban travelers from Muslim-majority countries, the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case of a century ago illustrates the extremes anti-immigrant hysteria can reach in American politics. 
            I'll be speaking on my novel drawn from the Sacco-
Vanzetti case, "Suosso's Lane," and reading from the book,
at the Dedham Historical Society, 612 High St., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m. I'll bring paperback copies for sale and signing.
           "Suosso's Lane," dramatizes immigrant life in the early 20th century and traces the role the 1920 political panic over 'dangerous, radical' foreigners -- known as the Red Scare -- played in condemning two Italian immigrants to death. 
             I believe there are lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case. Especially now, a few weeks into a new administration, when the reins of power are in the hands of a president whose stated goals appear to signal a decline of democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which Sacco and Vanzetti were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.      
            American democracy has seen dangerous times before -- anti-democratic and surely anti-egalitarian national moods -- and it has recovered. But judging from the past, the potential for abuse is strongly present at such times.
             On top of a growing nativist resentment of new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe -- and a particular prejudice against Italians -- two major events transformed the nation's political climate in 1917: The United States entered World War I; and the Russian Revolution created a Communist regime hostile to America's capitalist economic system. Communist parties elsewhere predicted that Russia's radical transformation was the forerunner of a world-wide revolution, making other governments, including our own, nervous.
          America's entry into World War I led to a military draft. Reacting -- and over-reacting -- to anti-war opposition from the country's radical left-wing, Congress passed laws that criminalized political dissent, making criticism of the draft and the decision to fight the war illegal. (Compare this to the Vietnam period!)
           These stress points compounded growing fractures in American society because opposition to these wartime policies was strongest among the radical worker movements led by Socialists and Anarchists, many of whom were foreign nationals. Declaring that 'opposition' meant 'subversion,' the federal government created the first true national police (or spy) service, the FBI, to harass and prosecute war opponents such as the prominent Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, founder of the Italian language newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva. Its subscribers included Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
            With more prejudice and ideology than cause, an exaggerated fear of violent revolution led U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to obtain thousands of warrants to arrest radicals, search their premises, confiscate literature, and destroy presses. Influenced by the nation's jingoistic war mood and the dire prophecies of his own new security apparatus, Palmer and others demonized socialist and anarchist opposition to the war. Palmer stated: "The Red Movement" -- a extremist term du jour -- "is not a righteous or honest protest against alleged defects in our present political and economic organization of society… It is a distinctly criminal and dishonest movement in the desire to obtain possession of other people’s property by violence and robbery.” This was complete nonsense, but scare talk from high officials has its impact. Each 'Red' radical (according to Palmer) was therefore “a potential thief.”(25) If you believed that, and you found yourself on a jury, it was easy to believe that anarchists were likely to rob factory payrolls.
            In fact they were not. Some anarchists at this time chose violence. But when anarchists go to war against a government, they do not rob payrolls, or steal; what they do is plant bombs or otherwise attempt to assassinate leaders of the status quo. (Some acts of political violence are, of course, the work of lone nuts.)
            Denied legitimate means of protest, their press shut down, their subscription list confiscated, their freedom of speech, press and assembly criminalized, some hard-line supporters of Luigi Galleani -- who was tried and deported for opposing the draft -- turned to the only means they believed available to them: bombs. Bombs were mailed to government and big business targets in April of 1919; and hand-delivered to the homes and offices in June. One of the latter explosives destroyed half of Palmer's house, though no one there was hurt.
            These events were the immediate backdrop for the increased repressions of the "Red Scare." Palmer launched two series of raids, in November of 1919 and January of 1920. His agents arrested thousands of 'aliens' without warrants, holding many for deportation often in horrendous conditions and without due process of law. Ultimately, only 446 were actually deported (by administrative hearing), before the courts intervened and a reaction against abuses of executive power took place. But fourteen raids on leftists took place in Massachusetts, and in Boston five hundred aliens were marched through the streets in chains and taken to the Deer Island House of Correction, where they were isolated "in brutally chaotic conditions,” according to later government reports.
            It was against this backdrop that Sacco and Vanzetti -- two names federal agents knew from the subscription list to Galleani's anarchist newspaper "Cronaca Sovversiva" -- were charged with the robbery of a Braintree shoe factory payroll and the killing of two payroll officers despite any direct evidence, and convicted by a native-born Massachusetts jury that believed all foreign anarchists should be 'strung up,' according to the jury foreman.
            A time of "us" and "them."
            The Sacco-Vanzetti case appears to shine a light on the darker side of American society's historical treatment of immigrants of 'unfamiliar' ethnicities. Periodically -- especially in those periods when a 'new' group of foreign nationals arrives in large numbers -- the so-called 'nation of immigrants' has exhibited a desire to close doors and build walls. Forgetful of their own non-native origins, many Americans are quick to close the borders on the next group of newcomers, whose language or manners, or religion, or skin tone, or potential for economic competition, or imagined demand for public services, appears to threaten the well-being of those already comfortably settled in the United States. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it was the turn of Italians to be the most numerous and visible of these presumed-to-be-problematic newcomers. The executions of Sacco and Vanzetti were a direct consequence -- and an international symbol -- of that fear of "the others."