Sacco and Vanzetti are today’s Mohamed and Mohamed

Within the first 100 days after September 11, 2001 Canadian Muslims witnessed in disbelief as measure after measure was initiated to severely curtail and compromise their civil liberties.

They were posted on no-fly lists (without notice); and many found themselves (again without notice) on no-passport lists. Some were mistakenly arrested, released, then deported — as happened to the 23 Muslim students captured in August 2003 as part of Operation Thread, and sent to India and Pakistan; their futures are now ruined. Still others, like Maher Arar, were detained without charge (some for years), and sent by Canadian authorities to complicit Muslim countries to be tortured.

All this and more has happened to Canadian Muslims against a backdrop of anti-Islam hate propaganda perpetrated by the corporate media, by government agencies like CSIS, RCMP and the Canadian Forces, and by politicians.

It is more important than ever for Canadian Muslims to understand this environment historically in order to survive it and hopefully change the cyclic fear and bigotry that feeds it; for the hate wave they are being subjected to now is not new and is not about to end soon.

In this regard, Muslims and all Canadians should revisit the tragic true story of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian Americans who were framed in a murder case in 1920 and later executed after a trial by jury.

"Today, Sacco and Vanzetti are long dead and it’s safe to feel sympathy for them," said Juliet Ucelli of Italian Americans for a Multicultural United States at a rally on the 75th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, held on August 23, 2002 in New York.

"[M]any Italian Americans look back with nostalgia, from a comfortable position of white privilege, at this era when we actually were an oppressed national minority subject to persecution," she said. "But when Sacco and Vanzetti were facing execution and needing support, lots of Italian Americans – the establishment, some professionals, the wealthy – would have nothing to do with them. They didn’t want to be associated with those radicals and ‘terrorists.’

"[If] you won’t stand up now for the Arabs, Muslims and South Asians who are being held without any constitutional rights for supposed association with terrorists, you wouldn’t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either," she continued.

"And if you won’t stand up against Bush’s endless war on whatever country is not bowing down to the dictates of the U.S. elite, you wouldn’t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti understood well that most wars are called by the rich to protect their wealth, their oil wells, and their sources of profit. We shouldn’t forget what they knew."

The Sacco-Vanzetti story started on April 15, 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts, when a paymaster and his guard were found dead; the $16,000 payroll they had been carrying was gone. That kind of crime was, and still is, common in the U.S. But within a year, it was to become the "trial of the century."

Three weeks later, two Italian Americans — whites I might add, not Muslims — were arrested and charged with murder.

At the time, an anti-immigrant and "Red Scare" hysteria was sweeping the country. The court paid little or no attention to the inconclusive evidence against them, but instead focused on Sacco and Vanzetti’s anti-establishment, pro-labour views, and draft-dodging.

In what the American Federation of Labour later called a "ghastly miscarriage of justice," the pair was sentenced to death. Seven years of court cases followed, and demonstrations exploded across the United States, Europe and South America. The politically motivated persecution and death of two unknown Italian Americans became an international cause célèbre.

Felix Frankfurter, professor of law at Harvard University, said the jury was selected "by sheriffs’ deputies from Masonic gatherings and from persons whom the deputies deemed ‘representative citizens,’ ‘substantial’ and ‘intelligent’." This jury was headed by foreman Walter Ripley, who had commented to a friend prior to the trial, "Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!"

Judge Thayer directed the jury to "be loyal to the government," and "to seek courage in your deliberations such as was typified by the American soldier as he fought and gave up his life on the battlefields of France." The judge knew that Sacco and Vanzetti had escaped conscription by traveling to Mexico in 1916; when they admitted they were draft-dodgers and atheists as well, the jury was well primed.

District Attorney Frederick G. Katzmann’s prosecution of the men was ruthless. Favorable evidence was withheld from the jury, and the FBI assisted in badgering and bullying witnesses. Historian Paul Avrich points out that Katzmann "played on the emotions of the jurors, arousing their deepest prejudices against the accused. Sacco and Vanzetti were armed at the time of their arrest; they were foreigners, atheists, anarchists. This overclouded all judgment."

In his book on the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, John Davis writes; "Prosecution witnesses were repeatedly discredited under cross- examination and strong alibis for the defendants were provided by a number of witnesses. All of this, however, had little impact… Today’s catch-cry is, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’." Arabs have replaced Italians as objects of suspicion, radicals are quickly labelled terrorists, and Sacco and Vanzetti’s story is still powerfully resonant."

We know now how the American justice system failed Sacco and Vanzetti some 80 years ago. But how many Muslims are being failed by the Canadian and American justice systems today?