Spectacle

After World War One, the general feeling in America had shifted toward reactionary. The lofty ideals that brought America into the “War to End all Wars,” had vanished. Most Americans believed entering had been a colossal mistake, one never to repeat. Additional fear emerged from those war years, in the wake of 1917’s Russian Revolution. The Tsar had been murdered, and Bolshevism appeared a threat to American capitalism. 

Immigration, and revolutionary politics melded together solidifying an isolated, and intolerant America. 

Deep suspicion of foreigners, most poor and radical, reminded white, Protestant citizens of what they didn’t want. Nativist Americans did not welcome these newcomers, and isolationism settled across the county, governing public sentiment for two decades.

In this atmosphere a crime was committed. 

South of Boston, in 1920, two employees of a shoe factory were robbed and murdered. Soon after two Italian immigrants, self professed radicals were arrested. Their names were Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. 

Public sentiment weighed heavily against the pair, and a fair trial appeared unreachable. Once underway, guilt or innocence became irrelevant, the burden of proof centered on who these men were, not anything they had done. The Judge, Webster Thayer presided, and made clear right away he believed the two were guilty. For example, on a weekend train to a Boston golf course, Judge Thayer publicly  announced to all listening, both men were going to be executed. 

The trial took on a Star Chamber quality, riddled with doctored evidence, and perjury. 

Both defendants protested their innocence, but to no avail. Judge Thayer had made up his mind. Sacco and Vanzetti would die for who they were; Italian, radical, and Roman Catholic.

In 1927, seven years after the robbery and murder, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair.

By 1977 gun experts concluded that Vanzetti may have indeed been involved in the crime, but certainly not Sacco. Even so, both men did not receive a fair trial, and that stigma has become forever linked to the case.

Judge Bruce Schroeder, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, is currently presiding over the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Similarities to Sacco & Vanzetti are striking in that the judge, again makes no pretense of impartiality. 

This time the judge favors the defendant, and is making little effort to hide it. Those that Rittenhouse killed were shot protesting social injustice, but Judge Schroeder has instructed the jury not to consider the deceased as “victims.”

Politics today are running as hot as 100 years ago. The political discord is just as racially and politically fueled as when those two Italian immigrants were arrested in 1920. 

So little seems to have changed after a century. Though the whole Rittenhouse trial is visibly tainted and the world is again watching, Crabby Judge Schroeder, as with Judge Thayer, shows no awareness that this trial is inherently unfair. 

So the spectacle repeats, much as a 100 years ago; justice denied due to racism, hubris, fear, and intolerance. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Gail has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” on the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” a narrative of slavery.

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