SACCO AND VANZETTI- THE CASE THAT WILL NOT DIE NOR SHOULD IT
SACCO AND VANZETTI, PETER MILLER, 2006
I have used some of the points mentioned here in previous reviews of books about the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
Those familiar with the radical movement know that at least once in every generation a political criminal case comes up that defines that era. One thinks of the Haymarket Martyrs in the 19th century, the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930's, the Rosenbergs in the post-World War II Cold War period and today Mumia Abu-Jamal. In America after World War I when the Attorney General Palmer-driven ‘red scare’ brought the federal government’s vendetta against foreigners, immigrants and militant labor fighters to a white heat that generation's case was probably the most famous of them all, Sacco and Vanzetti. The exposure of the raw tensions within American society that came to the surface as a result of that case is the subject of the film under review.
Using documentary footage, reenactment and ‘talking head’ commentary by interested historians, including the well-known author of popular America histories Howard Zinn, the director Peter Miller and his associates bring this case alive for a new generation to examine. In the year 2007 one of the important lessons for leftists to be taken from the case is the question of the most effective way to defend such working class cases. I will address that question further below but here I wish to point out that the one major shortcoming of this film is a lack of discussion on that issue. I might add that this is no mere academic issue as the current case of the death-row prisoner, militant journalist Mumia-Abu-Jamal, graphically illustrates. Notwithstanding that objection this documentary is a very satisfactory visual presentation of the case for those not familiar with it.
A case like that of Sacco and Vanzetti, accused, convicted and then executed in 1927 for a robbery and double murder committed in a holdup of a payroll delivery to a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920, does not easily conform to any specific notion that the average citizen today has of either the state or federal legal system. Nevertheless, one does not need to buy into the director’s overall thesis that the two foreign-born Italian anarchists in 1920 were railroaded to know that the case against them 'stunk' to high heaven. And that is the rub. Even a cursory look at the evidence presented (taking the state of jurisprudence at that time into consideration) and the facts surrounding the case would force the most mildly liberal political type to know the “frame” was on.
Everyone agrees, or should agree, that in such political criminal cases as Sacco and Vanzetti every legal avenue including appeals, petitions and seeking grants of clemency should be used in order to secure the goal, the freedom of those imprisoned. This film does an adequate job of detailing the various appeals and other legal wrangling that only intensified as the execution neared. Nevertheless it does not adequately address a question that is implicit in its description of the fight to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. How does one organize and who does one appeal to in a radical working class political defense case?
The film spends some time on the liberal local Boston defense organizations and the 'grandees' and other celebrities who became involved in the case, and who were committed almost exclusively to a legal defense strategy. It does not, however, pay much attention to the other more radical elements of the campaign that fought for the pair’s freedom. It gives short shrift to the work of the Communists and their International Red Aid (the American affiliate was named the International Labor Defense and headed by Communist leader James P. Cannon, a man well-known in anarchist circles and a friend of Carlos Tresca, a central figure in the defense case) that organized meetings, conferences and yes, political labor strikes on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, especially in Europe. The tension between those two conceptions of political defense work still confronts us to day as we fight the seemingly never-ending legal battles thrown up since 9/11 for today’s Sacco and Vanzetti’s- immigrants, foreigners and radicals (some things do not change with time). If you want plenty of information on the Sacco and Vanzetti case and an interesting thesis about its place in radical history, the legal history of Massachusetts and the social history of the United States this is not a bad place to stop. Hopefully it will draw the viewer to read one or more of the many books on the case. Honor the Memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.