Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sacco and Vanzetti

SACCO AND VANZETTI     B+                                
USA  (80 mi)  2006  d:  Peter Miller

The State is the coldest of all cold monsters. 
—Friedrich Nietzsche

A portrait of two Italian immigrants in the 1920’s whose political beliefs contrasted against the jingoistic prevailing tide at the end of WWI, beliefs which were used to convict two known anarchists as murderers, caught up in a witch hunt hysteria of rampant racism and xenophobia known as the First Red Scare of 1919-20, accused of crimes they probably never committed, eventually electrocuted by the State of Massachusetts despite an outcry of personal appeals as well as protests and demonstrations from around the world.   The story of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti is revived here in this Peter Miller documentary, a longtime Ken Burns collaborator, which is told in a conventional manner, using archival photographs, two actors, Tony Shalhoub as Sacco and John Turturro as Vanzetti, reading articulate renditions of their written letters and offering typical supporting comments from family members, such as Sacco’s niece, as well as historians offering their views, actually moving the normally unflappable Howard Zinn to tears at one point, but nonetheless the content is rich in detail and nothing less than remarkable.  The images of the public demonstrations alone showing the huge masses of people around the world protesting against their scheduled execution by the State of Massachusetts in 1927 was simply stunning.  The U.S. embassy in Paris had to be surrounded by tanks to protect it from an angry crowd of protestors, a riot in London resulted in 40 injuries, the U.S. Consulate in Geneva, Switzerland was surrounded by a 5,000 strong crowd, while huge crowds wearing black armbands marched in Boston and New York.  The public outcry didn’t end with their deaths, but has continued to plague the notion of an America with equal justice for all. 

Sacco and Vanzetti were committed anarchists who had been active in many workers’ demonstrations, which is how they met, as Vanzetti was one of the principle organizers of a labor strike in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Severe poverty after WWI, a war that anarchists actively opposed, left many workers dissatisfied with unfair working conditions.  Miller does an excellent job revealing how Italians at the time were the hated immigrant group, how this shifts over time, placing this in context with blacks accused of rape in the Jim Crow South or the prevailing views to stigmatize many innocent victims with the label of terrorist sympathizer, depriving them of basic civil rights, in some cases never even filing charges against them, but detaining them indefinitely anyway, perhaps even subjecting them to torture, all in the name of national security.  This film asks the question, but what if the government is wrong?  Who corrects the damage that is done if the State convicts, detains, tortures, or even executes the wrong man?  Such was the alleged fate of Sacco and Vanzetti, spurred on by a fictionalized novel by Upton Sinclair in 1928 entitled Boston:  A Novel, which decried what has become viewed as a complete breakdown of law, a trial that discredited actual Italian witnesses at the trial, where twelve of Vanzetti’s customers (he worked as a fish seller) testified that he was delivering fish to them at the time of the crime, but accepted the statements from many non-credible witnesses, using a biased judge and jury whose hatred for the beliefs of these men was paramount in finding them guilty. 

To further decorate their ruling with a ribbon and a bow, they formed a commission to examine any evidence of bias at the trial, chaired by President Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, a man who made his millions exploiting immigrant labor in his textile mills, who simply rubber stamped the conviction, which left a lasting impression that remains to this day, sarcastically rendered in the painting of Ben Shahn, "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,"  which shows the two in their coffins as those prominent in their conviction and execution stand by, clad in top hats and formal dress or, in the case of Harvard President Lowell who chaired the commission which found no evidence of bias in the trial or appeals process, in academic robes.  Behind them, in a courthouse portal, is a portrait of Judge Webster Thayer, the who presided over the trial and the appeal process, who said of Vanzetti: “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”  The foreman of the jury, a retired policeman, said in response to a friend of his who ventured the opinion that Sacco and Vanzetti might be innocent, “Damn them.  They ought to hang anyway.”  Having sentenced the two men to death, the judge boasted to a friend, “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day?”  A chilling reminder of justice gone wrong, the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti was proof that in the so-called land of the free, freedom of thought and freedom of expression had been reduced to empty rhetoric and hollow phrases. 

Justice Denied in Massachusetts

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting-room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under the cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them. 

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting-room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted —
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain. 

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited —  
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued —
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does not overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under. 

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

"Justice Denied in Massachusetts," Edna St Vincent Millay, published in the New York Times, August 22, 1927, on the eve of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution

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