The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Political repression:
A long-standing American tradition

May 21, 2001

FBI and other government agencies have done a lot worse than just "forgetting" some documents. Different levels of police and courts have long been ready to persecute, assassinate, imprison and execute militants from the working class and oppressed layers of the population who dared challenge and organize against the social order the government defends. Ironically, this government has always claimed that it doesn't charge or prosecute people for "political crimes." Maybe not –it simply cloaks political repression by framing up militants of the working class or social movements on supposed "criminal" charges.

The numbers so persecuted run up into the thousands of people, ever since the period running from the "Haymarket" affair in May 1886.

Against the early workers movement

Thousands of workers in Chicago went on strike for the eight hour day. After an agent provocateur threw a bomb at some police at a rally for the strikers in Haymarket Square, the Chicago police arrested eight of the strike leaders, even though seven of the eight were not even present at the rally. After a campaign of hysteria directed at the strikers, four of the strike leaders were convicted and hanged, while the others were imprisoned. In 1893, John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois, released the three remaining prisoners, admitting that the trial had been a sham.

In 1912, a revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), led a strike by 40,000 textile workers, mainly women and children, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. After a cop shot and killed a striker, Anna Lopizzo, the police framed up two IWW leaders, Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti, for the murder. Nonetheless, the workers won the strike. During the trial of Ettor and Giovanitti, the workers protested the trial by going on strike again. This mobilization was a key reason why Ettor and Giovanitti were found not guilty.

Over the next few years, several more members of the IWW were framed up. In 1914, Joe Hill, a union leader and author of many famous IWW songs, was framed up in Salt Lake City for the murders of a grocer and his son. No witnesses could identify him as being anywhere near the store during the robbery. Yet, he was executed on November 9, 1915.

In 1916, Tom Mooney and Warren Billings were imprisoned, falsely accused of throwing a bomb at a pro-World War I parade in San Francisco. Mooney was on a roof of a building a mile away during the explosion. There was no physical evidence against him and Billings. The main witness who testified against them was an unemployed worker, who had been coached by Martin Swanson, an anti-labor private detective employed by Pacific Gas and Electric to keep out unions. Mooney and Billings were found guilty and held in prison until 1939.

In 1917, with the entry of the U.S. into World War I, the U.S. government directed waves of repression against the IWW, the Socialist Party and other organizations that opposed the war. After the war ended, the U.S. working class carried out one of its largest strike waves ever. At the same time, the communist and radical movements in this country, encouraged by the Russian Revolution of 1917, had begun to grow. The U.S. government's answer to this was the Red Scare of 1919 to 1920 engineered by Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. and his young assistant, J. Edgar Hoover. Thousands more militants were framed-up, deported and persecuted. In 1920, Nicolo Sacco and Bartlolmeo Vanzetti, were arrested in Boston, Massachusetts, accused of crimes they didn't commit: the robbery and murder of a shoe factory owner and his guard. Sacco and Vanzetti, anarchists, had been active in campaigns against the murder of a printer, Andrea Salsedo, who was thrown from an upper floor window to his death while in police custody, as well as the deportation of Roberto Elia, a radical who had been tortured by agents of the U.S. Justice Department. At the trial nine witnesses testified that Sacco was in another city when the crime was committed. And six more people swore on the stand that Vanzetti was selling fish in another city at the time of the murders. Nonetheless, they were found guilty. Said Judge Thayer, "This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions." Despite worldwide protests, they were executed in 1927. Only 60 years later did the state of Massachusetts finally exonerate Sacco and Vanzetti for the crimes.

Repression against Communists

In the following years, efforts by workers to organize unions in mass production industries were met by government frame-ups and vigilante violence. On April 1, 1929, 20,000 textile workers struck the largest textile mill in the country, Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina under the leadership of militants of the Communist Party. The governor of the state declared the strike to be a "a form of revolution" and sent in several units of the national guard to crush it. Picketing and parading were barred. Within two weeks of the strike, masked vigilantes sacked the union headquarters. On June 7, several drunken police officers shot each other, while trying to invade the Communist Party headquarters. The local police chief was killed, and three policemen and one striker were shot. Fifteen strikers were arrested for conspiracy leading to murder, but the case ended in a mistrial. After the verdicts, a reign of terror and mob violence convulsed Gastonia for several days. This was the prelude to new police arrests for the same police murders. Seven strikers were convicted in a second trial and they were sentenced from five to 20 years.

With the 1930s, a mass workers movement marked by factory occupations in some of the largest mass production industries swept much of the country. The movement continued after World War II, with the largest strike wave in this country's history. With the rise of the Cold War, the U.S. government set about breaking the movement and purging the big unions of communists and socialists in a new red scare that became known as the McCarthy Period. The most important trial that came out of this period was the 1950 prosecution of two members of the Communist Party, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of stealing atomic secrets –despite the fact that the theoretical basis behind the bomb was common knowledge among physicists. The government's case rested on the testimony of David Greenglass and Harry Gold. Greenglass was already in prison, and after the trial had his sentence cut in half. Gold, who was the only one who actually tied the Rosenbergs to any supposed espionage, had been prepared for testimony by 400 hours of interviews with the FBI, and at another trial admitted to being an inveterate liar. The main evidence was a piece of paper with a sketch on it which purported to be a sketch of the atomic bomb –a sketch which reputable physicists said, even at the time, was useless. Nonetheless, the Rosenbergs were found guilty. At the sentencing Judge Irving Kaufman, who it was later revealed held meetings with the FBI during the trial, not only blamed the Rosenbergs for allowing the Soviet Union to develop the atomic bomb, but also for causing "Communist aggression in Korea with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 Americans and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason." The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death and executed in 1953.

Against the black movement

In the 1950s and 60s, the black movement swept the country. One aspect of that movement was that a section of the prison population was radicalized. It was in that atmosphere that George Jackson, who had been in prison since age 15, began to read voraciously. Wrote Jackson, "I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me." His eloquent letters discussing the need for a social revolution were published in a book called Soledad Brother and became an international bestseller. In August 1970, Jackson's younger brother, Jonathan, took up a gun, entered a courtroom and took a judge captive in an attempt to free his brother. They both were killed in a hail of bullets by policemen. George Jackson wrote that he knew that the authorities would not let him live much longer. There had already been many black men before him murdered in prison. One year later, he was shot in the back by prison guards, who later claimed –in the fashion of all racists –that while searching Jackson they discovered a gun hidden in ... his Afro hair-style. The autopsy proved that the government's claims of what happened were false.

Underlying repression when there is no movement

Since the 1970s, social movements have subsided. But even during smaller movements, the police still use frame-ups to intimidate those who remain active. One such frame-up was engineered by the authorities against a militant of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Mark Curtis. In 1988, immigrant workers who worked in the meat packing plants in Des Moines, Iowa were holding meetings to organize against the deportation of 17 workers at Swift Company. Curtis, who worked at the meat packing plant, was active in that campaign. On March 4, Curtis was arrested on charges of rape. When Curtis asked to see a lawyer, one of the cops said, "You're one of those Mexican-lovers, aren't you. Just like you love the coloreds." When Curtis refused to respond to those "questions," the cops beat him, using a nightstick to break his cheekbone and cut his face. Curtis was convicted of a rape he didn't commit, and wound up serving eight years in prison.

Such notable political prisoners as Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier and Jamil Abdulla Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown) remain in prison to this day. Jamal faces the death penalty. Peltier, an activist with the American Indian Movement is serving a life sentence. Brown faces a trial in which he could receive the death penalty.

Officials may claim that there are no political trials in this country. The record shows that there are.