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Only in America - Episode Two: Anarchists Amok in The Era of Normalcy

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Sacco and Vanzetti
Sacco and Vanzetti
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"If the purpose of the US judicial to ensure that all factual evidence surrounding an alleged crime or crimes be accurately and fairly presented so that the jurors can properly assess the best semblance of the truth...this trial was a complete travesty of justice.... [I]f a basic tenet of the justice system... holds that a defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty, then again this verdict outcome is an obscene farce and a shameful joke exposing America's justice system for its gross injustice." Joachim Hagopian, "Death Penalty for Boston Marathon Suspect Drives Nail in the Coffin of US Justice System", Global Research, May 16, 2015.


Anarchists Anomalous - Viva l'anarchia!

Like the Scopes Monkey Trial showcased in Episode One, the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial provides some illuminating insights into America then and now. The author of the seminal The People's History of the United States Howard Zinn, after noting that the case was one he would talk about as often as he could, said that, "[T]here's always something that happens in the daily newspaper that brings the case to mind."

We will come back to Zinn's comment shortly. But it is instructive to note at the outset that issues like social justice, economic equality, legal equity, political freedom, national security, racial vilification, religious prejudice, media bias, official corruption, xenophobia, along with manipulation of public opinion through fear, intolerance, bigotry, ignorance, all prevailed during the so-called era of normalcy. And the Sacco and Vanzetti case -- an event that came to be associated with the era possibly moreso than any other -- was the whole 'pecan pie', and then some.

Prior to relating the backstory of this trial -- arguably one of the most significant of the twentieth century -- an understanding of where the country was at is crucial to appreciating its significance. Memory lane, here we come again.

After the end of the War to End all Wars and into the 1920's there was widespread industrial, political and social unrest in America. Along with the violence and bitter animosity between social groups, there was political persecution, social ostracism and extreme religious intolerance bordering on fascism. It was no accident that the halcyon days of the Ku Klux Klan -- itself no less than a cult that embraced most if not all these prejudices and animosities -- coincided with the era of normalcy, with some estimates putting their membership at upwards of 6,000,000 nationwide around the mid-1920s.

This wide-ranging disenchantment and deep seated unrest was not just confined to America of course, nor was it entirely homegrown by any means. In the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, socialism, communism (and to a lesser degree, anarchism) became the ideological rallying focal points of most political radicals and many disparate labor and civil liberty groups in the U.S. Those folks who supported these manifestations of political radicalism in general (or were even suspected of being supporters or sympathisers), were singled out for ostracism by both state and Federal authorities. In the land of free speech, free choice and free association though, this was of course, something to behold.

It is of interest also to note that such was the nature of the political zeitgeist, the career of one J Edgar Hoover was launched around this time as a direct result of U.S. Federal authorities' strategy for dealing with the perceived social unrest and disaffection, and political subversion, of the times. As the first director of what was to eventually become the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), fighting subversives, radicals and political malcontents of all sorts, shapes and sizes was something the redoubtable Hoover proceeded -- for better or worse -- to carve an almost half century career from. His legacy of course is alive and well.

To be sure we cannot escape the conclusion it was precisely because America portrayed itself in such mythical, idyllic terms and yet in so many ways failed abysmally to turn that myth, or ideal, into an achievable reality, [that] it endured more than its share of political foment and social turmoil. This was especially for those "poor, tired and hungry" folks not born in America but who came to 'dine out' on all that the "myth" purportedly offered.

As a result, the immigration debate became increasingly inflamed, and America 'decided' that enough was enough! They no longer were prepped to readily accept, much less welcome, the "huddled masses longing to be free". This was especially so if they weren't white, protestant and/or didn't come from western or northern Europe. From this came an immigration quota system, which in effect restricted many folks who'd hitherto viewed America as a beacon of freedom, democracy, human rights and civil liberties, and a magnet for those wanting a better life, whether measured in social, political or economic terms.

For its part, the hapless labor movement in the U.S. -- for good reason a hotbed for much of the fervour and unrest around this time -- suffered another setback when early in 1920, thousands of recent immigrants and US citizens alike were detained for allegedly subversive activity. In the process many were denied the inalienable rights that quite a few probably didn't even know existed or that they were entitled to. Over 500 of these folks were summarily deported back to where they came from, summarily denying them the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, to say little of the basic rule of law. Because many of these people were associated with the labor movement and/or were considered to be radicals, communists, or their supporters and sympathisers (read: "un-American"), union membership dropped precipitously and Union influence, such as it was, further deteriorated.

The Great Red Scare

For the labor movement this development was once again a case of one step forward and two steps back, another nail in the coffin of employee justice and workplace equity. As employers grew stronger and more demanding, so did the unions' influence over the workers' conditions and their treatment in the workplace grow weaker and less effective.

In 1920, union membership in the US was over 6 million; as a result of the so-called Red Scare, and the accompanying intimidation and harassment by authorities, the enthusiasm for active union participation waned considerably. Rank and file numbers sank like a stone such that around three years later, there were little more than 3.5 million members.

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Greg Maybury is a Perth (Australia) based freelance writer. His main areas of interest are American history and politics in general, with a special focus on economic, national security, military and geopolitical affairs, and both US domestic and (more...)

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