i had almost finished the essay below on radical history, martyrology, hagiography, and the ‘reconviction process’ last friday. that night, i heard that one of the people killed that afternoon in oaxaca by mexican government paramilitaries was someone i knew. as i thought about these most recent murders in the attack on the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), and about the way that the death of a u.s. citizen abroad changes the kind of attention that a place and its struggles receive, i realized that a lot of what went through my head was exactly what i’d been writing before i heard the news.

i don’t want to use this space to tell the story of brad will’s death, and i don’t feel capable of doing justice to the story of the most recent events in the months-long oaxacan uprising. but i do want to introduce this piece through the lens of what happened on october 27, 2006 in oaxaca, and what we are doing in response to it.

the state kills our comrades; it gives us martyrs. that is its crime, its responsibility. what we do with their deaths and lives afterward is our own. do we decide that ‘the story’ is how they were murdered, or how they contributed to the struggle? do we focus on the death of the person that those in power might care about – for reasons of racism, patriarchy, nationalism, professional privilege – or use that interest to direct public attention more broadly? do we speak nothing but good of the dead, transforming our martyrs into saints, or point out their failings so that their posthumous prestige does not attach to all aspects of their lives?

with brad will, as with rachel corrie and carlo giuliani, these are our choices to make – we are still alive to make them. the response to brad’s murder so far has shown all sides of this, choices i would call good, choices i would call bad. the many demonstrations responding to brad’s death have brought the attention to the APPO’s struggle that he went to oaxaca to help bring (as he had gone to many other places). but some have focused on him far more than the oaxacan comrades who have been gunned down in far greater numbers – and no such nationwide actions replied to previous attacks in which no one from the u.s. died. and at least on the person-to-person level within his community, folks have not insisted on brad’s perfection (though at least one published article has dismissed all critique of him as rooted in jealousy). i hope that this continues, and that in time criticisms too become part of the conversation about brad’s life and death – whitewashing our memories is no way to learn from our comrades.

so: here’s the essay, more or less as it stood on friday, october 27, 2006.

august 22, 2006 marked the 79th anniversary of the murder of bartolomeo vanzetti and nicola sacco in dedham, massachusetts. the two italian immigrant anarchists were sent to the electric chair after a seven year imprisonment following their arrest during the attack on radicals and immigrants that peaked after world war I. if you are a child of a leftist household, or a fan of holly near & ronnie gilbert, you’re probably nodding along by now, and trying to guess my point in bringing up this twice-told tale.

i’ll leave you in suspense about that for a moment more, and instead explain the occasion for writing this – which also conveniently gets me off the hook of giving a more complete explanation of the history and case for those to whom these names are new.

peter miller’s new film, sacco and vanzetti has been circling the festival circuit this year, and now apparently will soon be scheduled for a theatrical release. rather than being consigned to late-night PBS or screenings in campus auditoria and radical bookstores, a feature-length film about the most famous victims of the First Red Scare will be coming soon to a theater near you. and it’s quite good, too. go to http://www.saccoandvanzettifilm.com and find the theater closer to you. and then go, immediately.

the film lays out the story of the international cause celebre known as the Sacco/Vanzetti Case – the two men’s arrest and interrogation, framing for a payroll robbery, trial before a xenophobic judge and jingoistic jury, struggle for exoneration, reconviction by a blue-ribbon panel of the governor’s cronies, and deaths – in clear, persuasive, and elegantly arranged footage. it also does justice as well as any ninety-minute movie can to the historical context: the Red Scare, the war, the anti-immigrant frenzy; the militant anarchist sphere sacco and vanzetti worked in, their italian immigrant communities, the tensions between different radical movements raised by the case. and, equally importantly, the analogies and connections between the political climates of 1920 and 2006 are made explicit from the film’s first images on. all are covered enough to make the two men’s lives, not just their deaths, real and current.

which leads me to my purpose. i don’t want to write about the Sacco/Vanzetti Case – my one criticism of the film is that it is weighted towards an account of the trial rather than of two lives in struggle. and if i were to write on their lives, i could do little more than summarize the research in the fantastic sacco and vanzetti: the anarchist context, by the great radical historial paul avrich z?l.

what i want to do, aside from plugging peter miller’s film, is use the story of vanzetti and sacco as a chance to talk about how history is told, and radical history as it’s told among radicals, in particular.

in a strange mirroring of the conservative ‘great man’ approach to history, radical history often gets told through martyrology. we are far more likely to know the names of albert parsons, joe hill, malcom x than marie equi, carlo tresca, fannie lou hamer. one of the effects of this rather problematic dynamic is to make add importance to one frequent feature of the public recounting of radical history, which some historians have called ‘the reconviction process’.

‘reconviction’ is the attempt by the right (usually in the guise of ‘impartial scholarship’ and ‘new research’, and occasionally also ‘greater distance and objectivity’) to assert the guilt of someone framed for a crime, subjected to an unjust trial, and/or executed for their political beliefs or actions. recent examples include the use of the “Venona intercepts? to assert ethel and julius rosenberg’s guilt and ‘new’ claims about sacco and vanzetti. it pretty much invariably focuses on the details of the alleged crime itself, ignoring the conduct of the trial and the context of political (and usually racial/ethnic) persecution. it tends to be striking for its seeming gratuitousness, given that its named targets are already dead.

but its importance is exactly in those omissions. the reconviction process is one of reducing lives in the struggle to the legal minutiae of a criminal case. it aims precisely to take out of the public conversation the movements that murdered radicals devoted their lives to, along with the histories of state attacks on political movements and the systemic problems with the u.s. legal system which their cases tend to make visible. which is why responding to reconviction efforts is important, and why it is depressing to see progressive publications give in to them (as Jewish Currents did earlier this year in relation to the rosenbergs [gerald sorin, “the red scare and the red menace?, march/april 2006]).

but parallel to reconviction processes and efforts to combat them lies another effect of the martyrological approach to radical history – a certain reluctance to find fault with the dead comrades who stand in for the past of our movements. the state gives us martyrs; we often try to make them into saints. this can take many forms.

one common move towards hagiography, especially in relation to the targets of reconviction efforts, is to describe their politics, or at least their actions, in ways that render them unthreatening. vanzetti, for instance, is often depicted as a philosophical anarchist on the model of leo tolstoy. in fact, he (as well as sacco) was part of the revolutionary anarchist circle around luigi galleani, who gave the immediate use of violence against state and capitalist targets a key strategic role. tolstoy’s pacifism and quietism were at the precise opposite pole of the anarchist spectrum to vanzetti’s position. the galleanisti, including vanzetti and sacco’s Gruppo Autonomo di East Boston, are likely to have been behind the unsuccessful 1920 bombing campaign targeting the politicians responsible for the First Red Scare (which peaked as world war I ended), starting with attorney general a. mitchell palmer. the tendency to adopt the fabricated journalistic label of “poor fish peddler and good shoemaker? for vanzetti and sacco rather than ‘revolutionary militants and not-so-competent bombers’ is perhaps understandable. but it also both misrepresents and insults the memory of two radicals committed to bringing about the social revolution by any means necessary. radical history can look sadly – and falsely – bland through the lens created by this moderating impulse.

an area where the urge to sanctify our martyrs becomes particularly toxic, predictably enough, is that of sexuality. any hint of ‘deviance’ or impropriety is often swept into hiding, denied against all evidence, or blamed on provocateurs. this cleansing is also often applied to those close to the martyrs, especially widows left by murdered men.

these dynamics have had comparatively little place in sacco and vanzetti’s afterlife. the main exception has been the treatment of rosina, nicola sacco’s partner. first of all, she is generally described as his wife – a category they, like most of their immigrant anarchist circles, absolutely rejected. she may have been described so in court documents, and they may have been formally married for pragmatic reasons, but their union was one of “free comradeship?, not within the purview of church or state. rosina was treated harshly at the time for having other relationships during nicola’s imprisonment and after his death, but over the decades she has been so thoroughly cast in the role of grieving spouse that the scandal has been all but forgotten. what’s even more completely lost, however, is her status as a radical in her own right, as part of the same galleanist circles as the two men whose deaths keep her name alive.

also written out of the usual accounts of the Sacco/Vanzetti Case is the interesting ambiguity around vanzetti himself. all descriptions agree: bartolomeo was of a warm and passionate temperament; he had no known lovers; the neighborhood children and animals adored him; he was deeply devoted to his mother. in a jailhouse letter to an aunt, he wrote: “the thought of marriage has never crossed my mind. i have never loved, or if i have, it has been an impossible love, one that i have had to stifle in my breast.? somehow, the most tempting interpretation of vanzetti’s love continues to be unable to speak its name. it may be worth pointing out that a similar lack of concrete evidence has prevented no one from identifying the queerness of historical figures from michelangelo to emily dickinson to herman melville. but speculation about radical martyrs is beyond taboo.

although not one that applies to sacco or vanzetti as far as i know, one of the most frequent – and most harmful – sanctifying gestures for martyred male radicals is to gloss over their ill-treatment of the women in their lives (radical women included). the posthumous halos of martin luther king jr., joe hill, and many others have kept them free from accountability for their variously expressed misogyny. this, i think, has made it harder for radical communities to hold living comrades accountable for their actions. in particular, it adds to the difficulty in holding men who call themselves radical accountable for the ways they treat the women in both their political and personal lives (as if the two are separable).

in the broadest sense, radical history as martyrology or hagiography can make us think that our movements are the work of Great Men, or even distract us from the actual work that made up the lives of our murdered comrades. but because of the chance involved in targeting and death, it can also let us see the presence of everyday radicals more clearly than movement histories that focus on organizations and their leadership. bartolomeo vanzetti and nicola sacco were not prominent figures; the lives made visible by their murder are those of two out of the thousands whose daily lives made up the movement of the 1910s and 1920s. they knew this, and knew that their deaths could be used to strengthen the struggles which would outlive them. i can do no better than to close with vanzetti’s words on the subject (minus the one phrase the reporter admitted fabricating):

“If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – all! That last moment belongs to us – that agony is our triumph.?