Howard Zinn: A Power Governments Cannot Suppress


Richard Moore

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A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
By Howard Zinn, City Lights
Posted on May 3, 2007, Printed on May 3, 2007

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 

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.

In their case, the unfairness was flagrant. They were being tried for robbery 
and murder, but in the minds, and in the behavior of the prosecuting attorney, 
the judge, and the jury, the important thing about them was that they were, as 
Upton Sinclair put it in his remarkable novel Boston, "wops," foreigners, poor 
workingmen, radicals.

Here is a sample of the police interrogation:

Police: Are you a citizen?

Sacco: No.

Police: Are you a Communist?

Sacco: No.

Police: Anarchist.

Sacco: No.

Police: Do you believe in this government of ours?

Sacco: Yes, Some things I like different.

What did these questions have to do with the robbery of a shoe factory in South 
Braintree, Massachusetts, and the shooting of a paymaster and a guard?

Sacco was lying, of course. No, I'm not a Communist. No, I'm not an anarchist. 
Why would he lie to the police? Why would a Jew lie to the Gestapo? Why would a 
black in South Africa lie to his interrogators? Why would a dissident in Soviet 
Russia lie to the secret police? Because they all know there is no justice for 

Has there ever been justice in the American system for the poor, the person of 
color, the radical? When the eight anarchists of Chicago were sentenced to death
after the Haymarket riot (a police riot, that is) of 1886, it was not because 
there was any proof of a connection between them and the bomb thrown in the 
midst of the police -- not a shred of evidence. It was because they were leaders
of the anarchist movement in Chicago.

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.

In Boston, five hundred were arrested, chained together and marched through the 
streets. Luigi Galleani, editor of the anarchist paper Cronaca Sovversiva, to 
which Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed, was picked up in Boston and quickly 

Something even more frightening had happened. A fellow anarchist of Sacco and 
Vanetti, a typesetter named Andrea Salsedo, who lied in New York, was kidnapped 
by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (I use the word "kidnapped" to
describe an illegal seizure of a person), and held in FBI offices on the 
fourteenth floor of the Park Row Building. He was not allowed to call his 
family, friends, or a lawyer, was questioned and beaten, according to a fellow 
prisoner. During the eighth week of his imprisonment, on May 3, 1920, the body 
of Salsedo, smashed to a pulp, was found on the pavement near the Park Row 
Building, and the FBI announced that he had committed suicide by jumping from 
the fourteenth floor window of the room in which they had kept him. This was 
just two days before Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested.

We know today, as a result of Congressional reports in 1975, of the FBI's 
COINTELPRO program in which FBI agents broke into people's homes and offices, 
carried out illegal wiretaps, were involved in acts of violence to the point of 
murder and collaborated with the Chicago police in the killing of two Black 
Panther leaders in 1969. The FBI and the CIA have violated the law again and 
again. There is no punishment for them.

There is little reason to have faith that the civil liberties of people in this 
country would be protected in the atmosphere of hysteria that followed 9/11 and 
continues to this day. At home there have been immigrant round-ups, indefinite 
detentions, deportations, and unauthorized domestic spying. Abroad there have 
extra-judicial killings, torture, bombings, war, and military occupations.

Likewise, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti began immediately after Memorial Day, 
a year and a half after the orgy of death and patriotism that was World War I, 
when the newspapers still vibrating with the roll of drums and the jingo 

Twelve days into the trial, the press reported that the bodies of three soldiers
had been transferred from the battlefields of France to the city of Brockton, 
and that the whole town had turned out for a patriotic ceremony. All of this was
in newspapers that members of the jury could read.

Sacco was cross-examined by prosecutor Katzmann:

Question: Did you love this country in the last week of May, 1917?

Sacco: That is pretty hard for me to say in one word, Mr. Katzmann.

Question: There are two words you can use, Mr. Sacco, yes or no. What one is it?

Sacco: Yes

Question: And in order to show your love for this United States of America when 
she was about to call upon you to become a soldier you ran away to Mexico?

At the beginning of the trial, Judge Thayer (who, speaking to a golf 
acquaintance, had referred to the defendants during the trial as "those 
anarchist bastards"), said to the jury: "Gentlemen, I call upon you to render 
this service here that you have been summoned to perform with the same spirit of
patriotism, courage and devotion to duty as was exhibited by our soldier boys 
across the seas."

The emotions evoked by a bomb that exploded at Attorney General Palmer's home 
during a time of war -- like emotions set loose by the violence of 9/11 -- 
created an anxious atmosphere in which civil liberties were compromised.

Sacco and Vanzetti understood that whatever legal arguments their lawyers could 
come up with would not prevail against the reality of class justice. Sacco told 
the court, on sentencing: "I know the sentence will be between two classes, the 
oppressed class and the rich class ... That is why I am here today on this 
bench, for having been of the oppressed class."

That viewpoint seems dogmatic, simplistic. Not all court decisions are explained
by it. But, lacking a theory that fits all cases, Sacco's simple, strong view is
surely a better guide to understanding the legal system than one which assumes a
contest among equals based on an objective search for truth.

Vanzetti knew that legal arguments would not save them. Unless a million 
Americans were organized, he and his friend Sacco would die. Not words, but 
struggle. Not appeals, but demands. Not petitions to the governor, but 
take-overs of the factories. Not lubricating the machinery of a supposedly fair 
system to make it work better, but a general strike to bring the machinery to a 

That never happened. Thousands demonstrated, marched, protested, not just in New
York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, but in London, Paris, Buenos Aires, 
South Africa. It wasn't enough. On the night of their execution, thousands 
demonstrated in Charlestown, but kept away from the prison by a huge assembly of
police. Protesters were arrested. Machine-guns were on the rooftops and great 
searchlights swept the scene.

A great crowd assembled in Union Square on August 23,1927. A few minutes after 
midnight, prison lights dimmed as the two men were electrocuted. The New York 
World described the scene: "The crowd responded with a giant sob. Women fainted 
in fifteen or twenty places. Others, too overcome, dropped to the curb and 
buried their heads in their hands. Men leaned on one anothers' shoulders and 

Their ultimate crime was their anarchism, an idea which today still startles us 
like a bolt of lightning because of its essential truth: we are all one, 
national boundaries and national hatreds must disappear, war is intolerable, the
fruits of the earth must be shared, and only through organized struggle against 
authority can such a world come about.

What comes to us today from the case of Sacco and Vanzetti is not just tragedy, 
but inspiration. Their English was not perfect, but when they spoke it was a 
kind of poetry. Vanzetti said of his friend Sacco:

Sacco is a heart, a faith, a character, a man; a man lover of nature and 
mankind. A man who gave all, who sacrifice all to the cause of liberty and to 
his love for mankind: money, rest, mundane ambition, his own wife, his children,
himself and his own life ... Oh yes, I may be more witful, as some have put it, 
I am a better babbler than he is, but many, many times, in hearing his heartful 
voice ring a faith sublime, in considering his supreme sacrifice, remembering 
his heroism I felt small, small at the presence of his greatness, and found 
myself compelled to fight back from my eyes the tears, quench my heart throbbing
to my throat to not weep before him -- this man called chief and assassin and 

Worst of all, they were anarchists, meaning they had some crazy notion of a full
democracy in which neither foreignness nor poverty would exist, and thought that
without these provocations, war among nations would end for all time. But for 
this to happen the rich would have to be fought and their riches confiscated. 
That anarchist idea is a crime much worse than robbing a payroll, and so to this
day the story of Sacco and Vanzetti cannot be recalled without great anxiety.

Sacco wrote to his son Dante: "So son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be
able to comfort your mother ... take her for a long walk in the quiet country, 
gathering wild flowers here and there, resting under the shade of trees ... But 
remember always, Dante, in this play of happiness, don't you use all for 
yourself only ... help the persecuted and the victim because they are your 
better friends .... In this struggle of life you will find more love and you 
will be loved."

Yes, it was their anarchism, their love for humanity, which doomed them. When 
Vanzetti was arrested, he had a leaflet in his pocket, advertising a meeting to 
take place in five days. It is a leaflet that could be distributed today, all 
over the world, as appropriate now as it was the day of their arrest. It read:

You have fought all the wars. You have worked for all the capitalists. You have 
wandered over all the countries. Have you harvested the fruits of your labors, 
the price of your victories? Does the part comfort you? Does the present smile 
on you? Does the future promise you anything? Have you found a piece of land 
where you can live like a human being and die like a human being? On these 
questions, on this argument, and on this theme, the struggle for existence, 
Bartolomeo Vanzetti will speak.

That meeting did not take place. But their spirit still exists today with people
who believe and love and struggle all over the world.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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