Howard Zinn: A power governments cannot suppress
Fifty years after the executions of Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts set up a panel to judge the fairness of the trial, and the conclusion was that the two men had not received a fair trial. This aroused a minor storm in Boston.
One letter, signed John M. Cabot, U.S. Ambassador Retired, declared his"great indignation" and pointed out that Governor Fuller's affirmation of the death sentence was made after a special review by"three of Massachusetts' most distinguished and respected citizens -- President Lowell of Harvard, President Stratton of MIT and retired Judge Grant."
Those three"distinguished and respected citizens" were viewed differently by Heywood Broun, who wrote in his column for the New York World immediately after the Governor's panel made its report. He wrote:
It is not every prisoner who has a President of Harvard University throw on the switch for him .... If this is a lynching, at least the fish peddler and his friend the factory hand may take unction to their souls that they will die at the hands of men in dinner jackets or academic gowns.
Heywood Broun, one of the most distinguished journalists of the twentieth century, did not last long as a columnist for the New York World.
On that fiftieth year after the execution, The New York Times reported that:"Plans by Mayor Beame to proclaim next Tuesday 'Sacco and Vanzetti Day' have been canceled in an effort to avoid controversy, a City Hall spokesman said yesterday."
There must be good reason why a case fifty-years-old, now over seventy-five years old, arouses such emotion. I suggest that it is because to talk about Sacco and Vanzetti inevitably brings up matters that trouble us today -- our system of justice, the relationship between war fever and civil liberties, and most troubling of all, the ideas of anarchism: the obliteration of national boundaries and therefore of war, the elimination of poverty, the creation of a full democracy.
The case of Sacco and Vanzetti revealed, in its starkest terms, that the noble words inscribed above our courthouses"Equal Justice Before the Law" have always been a lie. Those two men, the fish peddler and the shoemaker, could not get justice in the American system -- because justice is not meted out equally to the poor and the rich, the native-born and the foreign-born, the orthodox and the radical, the white and the person of color. And while injustice may play itself out today more subtly and in more intricate ways than it did in the crude circumstances of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, its essence remains....
When Eugene Debs and a thousand others were sent to prison during World War I, under the Espionage Act, was it because they were guilty of espionage? Hardly. They were socialists who spoke out against the war. In affirming the ten-year sentence of Debs, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made it clear why Debs must go to prison. He quoted from Debs' speech:"The master class has always declared the wars, the subject class has always fought the battles."
Holmes, much admired as one of our great liberal jurists, made clear the limits of liberalism, its boundaries set by a vindictive nationalism. After all the appeals of Sacco and Vanzetti had been exhausted, the case was put before Holmes, sitting on the Supreme Court. He refused to review the case, thus letting the verdict stand.
In our time, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair. Was it because they were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union? Or was it because they were Communists, as the prosecutor made clear, with the approval of the judge? Was it also because the country was in the midst of anti-Communist hysteria, Communists had just taken power in China, there was a war in Korea, and the weight of all that could be borne by two American Communists?
Why was George Jackson, in California, sentenced to ten years in prison for a seventy-dollar robbery, and then shot to death by guards? Was it because he was poor, black, and radical?
Can a Muslim today, in the atmosphere of the"war on terrorism" be given equal justice before the law? Why was my upstairs neighbor, a dark-skinned Brazilian who might look like a Middle East Muslim, pulled out of his car by police, though he had violated no regulation, and questioned and humiliated?
Why are the two million people in American jails and prisons, and six million people under parole, probation, or surveillance, disproportionately people of color, disproportionately poor? A study showed that seventy percent of the people in New York state prisons came from seven neighborhoods in New York City-neighborhoods of poverty and desperation.
Class injustice cuts across every decade, every century of our history. In the midst of the Sacco Vanzetti case, a wealthy man in the town of Milton, south of Boston, shot and killed a man who was gathering firewood on his property. He spent eight days in jail, then was let out on bail, and was not prosecuted. The district attorney called it"justifiable homicide." One law for the rich, one law for the poor-a persistent characteristic of our system of justice.
But being poor was not the chief crime of Sacco and Vanzetti. They were
Italians, immigrants, anarchists. It was less than two years from the
end of the first World War. They had protested against the war. They
had refused to be drafted. They saw hysteria mount against radicals and
foreigners, observed the raids carried out by Attorney General Palmer's
agents in the Department of Justice, who broke into homes in the middle
of the night without warrants, held people incommunicado, and beat them
with clubs and blackjacks....
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