August 24, 2007

80 Years Since the Execution of Sacco & Vanzetti

[80 years ago today, angry, grief-filled demonstrations rocked cities around the world as the ruling class of the United States executed two of its sworn enemies, the Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, on trumped up charges. To observe this anniversary, Fire on the Mountain presents below a powerful speech given five years ago, on the 75th anniversary by Juliet Ucelli of Italian Americans for a Multi-cultural United States.

The text here was taken from the Italian American Writers website. It is also available as the concluding essay in the Sacco & Vanzetti volume in Ocean Press's very useful Rebel Lives book series.]

Commemorating the 75 Anniversary of the Execution of Sacco & Vanzetti

I would like to briefly address the lessons of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s lives and deaths for Italian Americans. Today, Italian Americans are integrated into U.S. society as white Americans. But that wasn’t so in the early years of this century. People of Southern Italian background were considered non-white well into the 1920s. We were called aliens, wops--meaning "without papers," just like today’s undocumented immigrants are called aliens. Nicola Sacco and Bartomoleo Vanzetti were derided as "dirty dagoes, reds" and "anarchistic bastards" (by their trial judge, Webster Thayer of Massachusetts). Anarchists were considered terrorists. Sound familiar?

When they were arrested and put on trial for murder, Sacco and Vanzetti got support from radical and genuinely democratic people of all nationalities and walks of life. Italian Americans who were poor, working class, new immigrants, much of the lower middle class, particularly identified with their suffering and stigmatization. My mother remembers her uncle saying, "Those men were murdered because they were Italian." [The well known poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote her famous poem "Justice Denied in Massachusetts" to commemorate the deaths of the labor organizers. She had marched with Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and other progressive and well informed intellectuals in defense of the two men, but many turned a deaf ear on their plight.]

Sacco and Vanzetti themselves knew why they were being targeted. In Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s immigrant dialect he said these words:

"I would not wish to a dog or to a snake what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. 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; I have suffered more for my family and my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already."

Today, Sacco and Vanzetti are long-dead and it's safe to feel sympathy for them. And, many Italian Americans look back with nostalgia, from a comfortable position of white privilege, at this era when we actually were an oppressed national minority subject to persecution. But when Sacco and Vanzetti were facing execution and needing support, lots of Italian Americans--the establishment, some professionals, the wealthy--would have nothing to do with them. They didn't want to be associated with those radicals and 'terrorists'.

So I pose this challenge: If you won’t stand up now for the Arabs, Muslims and South Asians who are being held without any Constitutional rights for supposed association with terrorists, you wouldn't have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either. If you won’t stand up for Mumia Abu Jamal, the former Black Panther, journalist and exposer of the crimes of the Philadelphia Police Department who was railroaded and faces the death penalty for supposedly killing a Philadelphia police officer, you wouldn’t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either.

And if you won’t stand up against Bush’s endless war on whatever country is not bowing down to the dictates of the U.S. elite, you wouldn’t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti understood well that most wars are called for by the rich to protect their wealth, their oil wells, their sources of profit. We shouldn’t forget what they knew.

Long live the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti!
Free the detainees!
Free Mumia Abu Jamal!
Abolish the death penalty!
No to Bush’s war!


Speech by Juliet Ucelli, of Italian Americans for a Multicultural Society,
delivered in Union Square Park, New York City, August 23, 2002, 75th anniversary.

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