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In Memory of Carlo Tresca, The Italian Vanguard of Anti-Fascism in New York

A group of Italian/Americans banded together to celebrate the life of Carlo Tresca in New York City

by Stephen Cerulli

The speakers and some attendees

Tresca’s life was heroic. In 1904 he immigrated to America where he joined the sovversivi (subversives) in a cultural war, for the soul of Italian America, against the Black Hand, the capitalist class, and the Church. On January 11, 1943, Tresca was viciously gunned down by mobster Carmine Galante. Carlo Tresca's path was promethean in many aspects.

On January 11th, a group of Italian/Americans banded together to celebrate the life of Carlo Tresca. Tresca was brutally murdered 75 years ago, 1/11/1943, on the the NW corner of 5th and 15th.

Flyers that were handed out at the event. It mimics Tresca’s paper, Il Martello, in style (Made by Stephen J. Cerulli)

The event was a mimesis of memorial services of which Tresca had orechsebstrated in his life. Originally, it included performance artists. But unfortunately, they caught ill. The ceremony began with Marry Anne Trasciatti reading a poem, by Tresca’s lover, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, in response to Carlo’s assassination. Stephen Cerulli followed her with a “didactic reading” of Tresca’s life, with emphasis on his: immigration, labour struggles, and anti-fascism. The ceremony concluded with a laying of red carnations, symbolic of Tresca’s association with radical politics. Flyers were handed to pedestrians, and several stopped to hear the speakers.

Carlo Tresca was born in Sulmona (Abruzzo), Italy. In his paese, he attached himself to the local socialist movement and discovered his lifelong trade in labor organizing and editing radical newspapers. In 1904 he immigrated to America where he joined the sovversivi (subversives) in a cultural war, for the soul of Italian America, against the Black Hand, the capitalist class, and the Church. The conditions in America guided his conversion from revolutionary socialism to a loose anarcho-syndicalism. For the greater part of the nineteen-teens he collaborated with the IWW in a series of a labor strikes, along with his revolutionary lover, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. By the mid-1920s, Tresca was the vanguard of anti-fascism in New York. Along with a cohort of committed anti-fascists, he balked fascist influence in the city. On January 11, 1943, Tresca was viciously gunned down by mobster Carmine Galante.

The carnations that were laid down. Roses were chosen because historically this was the color of the labour movement. Tresca performed similar gestures

Here my full speech during the event dedicated to Carlo Tresca:

Benvenuto ai compagni; welcome comrades,

First off, thank you for coming and secondly I want to thank Marry Anne Trasciatti, Fraser Ottanelli, Joseph Sciorra, Marcella Bencivenni, LuLu LoLo, and Annie Lanzillotto for helping organize this event.

We assemble here in celebration of one of our best. By “ours,” I mean: the working class, Italians in America, and those who oppose tyranny. On this spot, 75 years ago, Carlo Tresca’s life was criminally cut short. But, before diving into our homage of this “free-lance revolutionary paladin,” there are some issues that need to be tackled. Firstly, we must avoid the beatification of any individual. Secondly, we must understand that Tresca was a human being, and like all human beings, he exhibited some of our worst attributes.  On top of that list is misogyny, a viral behavior which has infected much of our collective social patterns down to their cores. This must be acknowledged not only because our champions should be criticized, but also because it’s wrong, we can learn from it, and we must do better.

Trasciatti reading Gurley Flynn’s poem

Tresca’s life was heroic. His path was promethean in many aspects. He rubbed shoulders with some of the great figures of America’s labor movement such as: Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Max Eastman, Margret Sanger, and Bill Haywood. Today we will overview three themes of Tresca’s life: his immigration, his labor activities, and his anti-fascism. We will then ask: why is this important?

Max Nomad described Tresca as a “rebel without a uniform.” His politics were radical. However, they were not dogmatic, and he collaborated in alliances from bourgeois liberals to supporters of the Soviet Union. Though, he was most at home in his anarcho leaning Martello group. Tresca’s path to the left began with revolutionary socialism in his native Italy, and it climaxed with his advocating of anarcho-syndicalism. Perhaps an accurate description, to cover his entire career is: Italian-libertarian-socialist-humanist, who put the needs of humanity before dogma, while also maintaining an egalitarian ethic with a healthy skepticism of authority and, of course, wrapped in Italian flair.

Carlo Tresca was born in Sulmona, Italy (March 9th, 1879).  His family had moderate wealth, and encouraged him to enter the priesthood. However, his hostility towards authority was fostered at an early age, so naturally this was not the road he would travel. Concurrently, rail lines had been laid down in Sulmona. Natural to the trade, the workers of these tracks were revolutionary socialists; they introduced Tresca to his ideas and language.

During this period Tresca discovered his lifelong trade in labor agitating and working in the radical press. In Sulmona, he held open air rallies, encouraging the peasants to oppose his family’s class interests. He even managed to become the editor of the local socialist newspaper, Il Germe. Tresca’s actions concluded with his jailing several times. And a charge of libel, from a local Republican newspaper, led to hasty escape to the United States.

In the late summer of 1904, Carlo Tresca encountered the Statue of Liberty as it emerged from the horizon. He quickly attached himself to the sovversivi. A subversive subset of Italian/American culture composed of: socialists, communists, syndicalists, anarchists, radical artists, and other non-conformative left leaning members of the community. Though the sovversivi failed often in their goals, they had a persistent mindset and bundle of courage that drove them to fight the injustices Italians in America faced. This included racial discrimination, internal community exploitation, harsh profit-motive driven wage-slavery, and abuse by the state.

Tresca’s biographer, Nunzio Pernicone, argues Carlo was the most important member of the sovversivi because he was able to straddle between the American labor movement and this distinctively Italian subculture. However, Tresca spent his early years in America immersed in the culture of the sovversivi. His time in this Italian/American world led him to organizing strikes in the coalfields of Pennsylvania: an area littered with Italian immigrants who would perform this horrendous job with low pay. He was also quickly granted the directorship of the major syndicalist newspaper, Il Proletario, in the winter of 1904. Unfortunately his misogynistic behavior led to a scandal and forced his resignation in 1906. But he bounced back first with his journal La Plebe (in 1907), and then his paper L’Avvenire (in 1909).

This period also catalyzed Tresca’s transition from revolutionary socialism, to syndicalism, and finally a loose anarcho-syndicalism. What should be noted is, Tresca was not an intellectual or an ideologue, and these liberatory ideas served as ethical bedrock, more than an intellectual foundation – and at times – this led him to un-orthodoxy.

Cerulli Speaking

During this period, Carlo began his assault on the Cammora Coloniale. This was a term he coined to describe: the prominenti (Italian-American businessmen and bourgeois) that he argued exploited the community, Italian consular officials, and the Catholic Church. He also made enemies with the Black Hand Mafia, which in 1909 attempted to assassinate him. He survived the assault with a facial scar. Never the less, he had the courage to go on and attack those, who he believed, at most times rightly, abused the Italian/American community.

1912 was a big year for Tresca. It provided him his moment to enter the American labor movement enlarge. Silk workers – in Lawrence, MA – successfully organized and won a major battle over wages. Unfortunately, striker, Anna Lo Pizo, was victim of police brutality and lost her life. Local authorities tried blaming Joseph Ettor, Joseph Caruso, and Arturo Giovannitti for creating the conditions that led to the murder. These three were put on trial. Their affiliate, the IWW, called in Tresca, to help rally and reorganize the victorious strikers into a second wave strike to release these men. The IWW chose Tresca, on Giovannitti’s recommendation, because a majority of these silk workers were Italian. The Tresca led campaign to free these men was successful, and the process consisted of many forms of action: from speech rallies, marches, memorial parades, and children trains. Sadly, another striker, John Rami, lost his life during this second wave, a reflection of how dangerous these labor battles were, especially for immigrants.

Lawrence was important to Carlo, because it introduced him to the greater labor movement. But it was also where he met Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, his soon to be radical lover until 1925. She encouraged him to move to New York City, thus setting up the foundations for the rest of his career.

The nineteen-teens were a demanding period for Tresca. He was a leading figure in the Little Falls, New York Textile, the Paterson silk, The New York city hotel workers’, the Mesabi Range, and the Minnesota miners’ strikes.  Many times, his involvement would lead to jailing (with five during Patterson), fist fights, and beatings from private, and public, police. One famous incident – in Hibbing, MN – involved a lynch mob following Tresca and two comrades out of town. When they realized what was happening, Tresca told his friends to let him out of the vehicle so that they may be spared. Carlo walked behind the truck, alone, slowly, as armed locals launched derogatory terms against his ethnicity and profession. Luckily he survived the ordeal. This event provides a fantastic anecdote of what Tresca had: coraggio (courage).

Naturally, Tresca opposed the World War and was skeptical of the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. Correctly so, he observed a distinctive difference between the initial peasants’ and workers’ revolution, from the top down Leninist assimilation of them. He wisely warned: “like all dictatorships, even the dictatorship of the proletariat has its danger… Lenin and Trotsky may be the dominators of tomorrow.”  However, throughout most of the 1920s, Tresca was able to put aside these differences and work with Communists, with a capital c, on the crusade against fascism.

The regime, in Italy, dubbed Carlo Tresca the deus ex machina of anti-fascism in America. It was the cause to which he would commit the rest of his life. Tresca’s principle method for confronting fascism was his paper, Il Martello. He would frequently attack Mussolini’s bourgeois Italian/American allies such as Genoreso Pope. But Tresca was not just as warrior of the pen. He would hold open air rallies to directly introduce Italian/Americans to anti-fascism, clash physically with fascists over symbols of Italianicity (such as the Garibaldi monument), confront and fight fascists at their events in order to prevent them for organizing, and harass visiting regime dignitaries, such as: Italo Balbo, Dino Grandi, and Gisuppe Bottai. Until 1926, his even influenced anti-fascism in Italy. Carlo helped fund the anarchist press in the old country, and sent smuggled copies of Il Martello through the Swiss border.

By 1923 the Duce’s counter-assault was in full swing. Italian/American blackshirts, the foot soldiers of fascism, harassed and vandalized Tresca’s offices. In one of his open air rallies, they attempted to assassinate him by bomb. Mussolini even revoked his Italian citizenship. However, one of the most heinous acts consisted of collaboration between the Italian government and the American federal government in an effort to label him a felon, in order to deport him. It began with Carlo’s arrest over an avocation for birth control in Il Martello. Followed by a sham trial where New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia fiercely defended Carlo.  It climaxed with Tresca serving a stint in a federal penitentiary to mass outrage. And, finally, it concluded with President Calvin Coolridge, under great pressure, releasing him by order. After his discharge, Carlo Tresca remained steadfast.

Tresca was a leading crusader of anti-fascism in the 1920s, but by the 1930s his role became secondary.  Two reasons led to this. First was the arrival of the fuoriusciti – a professional class of Italian exiles and anti-fascists who were liberal and mostly capitalist in nature. This was much preferred by American liberal society over Tresca and other sovversivi anti-fascists, who were deemed “too radical.” Second was Tresca’s split with the Communists, with capital C.  Firstly, this was ignited by Stalinism and the authoritarian atrocity it created. Secondly, many American Communist Party members toed Moscow’s Party line. Thirdly, because of the tragedy in Spain, where Communists, under order from Stalin, slaughtered anarchists and other libertarian anti-fascists – such as Camillo Berneri – during the Spanish Civil War. Fourthly, because Tresca served on the Dewy Commission which cleared Leon Trotsky of charges levied against him by Stalin’s regime. Finally, Carlo blamed the Communist Party, for ex-party member, and his friend, Juliet Stuart Poyntz disappearance.

Even in a secondary role, amongst a hostile left-leaning environment Tresca persisted. He championed the Greco-Carillo case; an incident where two anarchists were accused of murdering a fascist. During the Spanish Civil War, he helped fund the, Colonoa Italiana; an Italian exile, predominantly anarchist, anti-fascist brigade. He also hesitantly joined the anti-authoritarian/anti-fascist, fuoriusciti led, Mazzini Society. Ironically, during the war he even provided the American government with information on pro-fascists members of the Italian/American community.

On January 11th, 1943, while leaving Il Martello’s office, with a friend, Tresca was shot twice. One bullet pierced his lung and another pierced his brain. The current consensus agrees the assassin was Carmine Galante, a Mafia hit man, though he was never officially charged. There are two leading theories behind the murder, both involving the Mafia. The first argues Vito Genovese ordered the killing to carry favor with Benito Mussolini. The other, which I find more convincing, involves Frank Garafolo. Garafolo was a Bonanno family underboss who was friendly with Tresca’s nemesis, Generoso Pope. Tresca saw Pope and Garafolo at dinner together and openly called Garafolo a gangster. This public discourse was probably what drew line in the sand.

Carlo Tresca had a heroic life. And, some may argue, he met a heroic end on the battle field. It took the most vicious and violent element of our ethnic collective to take him down. But this day is more than about his death. It is about his life. In a fundraiser for Il Martello Louis Nelson declared: “To us, Carlo Tresca is not just an Italian anti-fascist. He belongs to all of us, the entire labor movement. He has spent his life fighting for workers regardless of race or creed.” That is something we should agree on. Tresca spent decades fighting the good fight. My reading can only crack the surface. There are other important actions to which he was  committed to: the Sacco-Vanzetti case, attempts at anarchist unity, and greater detail on his championing of labor and anti-fascism that is better addressed in Nunzio Pernicone’s Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel.

At the start of my comments, I asked: why is this important? It is important because Tresca’s life provides us a model of what moral and physical courage is when facing monumental and unethical forces: such as a hostile immigration, authoritarianism, the state, and capitalism. Despite his many failures and bodily harm, he remained steadfast. When Carlo Tresca comes to mind, we should perceive one word: coraggio, courage. Despite the assassination attempts, the beatings, the arrests, and the multitudes of threats,  he maintained. During the War, in a speech to friends, Carlo stated: “When I see young people who carry the struggle against Fascism and totalitarianism, then I am glad. For I know that my life work has not been lost; and the seeds I have sown are bearing fruit.” Will we carry on his life’s work? For those who showed up today, the least we can say is: giuriamo, we swear!”.

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