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30 September 2004 Edition

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Sacco & Vanzetti are gone

Book Review

Sacco & Vanzetti

Ocean Press/Pluto Books

I must admit that before reading this book, my knowledge of Sacco and Vanzetti stemmed only from the Christy Moore song. That seems all the more strange because I am an American of Italian descent who grew up in a staunch trade union household. After reading this offering from the Rebel Lives series of books, however, it became quite clear indeed why this was one of many stories that have never been part of the school curriculum in the US. Its protagonists are too radical, its exposure of fundamental flaws in the American justice system is too demoralising and its parallels to modern day events is too eerie.

What makes this book powerful is not just the story of two Italian immigrant working-class radicals wrongly convicted of robbery and murder who were fried in a Massachusetts electric chair in 1927, but the way we get to meet them through their own words in the form of letters from prison. We meet them first as fathers and husbands, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, inmates, optimists, pessimists and dreamers. The flawed English in their letters actually adds to the poetry driven by struggle and idealism. A particularly touching moment is Sacco's letter to his young daughter, who was born just after he went to prison.

From a republican viewpoint, the humanity in the face of death and struggle expressed in their prison letters have an uncanny resemblance to the prison writings of Nelson Mandela and Bobby Sands.

We are also introduced to other radicals of the day, like Socialist leader Eugene Debs, James Cannon (the founder of the US Communist Party) and Alice Stone Blackwell (feminist and suffragette). They and others across the US Labour Movement and indeed across the world, united in their protestations of the men's innocence and in their calls for the death sentence to be revoked.

As the book progresses, we get a glimpse of America in the early 1920s and begin to see the stark parallels to today. The story of Sacco & Venzetti is one of a country still coming to grips with itself and its place in the world. This was a country where the gap between rich and poor, between the powerful and the powerless was never more stark. This was a country whose business and political class used the fear generated by the Bolshevik Revolution to whip up hysteria in the form of the Red Scare in order to systematically attack trade unions, socialists, immigrants, anarchists or anyone deemed to be a threat to the capitalist status quo.

It's also a story of how the ruling class used every tool in their arsenal, the courts, the press and the politicians, to stifle debate, paint a picture of good people versus evildoers and completely ignore world opinion, as well as that of the US working class and their leaders, and put these innocent men to death.

In the last section of the book we get the full detail of why they were arrested, convicted and executed by the State. The seven-year drama of court case and appeals plays out like a far fetched Hollywood film. Unfortunately, it was all too real. Using excerpts from Harvard Professor Felix Frankfurter's definitive 1927 book on the men's case, it leaves no doubt in the reader's mind that this was one of the worst cases of injustice in US legal history.

Fifty years after the execution, in a justice-comes-dropping-slow moment, future Presidential nominee and then Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukasis, declared that the men had not had a fair trial.

Sacco & Vanzetti was an unexpected gem for me. It's a reminder of how important it is for people in struggle to write their stories, their journeys and their vision, not only for the benefit of people today, but for the future.


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