Incarceration Nation

Political Persecution, U.S. Imperialism 

And the international labor defense 

By Chris Kinder

“We have become convinced that it is the working class against the capitalists” —James P Cannon, “A Speech for Sacco and Vanzetti” at a mass meeting in Chicago, May 13, 1927 1

The speech by Cannon quoted above came toward the end of a seven-year struggle, involving numerous protests, conferences, mass rallies and strike actions, which fought to free Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists and worker activists who were framed and falsely accused of murder during the post-World War I red scare and immigrant-bashing in the U.S. In its last two years, this struggle was led by the International Labor Defense (ILD), an organization which was formed by the newly-created Communist Party to defend working-class militants who had been framed or otherwise victimized for their activities in support of workers’ struggles, regardless of their individual political beliefs or affiliations. Headed by James P Cannon and other CP leaders, the ILD, while supporting legal defense efforts, opposed any reliance on courts or any other capitalist institutions, instead calling for mass workers’ action.

The post-WWI period represented a culmination of the U.S. entry on the world scene as an imperialist power, which had begun with the Spanish-American War of 1898. More than that, this period also represented an upsurge of revolutionary labor action; but also an increase in racist and reactionary politics in the U.S. In the wake of the defeat of Reconstruction in the South, and the renewal of slavery by another name, racism and white supremacy spread not just in the South, but throughout the whole country. Lynching of Blacks and KKK violence took place mainly in the South, but also affected Blacks, Italian immigrants and even some whites in the West and North. Lynchings peaked around 1900 and continued for decades. Some 70 lynchings of Blacks took place in 1919 alone.

There were major strike struggles such as the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which brought together AFL unions and the IWW (Wobblies); as well as strikes by coal miners, steel workers, and many others in that year. More man-hours were lost due to strikes in 1919 than in the next six years combined. But that same year saw numerous so-called “race riots,” which were actually mass attacks by whites on Black communities, conducted while police stood by and watched. Race hate was a chief weapon of the bourgeoisie; an anti-Black attack had succeeded in breaking an interracial union organizing drive among meat-packers in Chicago. 

All this was linked to the predations of U.S. imperialism abroad, which relied on racism as a motivating force, and mobilized thousands of working people to fight and die for bourgeois interests rather than their own. Following the virtual take-over of Cuba by the U.S., the little-known (in the U.S.) Philippine War and occupation started in 1899 (the U.S. had “won” the Philippines from Spain.) Some 250,000 Philippine independence fighters and civilians died in the U.S. attempt to crush the independence movement, which had begun against the Spanish, mostly from disease attributable to the war. Whole villages were burned to the ground; men, women and children were slaughtered en masse; torture techniques such as water-boarding were employed; surrendering prisoners were shot as examples; and the infamous “N” word was used liberally by U.S. troops in order to render the native population to the same status as the former slaves of the U.S. Soldiers in the four Black regiments sent to this war were incensed; many deserted, and a few even went over to fight with the Filipinos.2 Sixty-five years later, most of the draftees sent to the American War against Vietnam were no doubt unaware of the playbook established for them by U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. But the same interlock between crimes of racism and repression abroad and at home held true.

The Russian Revolution and the formation of the ILD

The WWI period of racism, national chauvinism and grim inter-imperialist slaughter of thousands produced one powerful bright spot: the Russian Revolution of 1917. This “shot heard ’round the world” pointed the way to liberation from war, capitalism, nationalism and racism, and it transformed the workers movement internationally. The revolution inspired the worldwide uprisings of 1919, as well as the formation of communist parties and the Communist International (Comintern, or CI), which were composed largely of splits away from the old socialist parties, most of whom had supported their own capitalist oppressors in the war instead of the international working class, which they supposedly represented.

The ILD also owes its origins to the Russian Revolution. Formed by the Workers (Communist) Party in 1925, the ILD emerged out of discussions held in Russia between Cannon and “Big Bill” Haywood, an IWW founding leader who was forced into exile from the U.S. due to legal persecution. Cannon himself was a former Wobbly, as were numerous other recruits to the new Communist Party. This was important, because unlike other labor unions (the AFL), which were mostly lily-white racist and reformist all-male job-trusts based on skilled crafts, the industrial-union IWW stood for “the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism,” and it “recognize[d] neither race, creed, color, sex, or previous condition of servitude” in its membership. It was revolutionary, and it was open to all workers.3

“An injury to one is an injury to all”

In terms of labor defense, the CI and its parties defended all worker victims of the class war, but were at first focused mainly on their own supporters, as a result of the great post-war insurrections. The ILD, as part of the Comintern’s international Red Aid organization, codified in the U.S. the principles of a non-sectarian and action-based working class defense into an organization, which was open to all on the basis of its refusal to rely on the institutions of the capitalist state. The ILD adopted the Wobbly slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”4

While the ILD leadership was from the Communist Party, it’s work supported class war prisoners and other victims of capitalist repression without regard to party affiliation or viewpoint. And, it warmly accepted allies from outside the CP milieu, such as Eugene V. Debs, the leading light and presidential candidate of the Socialist Party. The SP had not supported the war, and many of its numerous left wing joined the communists, but not Debs. Unlike some in the SP however, Debs was not a racist or a sectarian, and he was welcome in his support for the ILD’s work.5

ILD Defends Mooney and Billings

The ILD instituted the policy of sending financial aid to class war prisoners, with full public accounting of all monies raised and disbursed. It publicized cases in its paper, the Labor Defender, and mobilized thousands of workers in numerous actions, including strikes, for cases such as the Centralia prisoners, numerous Wobblies, AFL miners, anarchists, and many others. 

One case that blatantly showed the connection between imperialism abroad and repression at home was that of Mooney and Billings. Tom Mooney and Warren Billings were labor activists, and Mooney was also a well-known socialist who supported Debs in his 1910 presidential campaign. In July 1916, as a possible entry of the U.S. into World War I was being hotly debated, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce organized a “Preparedness March” in order to drum up support for the war, so that local business men could profit from munitions manufacture. “Every union man was given orders he must march in it or lose his job,” reported the Labor Defender. A bomb went off during the march which killed ten people, and four days later, arrests of Mooney and Billings were ordered, despite the fact that two witnesses said they saw two dark skinned men (not Mooney or Billings) carrying a heavy suitcase near the bomb site just before the blast.

The frame up was blatant: no witnesses had identified Mooney and Billings, two witnesses were pressured to lie against them, the jury was blatantly rigged, and a photograph showed that Mooney was over a mile away at the time. Furthermore it was proven that the District Attorney’s office had orchestrated the framing, no doubt to cast aspersions on antiwar activists and labor organizers. The United Railroads, where Mooney was attempting to organize workers, had already hired an agent in a failed attempt to frame Mooney for an earlier bombing. This agent, Martin Swanson, now worked with the DA to frame Mooney and Billings for the Preparedness Day bombing.6 

The distinct possibility that this bombing was itself concocted in order to do this frame-up and promote U.S. entry into the war fairly leaps from the historical page. Mooney was given a sentence of death (later commuted to life), Billings got life, and both were imprisoned when the ILD took up their case. (They were lucky to be finally freed many years later.)

Sacco and Vanzetti

One of the first mass protests at the U.S. embassy in Russia after the Revolution of 1917 was to free Sacco and Vanzetti; and after its founding, the ILD devoted a huge effort to this world-wide struggle. The two were quadruply targeted by the state as immigrants, reds (anarchists), labor organizers and war resisters, at the height of post-war class conflict in 1920. Both had worked for years supporting strikes such as the Lawrence Mass. textile strike (1912), and the Plymouth Cordage plant strike (1916), among many others. As James P. Cannon reported after their executions in the Labor Defender, October 1927:

“In this act of assassination, the ruling class of America shows its real face to the world. The mask of ‘democracy’ is thrown aside. ...The face of Governor Fuller is the face of the American capitalist class. It is the vengeful, cruel and murderous class, which the workers must fight and conquer before the regime of imprisonment, torture and murder can be ended. This is the message from the chair of death. This is the lesson of the Sacco and Vanzetti case.”7

Faked evidence, perjured witnesses, prejudiced judges and jurors, and all the other tools of frame-up employed against the Haymarket martyrs, Mooney and Billings, and numerous other class-war victims were churned up in order to send these two innocent men to the electric chair. And just as the Philippine War with all its racist torment of an oppressed colonial people presaged the crimes of the U.S. Vietnam War, so these domestic cases set a pattern in the imperialist U.S. that continues today with regard particularly to those considered enemies of the state, such as Leonard Peltier, and Mumia Abu-Jamal; but also applies to targeted groups such as Black, Brown and Native people generally.

Sacco,Vanzetti and Mumia Abu-Jamal

A comparison of Sacco and Vanzetti with the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is particularly striking. Sacco, Vanzetti and Mumia were all victimized for their politics as well as ethnic/racial identity: immigrants, anarchists and labor organizers; and former Black Panther and radio journalist known for examining and exposing police brutality. Sacco and Vanzetti were targeted in the era of the government’s anti-red and immigrant Palmer Raids, while Mumia was a victim of the FBI’s COINTELPRO attack on Black revolutionaries and reds. All three were given rigged trials before racist judges: Sacco and Vanzetti’s judge Thayer referred privately to “those anarchist bastards,” while Mumia’s judge Albert Sabo, who was known as a “prosecutor in robes,” said off mic, “Yeah, and I’m gonna help ’em fry the nigger.” 

As in Mumia’s 1982 frame-up, there was a total lack of real evidence. In Mumia’s case, the one (uncorrupted) witness who saw the whole incident in which a cop was shot, William Singletary, testified that Mumia only arrived on the scene after the fatal shots were fired. Both Sacco and Vanzetti had numerous witnesses to the effect that they were a long way away from the site of the Braintree murders, for which they were accused. In both cases, so-called “witnesses” were made to invent condemning testimonies: two witnesses who said they had not seen enough to identify Sacco or Vanzetti were coerced to change their stories, though these liars turned out to be ineffective in court. Later, Judge Thayer, who denied Sacco and Vanzetti’s appeals, had to confess that the conviction of the two did not depend on eyewitnesses. 

Mumia’s conviction, however, did hinge largely on coerced witnesses: Cynthia White, who, after an evolution of changes in her story, said she saw the shooting, but who was not actually on the scene according to Singletary and others; and Veronica Jones, whose on-the-stand denial that she had seen two other men flee the scene contributed to the conviction. She later recanted this denial at an appeals hearing.

Ballistics, and real-shooter confessions

Ballistics evidence was also corrupted in both Sacco and Vanzetti and Mumia’s cases. Six .32 caliber bullets were removed from the bodies of the two Braintree murder victims, which should have ruled out Vanzetti, who had a .38 on him when arrested. The prosecution simply denied witnesses who said that only one shooter and one gun were involved, and the doctor who said that all the bullets looked alike; instead making up a bogus “bullet III” theory. And in Mumia’s case, there is no evidence that Mumia’s gun was fired, or even that he had it with him that night (multiple witnesses said he was not armed.)8

Finally, in both Sacco and Vanzetti and Mumia’s cases, professional criminals later confessed to being the real killers; and in both cases, the courts threw out and never heard the confessions. Sacco and Vanzetti should have been released when one Celestino Madeiros, already jailed for another murder, and having no ulterior motive in confessing to another, swore an affidavit stating the robbery/murder was carried out by the Morelli gang, of which he was a part. Others later confirmed that he was involved. And Mumia should have been exonerated when Arnold Beverly, a professional hit-man, confessed that he had been hired by corrupt police and the mob to do the hit on a cop who was making trouble for dirty cops and the mob. Other evidence also came out that Officer Faulkner was indeed talking to the FBI about the rampant corruption among Philadelphia’s inner-city cops.9

Liberals obstruct class-struggle defense

In the last year of Sacco and Vanzetti’s lives, Cannon wrote the following: “The Sacco and Vanzetti case is no private monopoly, but an issue of the class struggle in which the decisive word will be spoken by the masses who have made this fight their own.” He goes on to say that there are “conflicting policies” involved. “One policy is the policy of class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts....The other policy is the policy of ‘respectability,’ of the ‘soft pedal’ and of ridiculous illusions about ‘justice’ from the courts of the enemy.”10

Late in the struggle to save Sacco and Vanzetti, as the original class-struggle upsurge following the war had waned, liberals and social democrats in the SP—which in 1919 had purged itself of its left-wing and Bolshevik supporters—upped their game against the ILD and labor participation in the Sacco and Vanzetti defense. SP Leaders dredged up old false tales of ILD mishandling of defense funds, despite the ILD’s scrupulous and transparent honesty in this regard. More damaging, these anti-communists actually called in mounted police to break up a mass workers rally in Union Square, New York, saying that driving out the reds took priority over carrying out a united action for Sacco and Vanzetti!11 These traitors helped sabotage the case, as more and more rallies were broken up by police, including some organized by the SP itself, and their plaintive pleadings to authorities for justice were increasingly ignored. Sacco and Vanzetti, still defiant and declaring their innocence, were executed on August 22, 1927. The popular “progressive” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had earlier turned down a habeas corpus petition for Sacco and Vanzetti, had refused a stay of execution.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is also a target of the state, having been fingered as an anti-racist protestor by the FBI and by local police at the age of 15, and later framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Cops, courts, prosecutors and politicians have conspired against him ever since, to manufacture evidence, and suppress evidence that could free him. The same racist judge who actively aided the prosecution in his original trial led the way in denying his appeals, and both Democratic and Republican politicians continue to back up the original police fabrication of Mumia as a “cop-killer.” Only a mass mobilization across the U.S. saved Mumia from death in 1995.

While not on the same level as the SP calling in police to crush labor rallies, Mumia has also been plagued by liberal compromisers, including by his own legal team. The famed Leonard Weinglass buried the confession of Arnold Beverly when it was brought to him through the legwork of Rachel Wolkenstein. The damage to Mumia’s case was sealed when Weinglass’ partner Dan Williams, one of Mumia’s own lawyers, published a book suggesting Mumia might be guilty. Mumia fired them both, of course. 

Mumia is as obviously innocent as were Mooney and Billings and Sacco and Vanzetti, yet groups such as the Concerned Family and Friends and the Mobilization to Free Mumia conceded to liberal doubts by calling for a “new trial” instead of the forthright “Mumia is innocent, free Mumia!” While these groups continued to be for mass mobilizations, the “new trial” slogan made no sense. The first step for his legal defense is to overturn his fraudulent conviction; let the state decide to re-try him on the basis of their thoroughly exposed fake “evidence!” When Mumia’s death sentence was tossed out in 2001, the state threw in the towel rather than re-try him even on the sentencing phase! Our job is to build a mass, working class movement to free Mumia.

In 1999, Oakland teachers conducted teach-ins, and longshore workers shut down all West Coast ports to free Mumia. The times are not the way they were in the 1920s and 30s, but class war is still the motor force of history, and pleading for relief from the state’s own executioners in robes or the White House is still futile. Only the power of mass mobilizations and the organized working class can save political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal. Remember Mooney and Billings! Remember Sacco and Vanzetti! Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

Chris Kinder is coordinator of the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal

1 James P Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator, New York, 1958. p. 11

2 Howard Zinn, Peoples History of the United States, Harper Perennial 2005, pp. 312 - 320.

3 Quotes from Proceedings of the IWW founding conference in 1905, in: Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, New York, 1962, pp. 279-80.

4 “An injury to one is an injury to all,” was derived from a similar line by the Knights of Labor, a union founded in 1869, which accepted Black members.

5 This was despite the SP’s earlier break with the IWW, and despite its undermining of the class-struggle approach in the Sacco Vanzetti case by preaching reliance on capitalist justice.

6 “The Story of the Mooney-Billings Frame-up,” Labor Defender, July 1928,

7 James P Cannon, “A Living Monument to Sacco and Vanzetti,” from the Labor Defender, October 1927, in Notebook of an Agitator, p. 27.

8 One report suggests Mumia’s gun was actually still in his cab days later. See Chris Kinder, “‘Murdered By Mumia’? Get the Real Story,” February 2008.

9 See Eliot Lee Grossman Esq., “Is Innocence Relevant?” Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 2, No. 10, November 2001, for an excellent review of the facts of both Saco-Vanzetti and Mumia’s cases. Eliot Grossman, with Marlene Kamish and others were Mumia’s legal team when in 2001 they brought out the confession of Arnold Beverly, which had been suppressed by Mumia’s earlier lawyers.

10 Cannon, “Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti?” Labor Defender, January 1927, in Notebook of an Agitator, p. 5

11 See “Lessons of the Fight to Free Sacco and Vanzetti”, parts 1 and 2, Workers Vanguard, 897 and 898, August 31 and September 14, 2007, based on the work of Rachel Wolkenstein, attorney for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who first brought the confession of Arnold Beverly to the attention of Mumia’s attorneys.