82-year-old Skeletons in a 19-year-old’s Closet By Dave

Eighty-two years ago, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts executed two Italian immigrants. The arrest, trial and conviction of the co-defendants were permeated with bias against immigrants, against Italians, against workers, and against radicals. The judge sentenced them both to death for a payroll robbery and murder that few actually believe they committed.

Does this story sound familiar? Could it be something the Globe ran a few weeks ago? Such was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian Anarchists executed for the murder of a paymaster and guard in South Braintree, MA.

It was called the most important trial of the 20th century, the greatest miscarriage of justice in American history, the case that will not die, and the themes of the trial still resonate today. Every aspect of the judicial process, from the arrest to the execution, was driven by prejudice, and the bureaucrats responsible for the condemnation of Sacco and Vanzetti were ruthless. Judge Webster Thayer was a staunchly conservative `hanging judge’ whose rulings came down like an iron fist. After denying five motions for a new trial in 1924, Thayer was heard to remark to a colleague, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while!” Thayer sentenced the men to death based on fabricated evidence, the coercion of witnesses, and the dismissal of working class Italian witnesses, all of which were antics orchestrated by the other man culpable for the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti.

The District Attorney of Norfolk and Plymouth Counties was Frederick Katzmann, who stirred up biases and hatred against immigrant radicals and called upon the jurors’ patriotism, calling for them to stand together against the threat that radicals and immigrants posed to the American way of life. Frederick Katzmann was an ill-hearted villain in the trial. Frederick Katzmann was also my Great-Great-Grandfather. As an Anarchist with Italian heritage, I was taught from a young age that my ancestor Fredrick Katzmann did the right thing in the trial.

My family, and my mother especially, kept our lineage secret for a long time, fearing repression, which, perhaps, was not unjustified at first; Thayer’s house was bombed in 1932 and Katzmann’s home was guarded by a police detail until 1933. But in 2009, from whom does she fear repression? Perhaps from the stereotypical Italian Mafia that one watches in the movies? Perhaps from the very same Anarchists whose ranks I have joined? I personally have no idea. But the family lies and fear stop here. I do not respect or admire Frederick Katzmann, but instead I seek to continue the legacy of struggle left by Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

The oppressive systems from the 1920s have changed all too little. The state is still free to kill whomever it sees fit, whether utilizing its judicial system or not. Though today’s immigrants tend to come from other parts of the world, they are still discriminated against, subject to raids, rounded up and deported en masse. Unnervingly, today’s immigrants, coming largely from Latin America and the Caribbean, are persecuted by Irish cops, Italian judges and
descendants of other oppressed European immigrants, elevated to these positions of authority now that the definition of whiteness has expanded to include them.

Justice for the working poor remains elusive while the state has extravagant means of repressing radicals who challenge the root causes of tyranny and threaten the status quo. As long as folks like my Great-Great-Grandfather stay in control of the system, we don’t have a chance. Worldwide, though, resistance is burning as bright as the heart of every person who stands against oppression. Now is the time to overcome our past to build a better future.
* A General Anarchist Union in the Boston Area

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