Daniel Lang/Levitsky: Sacco & Vanzetti ... Smeared Again

Roundup: Talking About History

Daniel Lang/Levitsky is a theatre artist and organizer based in NYC. Recent work appears in Representing Sacco and Vanzetti (ed. Trasciatti & Delameter), What Democracy Looks Like (ed. Lang & Tichi), and Bridges/Brikn/Puentes. Lang/Levitsky is active in Jews Against the Occupation – NYC, the Mehmet Tarhan Defense Network, white picket fences and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

A recent Los Angeles Times story, summarized in the “Breaking News” section of History News Network claims that a newly unearthed letter by Upton Sinclair sheds new light on the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

The supposed new discoveries presented in the piece are, however, at best rehashed, certainly questionable, and meet no standard of historical value - except perhaps in the study of outdated rumor.

According to Paul Avrich's Sacco & Vanzetti, as early as the publication of his novel Boston, Upton Sinclair claimed that Fred Moore had told him that his former clients Sacco and Vanzetti were involved in a dynamite plot, and that the "radical literature" they were picking up when arrested had in fact been bomb-making materials. I am inclined to think that the letter at the heart of the LA Times piece may just be a restatement of this same old claim of Sinclair's.

But it is unclear when that conversation between Moore and Sinclair took place, and equally uncertain when the 'revelation' mentioned in the letter (if it was a separate event) happened. That uncertainty makes either claim extremely dubious, given that Moore left Sacco and Vanzetti's case on quite bad terms with them and the defense committee. Joughin and Morgan's The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti, and all the other standard works on the case, make it very clear that Fred Moore was both a theatrical courtroom performer and a man who held grudges - and that he was extremely bitter towards his ex-clients after leaving the case.

There's a decent amount of evidence (enough to persuade Avrich, whose book is in turn quite convincing) that Sacco and Vanzetti's circle was involved in militant actions. Taking them seriously as the revolutionary anarchists they were makes the traditional pacifist hagiography of them as peaceful martyrs untenable in any case (here and here). But a hostile ex-counsel with a flair for the dramatic simply isn't a trustworthy source for even that. And the assumption that their Gruppo Autonomo di East Boston was involved in preparing or storing explosives makes it all the more unlikely that any of them would be stupid enough to participate in a daylight robbery.

More to the point: regardless of what Fred Moore and Upton Sinclair said or believed, all of the actual evidence presented in the case shows the same thing now that it did in 1920, in 1957, and in 1977, when Governor Dukakis formally exonerated Sacco and Vanzetti, fifty years after their judicial murder. At the time of the robbery for which they were framed, Nicola Sacco was in Boston visiting the Italian consulate, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was selling eels. The serious study of history insists that we live in an evidence-based reality, not a rumor- or faith-based one. It is a shame to see a reputable newspaper peddling obsolete tales as rank as this one.

But it is a testimony to the continuing relevance of the Sacco/Vanzetti case that some seventy-eight years after they were electrocuted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, there are those still grasping at straws to “prove” their guilt. Even a blog entry quite critical of the LA Times report follows the prevailing wind in mixing the evidence that Sacco and Vanzetti were involved in bomb plots that led to no arrests with the lack of evidence that they had anything to do with the payroll robbery for which they were arrested.

In 2005, as in 1920, anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria follow in the wake of a manufactured war. Sacco and Vanzetti told inconsistent stories and denied their political views when arrested, in large part because a friend of theirs, Andrea Salsedo, had been thrown to his death from a 14th-story window after eight weeks of unlawful detention in New York City. A. Mitchell Palmer’s Justice Department had not discovered on the Ashcroft/Gonzales solution of placing such detainees in offshore prisons.

So it is perhaps not surprising that an attempt to smear the memory of these two Italian immigrant anarchists should accompany the present round-ups. Though this time the targets are primarily Muslim, Arab, and South Asian immigrants rather than Italians, Russians, and Jews, the xenophobic nationalist rhetoric and disregard for justice have hardly changed at all.

Nor is today’s rapidly growing anarchist movement escaping unscathed. The Justice Department awards the title of most significant domestic terrorist threat not to the right-wing Christian organizations involved in the Oklahoma City bombing and numerous smaller bombings of reproductive health clinics, but to radical environmental groups who have never killed a single person. The recent series of nationwide raids following indictments for environmental direct actions targeted anti-authoritarian activists involved in political prisoner support work, protests against the 2004 Republican National Convention, and infoshop projects. One of those arrested has since turned up dead in his cell. As in Andrea Salsedo’s case, William Rodgers’ death has been ruled a suicide.

Those committed to the defense of the targets of today’s anti-immigrant and anti-radical frenzies can learn a great deal from Sacco and Vanzetti’s lives, as well as their case and its aftermath. Their last words to their comrades are the strongest statement of what they lived for, and the beliefs for which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts murder them: “la salute è in voi” – “health is within you.”

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