Twentieth-century Americanism

Scene: Eugene Dennis (Frank Waldron), a Communist activist, is arrested during a protest and brought to trial.

Of the many arrested March 6, seventeen went on trial in April and for eleven days Judge Bogue, in a state of bewilderment, kept muttering from his bench, “Incredible! Absolutely astonishing!”

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Leo Gallagher, a deceptively mild-looking, grey-haired, wiry fighter, exploded the first shock for the startled Judge when he challenged the entire jury panel. Gallagher charged the defendants would have a better trial if the Commissioner would “stop passers-by on the street and take them into court for jury service”.

The Judge spluttered at Gene and Party organizer Carl Sklar who were acting as their own attorneys:

“You can’t make Communist speeches to prospective jurors. You can’t tell them there are different standards of law for the rich and the poor.”

On any given day now some fifty people were either in jail, in court, or beaten by police on the outside. Physical and legal self defense became simultaneous weapons of the local unionization and unemployed struggles. A delegated conference of local organizations set up a “general self defense organization” whose purpose was “the physical protection and defense of all militant struggles, organizations and demonstrations of the working class, to protect them from the reactionary attacks of the fascists and the state apparatus.”

On the legal front the International Labor Defense conducted orientation sessions throughout the city enabling arrested workers to defend themselves in court. Frank Spector, Southern California head of that organization, and one of the seventeen before Judge Bogue, told the court:

“When the laws are against the interests of the working class and the courts are essentially an instrument in the hands of the employer class, we advise workers that the laws be violated and the court decisions be ignored.”

In its summation, the prosecution intimidated the jury: “If you will not convict them, then you will show that you too are against our government.”

Gene told them:

“A verdict of guilty will mean you approve the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist government. It will mean you approve police brutality and that you agree with Police Commissioner Thorpe that we ought to be deported. But even if you put us in jail now, you can’t break our Movement. Hundreds, thousands of others will take our place and carry on the struggle until this system will be abolished and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as in the Soviet Union, will be established.”

Our comrades in the courtroom were no less startled than was Judge Bogue and the reporters to hear Gene tell the jury:

“It is because I love my country and the American people from which I spring that I fight today and will always fight in the interest of the people. It is our country, it is our Bill of Rights, it is our American way of life that you would betray here today.”

Peggy Dennis, The Autobiography of an American Communist: A Personal View of a Political Life 1925-1975.

The result:

The grand jury indicted seventeen T.U.U.L. [Trade Union Unity League] and [Communist Party activists on “conspiracy to foment revolution during the cantaloupe season”. This was later changed to the more stylized charge, “suspicion of criminal syndicalism” involving charges to overthrow the government on a number of separate counts that could total 42 years in prison for each defendant. Of the seventeen, fourteen were arrested, but the police could not find [Frank] Spector, [Carl] Sklar, and Gene. They had disappeared from sight after leaving the courtroom that April 14.

Spector, Sklar, and Gene “hid in friendly strangers’ homes, moving every few days to a new place. They stayed in contact with activity and decision-making processes through complicated courier systems. We were all waiting for a higher Party decision in New York as to whether they should or should not surrender to the Valley arrest warrants.” The Party voted to have Spector and Sklar surrender; Eugene Dennis remained a fugitive, under the alias “Tim Ryan”, and the Party eventually decided to have him flee to Moscow. His wife Peggy joined him there later with their son, although she had to fight her Party organizer, a new arrival from New York, to be allowed to do so: the organizer said, “We cannot handle this request routinely. We would be guilty of rank male chauvinism if we agreed to transfer this leading young woman comrade merely so she may join her husband.” About this, she wrote:

I had some heavy thinking to do. I was uncomfortable with my Party organizer’s defense of me as a leading woman comrade. The more I hassled with the feeling that something was wrong, the more I disliked the context in which the question had been placed. I felt like I was being subjected, with praise, to a subtle male chauvinism which rejected the possibility that a woman can be a wife and leading activist. Under the guise of upholding my rights, I was being told I had to choose between being a housewife at the beck and call of her man or becoming the classic version of an unencumbered male. … All I knew was that I wanted to join him. The framework for my activity would have to be found within that context, always.

Her parents disapproved.


2 responses to “Twentieth-century Americanism

  1. Pingback: A Communist in Mecca | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

  2. Pingback: Twentieth-century Americanism | Reaction Times

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