I saw the documentary Sacco and Vanzetti last night. It’s the story of two Italian-American anarchists wrongly accused in 1920 of a robbery and murder they clearly did not commit, prosecuted by racist lawyers and cops who lied deliberately and forged evidence, and condemned to the electric chair by a right wing judge and white, Anglo-Saxon jury who just wanted to see them fry.
Despite the fact that these two guys were outer-circle anarchists and to the far left of most Americans, thousands of good people came to their defense during their life, and hundreds of great artists and musicians, including Woody Guthrie (an aside: I wonder if Woody Allen hates him for inspiring Johnny Cash?) and Ennio Morricone, made art in tribute to them.
This made me think of modern times, and made me really depressed. There was a time when dissent was seen as patriotic, as much a civic duty as voting. During the footage in this documentary, you can see men in suits and women in neat dresses holding picket signs, attending rallies, and not just in the U.S. but abroad as well. For seven years in the twenties, people followed the story of these martyrs and contributed with letter writing, protests, and contributions to their legal funds. When did such protesting become seen as a hippy-dippy thing?
Truth is, there are millions of protestors in this country who have taken to the streets protesting the war, protesting this administrations treatment of women’s reproductive health, protesting our inability to handle environmental crises–but they are painfully marginalized by the press and by our pundits. Newspapers back in the day may have been sensational, but they knew how to sensationalize real news, telling Sacco and Vanzetti’s story as well as the details of the protests they spurred on in every grim detail, compelling readers to follow what was happening. The modern press prefers to gloss over warts-and-all stories of graft, corruption, and bloody opportunism by sensationalizing the lives of actresses in their early twenties and the men and drugs they use. It sickens me and makes me wonder whether life in the 1920’s, even with the blatant racism of the times, might have been a better time for democracy than what we have now.