March 31, 2011

Rocco Petrone: A Modern-Day Cathedral Builder

Rocco Petrone
By John A. Stavola
"The Invisible Pyramid" by Loren Eisely contains a chapter entitled "The Spore Bearers". In it the fungus, Pilobolus, is likened to a rocket. The spore which will project the descendants of Pilobolus into the future prepare themselves with a light sensitive capsule to aim ever toward the brightest light. When the right chemical pressures are built up the cells beneath the capsule explode, hurling it several feet away. This enables Pilobolus, which grows on the dung of cattle, to transport itself to fresh grass where they will be consumed again by the cattle.

The influential German "philosopher-poet'" Oswald Spengler's attempt to discern an organic pattern to cultural history and the zeitgeist or spirit of an age is also invoked by Eiseley.
Perhaps what he (Spengler) terms the Faustian culture-our own-began as early as the eleventh century with the growing addiction to great unfillible cathedrals with huge naves and misty recesses where space seemed to hover without limits. In the words of one architect, the Gothic arch is "a bow always tending to expand". Hidden within its tensions is the upward surge of the space rocket. ( The Invisible Pyramid, pg. 84)
Eiseley opens "The Invisible Pyramid" with a haunting story of how his father, in the early years of the twentieth century, took him in his arms outside to see Halley's comet. Pointing to the sky he advised patience and caution and in seventy five years it would return. The father wanted the young Eiseley to see it again for him; because by then he would be long gone.

This ability to look forward, and then back, and then forward again is a hallmark of all great cultures. It has appeared in the West as Minerva, depicted as an owl with a neck capable of rotating 180 degrees. There are shrines to Minerva in many places in the region of Puglia. Saint Janarius, the San Gennaro of the city of Naples,for whom our January is named, is the month for reflecting on the past and making resolutions for the coming year. Two-sided Janus heads have also been found in Celtic lands of central Europe.
Janus-head, Roquepertuse, France
In the early 1960's when in grade school I would feign sickness to watch the Mercury and Gemini manned rocket launches. The decade we call "the Sixties" and its social and cultural significance, did not come into full swing until 1968 and lasted into the mid seventies.The early sixties were still a time when the average schoolboy and the public at large followed the space program closely. The "invisible pyramid" that Eiseley referred to was the giant network that supports Science and the consequent space program. We all felt that we were a part of it.

During a recent bout of the flu, at home recovering, I became aware that the last flight of the Space Shuttle had been completed the day before. Now, about fifty years later I found myself at home, truly sick this time, and the manned space program is over. Reflecting on the significance of this, which I still resist acknowledging, my mind wandered back to a family scene. I am watching the recovery of one of the capsules and the astronauts on television with my father. The name of a prime mover and shaker at NASA was mentioned by the news reporter. My father looks up from his newspaper and repeats the name with obvious recognition and delightful pride...Rocco Petrone!

What many would call the crowning achievement of Western civilization, the landing of men on the moon and returning them safely, naturally involved many people besides the more well known astronauts. All played a part but some were much closer to the top.

Rocco Petrone came from apparent humble origins, and was born on March 31, 1926 near Schenectady in New York State. His parents were southern Italian immigrants from the comune of Sasso di Catalda in the region of Basilicata just across the Vallo di Diano from Sassano where my paternal ancestors originated. His father was a railroad worker who died when his son was three. His mother later remarried. He was awarded an appointment to the military academy at West Point and played on the football team as a defensive lineman graduating in 1946. He earned his masters degree in mechanical engineering from MIT in 1951. Along with Werner Von Braun and scientists and technicians from the German rocket program at Peenemunde he participated in the development of America's first ballistic missile, the Redstone, which was also used for the Mercury and Gemini manned capsule orbiters.
Petrone and Von Braun
In 1960 Petrone turned down the opportunity to attend the Command and General Staff school of the Army; instead he transferred to NASA. In May of 1961 President Kennedy announced that the US would attempt to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Petrone relished the thought of being in on a project that would help his nation present a bella figura to the outside world. On hearing the announcement:
...Rocco Petrone turned to Albert Zeiler ( a colleague) with a grin on his face and said, "Al, we've got our work cut out for us." Petrone, a man of theatrical flair, loved the drama of a nation undertaking this enormous challenge in full public view. He thought of it as saying to the world, "Here's the line we're going to cross." (Apollo, pg. 71)
After the announcement, Petrone was put in charge of the "Heavy Space Vehicle Systems Office" at Cape Canaveral. His job was to supervise the launch system for the mission. This included choosing the site, establishing a system for the launch, and then getting it it built.
"...The launch vehicle...would come to seem anthropomorphic to Petrone, as if it were a giant to whom Petrone and the thousands of workers at the Cape were bound like servants to an imperious master. "You can't be saying to him, "I'm sorry, you can't have that much propellant,' or' You can't have that much juice or that much wiring," said Petrone. He's going to get what he wants. The flight article has got to dominate." And because Goliath's demands were going to be so outrageous, the machines for tending to him would have to follow suit. Launching Saturn Vs involved the management of extremes-the biggest and the smallest, the hottest and the coldest, wispy fragility and colossal strength-and in the design of the Launch Operations center, form followed function. But they were bizarre forms to fit an outlandishly extravagant function." Apollo pg.71
Cape Canaveral on the eastern coast of Florida was not an ideal site for this task, however it was chosen because of its remote location in the event of a catastrophic explosion or accident downrange after launch. It is an area subject to hurricanes and lighting storms. Thunderstorms roll through on a daily basis bringing humidity and salt air,all corrosive to complex machinery. After it was decided that the Saturn V "launch article" could only be built and prepped in the vertical position a building to protect it from the elements had to be built. It would be the largest enclosed space in the world; it was also built on sand.

The decade ending deadline required a system having more than one rocket ready for launch at any one time. They would have to be prepped in an area 3-1/2 miles away from the launch site. Petrone and fellow NASA engineer Don Buchanan had no choice but to design a Crawler transporter the size of a major league infield that would also have to negotiate a five degree slope . This was accomplished without the the Saturn V being outside of the vertical by more than a foot and a half.

Petrone's skill in all of this was his ability to see the big picture and make sure all the components fit and performed seamlessly. He called it "concurrency". Considering that this had never been done before, it was on an accelerated schedule, and there were many different civilian contractors supplying parts it is hard to imagine that it was successfully accomplished many times.
Saturn V ready for launch
The night before the first launch of the multistage rocket :
"...the tower and the vehicle were bathed in lights, set off by searchlights that intersected at the apex of the stack. To a New York Times reporter, the Saturn looked like a crystalline obelisk. To a visiting Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Saturn and the red umbilical tower with its swing arms were a white maiden clasped by a monstrous lobster. Rocco Petrone was reminded of a cathedral." Apollo, pg 234
In 1966 Petrone was appointed Director of Launch Operations at the renamed Kennedy Space Center. After the Apollo 11 landing he became the director of the entire Apollo program overseeing all the subsequent moon landings. In 1973 he became the first non-German director of the Marshall Space Flight center, formerly the domain of Von Braun and company , where he worked on the Space Shuttle and Skylab programs. In the 1980's he joined Rockwell International the manufacturer of the Space Shuttle.

The morning of the flight of the doomed Challenger he told NASA that it would not be advisable to launch in freezing temperature . The cause of the disaster did turn out to be the effect of cold on the engine O rings. Rockwell and Petrone thought that the thermal protective tiles could come loose at low temperatures. Although they were perhaps wrong about the precise danger, the next disaster, the Columbia, was caused by damage to these tiles from falling ice buildup while still on the launch pad.

The description of Petrone, the man, by various people that worked with him are consistent. He was known at West Point as the "Italian Stallion" preceding that other fellow by a few years. His NASA obituary describes him as:
"...a broad shouldered tree of a man who in his line of work is treated with the same mixture of awe and respect football players give Vince Lombardi"
The authors of Apollo describe him as,
"Ebullient and blunt-spoken, he looked the way his name sound-big strong and Italian." pg.71
He was known as polite and fair but a probing questioner in his quest to ascertain the depth's of a persons knowledge. In an undertaking as complex as the space program attention to detail is of primary importance. The number of things that can go wrong is almost incalculable. His drive to get to the truth of the matter could be faustian in its proportions. At one meeting in which an engineer was trying to bluff, Petrone physically removed the man, instructing his supervisor to fire him from the project. His subordinates and sometimes his superiors feared and respected him but they made sure the details were taken care of. In an obituary by Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post the weight of his opinion by the top political leaders was illustrated,
"When he asked for fresh batteries for Apollo 11 during launch testing, few others felt this expensive request was worthwhile. But Kennedy Space Center Director Kurt Debus got this reply from Washington: "If Petrone says he wants it that way, then do it that way."
Petrone was not a polished speaker of the English language. He was, however, able to communicate his ideas to many people, including people of political importance to the program. His common touch and plain spoken communication skill worked to his benefit here. He also had the ability to get to the core of a problem by simplification to its basic components.

Loren Eiseley gives a description of the spirit that animates Western or faustian man,
"Faustian man is never at rest in the world. He is never the contemplative beneath the sacred Bo tree of the Buddha. He is, instead, a spokesman of the will. He is the embodiment of a restless, exploratory, and anticipating ego. In the last word we have the human head spun round to confront its future-the future it has created.It well may be that the new world, which began amidst time-tolling bells and the stained glass and dim interiors of Gothic cathedrals, laid an enchantment upon the people of Western Europe that provided at least a portion of the seedbed for the later rise of science-just as guilt has also haunted us. In its highest moments, science could also be said, not irreverently, to be a search for the Holy Grail." (The Invisible Pyramid, pg. 85)
In the end if all of our efforts in the quest for knowledge only lands us on a distant world only to be recycled like the Polobolus fungus it wouldn't have been in vain. The sheer joy of the effort was its own reward and that is what defines us.

Rocco Petrone , the man who contributed so much to that elegant spectacle of the lunar module gracefully descending to the moon , will have the last word.
"I see man in the program as the essential element of adventure and discovery that we need. You start talking about adventure and discovery and anyone who tells you what's going to come out of it has got to be a fool to try, because out of discovery man has moved from the caves to where he is today, and we ain't finished moving. I look upon all those things out there (in space) as challenges, put there by someone for us to try to understand, and in trying to understand we're going to be better." (Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1975)

Sources:
Apollo, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, Simon and Schuster,2004 Ebook copyright,2010 by Cox and Murray, Inc.

The Invisible Pyramid, Loren Eiseley, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970







*All photos courtesy of NASA and are in the public domain.

March 30, 2011

Freedom Won and Lost: The Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers (1846) by Francesco Hayez
By Niccolò Graffio

“Freedom cannot be granted. It must be taken.” 
– Max Stirner: The Ego and His Own, 1845.

Americans in general today certainly take for granted the freedoms they still possess. This is not an unfair or inaccurate statement to make. How many Americans, for example, take the time out of their busy schedules watching television, surfing the Net, playing video games, “hanging out” in bars/clubs or just gaining weight to engage in such innocuous activities as educating themselves on the latest bills before their legislators? How many of them go further and contact their legislators to offer them their opinions on these bills? How many even bother to just vote on Election Day? You get the point, I’m sure. Every day things go on among our elected officials that will ultimately affect our daily lives, positively or negatively, and most seem content to remain blissfully detached from these proceedings. Continue reading

March 27, 2011

A Centennial of Tears and Reflection

100 years after a horror, a renewed call for vigilance in the workplace

Constance DelVecchio Maltese unveiling her painting "Always Remember the 146"
Photos by Niccolò Graffio

By Niccolò Graffio

Sitting there in the CNL Cultural Center of Christ the King H.S., listening to the reading of the names of the dead, images of that fateful day 100 years ago popped into my mind. It was exactly 100 years ago today, on March 25th, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, located in what was then the Asch Building on Greene St. and Washington Place in Manhattan, caught fire and burned, killing 146 people. Most of these people were young women and girls, immigrants from mainly eastern and southern Europe.

I had first heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire when I was in high school. It was a footnote in a history book; a few sentences meant to explain to students the reason behind government regulation of safety procedures in the workplace. I must confess that like the overwhelming majority of my fellow students, I really paid no attention to it. In my mind then it was, after all, only one of a myriad number of tragedies that befell those who came before us.

Last year, when I was sent to cover the 99th anniversary memorial service of the fire in this very same room, was in fact the first time I was really confronted with the details of that horrific afternoon so long ago. Now, as then, images I had never before confronted were pouring into my conscious mind. Even now as I type these words they confront me.

When we think of sweatshops we think of dirty, smelly places in some far away dirt-poor country. We forget it wasn’t that long ago such places existed here in America (and still exist, in fact). Numerous regulations were passed after the horror to avoid a repetition, but as I cynically learned long ago, regulations are only as good as those who choose to oversee and enforce them.

Many other tragedies in American history are all but forgotten due to apathy and disinterest on the part of Americans. It seems to me, for example, that except for an occasional mention in the back of a newspaper, no one here in my own native New York City bothers to remember or acknowledge the burning of the PS General Slocum. One would think the single greatest loss of life of New Yorkers after 9/11 would command more attention. There are even indications many would like to forget the events of 9/11!

They should not be forgotten, however! Though it is human nature to suppress negative experiences, we should resist such temptations in cases such as these. What we are as a populace, a country, is the sum total of the collective experiences of ourselves and our ancestors since their arrival on this continent.

Thus I commend the efforts of the Maltese family in keeping alive the memory of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. For them it has a deeper meaning than most, since three members of their family (Caterina and her two daughters, Rosarea and Lucia) perished in the blaze. It still boggles my mind to consider the fact that in a single, awful afternoon Serafino Maltese, the family patriarch, lost all the female members of his family!

All the elder Maltese brothers (Andrew, Serphin & Vincent) were present to honor their ancestors and the rest of the fallen. Constance DelVecchio Maltese, wife Senator Serphin Maltese (ret.) and an accomplished painter, unveiled a beautiful creation of hers entitled “Always Remember the 146”.


The Maltese brothers (Andrew, Serphin and Vincent)

Composer and performer Jim Kuemmerle spoke to us briefly about the Triangle Shirtwaist Jazz Project, an album of original jazz compositions commemorating the fire. The piece I found most moving was entitled “Our Work is Never Done”.

The fact of that apropos title was driven home by Senator Maltese, who reminded us of the many Americans who still die on the job every day.

A grim reminder that “our work is never done”. On September 3rd, 1991 25 workers died from burns or asphyxiation and another 54 were injured from a fire at the Imperial Foods Products chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. As with the Triangle fire, the fire doors were (illegally) locked to keep workers from stealing chickens. A fire that erupted in a 25 foot-long deep-fat fryer sealed their fate. Incredibly, records show the plant was never inspected by any Federal or state inspector in its entire 11-year history!

That there are those in Congress who seek to roll back OSHA regulations (in the name of profits!) should be a wakeup call to all Americans to continue the fight for workplace safety to insure the 146 did not die in vain.

Further reading:

March 25, 2011

A Nightmare on Greene Street

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Scene at the morgue
By Niccolò Graffio
Sitting there in the motorman’s class, I listened intently to the instructor as he attempted to impress upon us the importance of safety in the workplace. Picking up a soft cover book about the size of a notebook, he waved it in front of the class, trying to garner the attention of the know-it-alls who invariably find such lectures boring.
“This is a copy of New York City Transit’s code of safety rules.” he loudly announced. “We have a saying about this book: ‘This is a book written in blood!’ When I first came on this job, this book had only four pages. As you can see, this book is now a lot thicker. Every time someone was killed on this job, another page was added to this book.” Suddenly he had everyone’s attention. His grim meaning was abundantly clear to all: the job of transit worker is not an easy one. In fact, it’s a very dangerous one! Continue reading

March 21, 2011

Pompeii the Exhibit

Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius

Model of Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum

On March 17th Italy celebrated 150 years of unification. Instead of throwing tomatoes at a statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, I decided to use them for sauce and spend the day celebrating my own Southern Italian heritage instead. This brought me to Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius at Discovery Times Square. Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed so I will use pictures taken during my trips to Pompeii and Naples National Archaeological Museum to help illustrate this review.

The tour begins with a quick introductory film about Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD. It's one of four entertaining videos on view, including an interactive virtual eruption complete with vibrating floor and smoke machines. A larger than life marble statue of a dour Roman matron dressed in a traditional stola greets guests emerging from the mini-theater. Used as a tomb decoration, the funereal statue is a fitting way to begin an exhibit about the "tomb of a civilization."

Bacchus and Vesuvius,
Naples National Archaeological Museum
Next is a makeshift grotto and nymphaeum, a Roman fountain dedicated to a local water nymph, or Naiad. It is followed by a herm of the Roman patrician Marcus Fabius Rufus and four plaster friezes of Greco-Roman gods. According to i-Italy's interview with exhibit consultant Judith Harris one academic has criticized the inclusion of these replicas. There is concern that they may suggest to visitors that the other objects on display are also not authentic, which is not the case. In my estimation this should not be a problem because each object is clearly labeled. However, that being said, I must admit during my first visit to Pompeii I didn't realize the statue of The Dancing Faun at the Casa del Fauno was a copy until I saw the original later in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. So the academic does have a legitimate concern.

The exhibit boasts an impressive collection of over 250 items from all walks of Roman life. Pots, coins, surgical tools, scales, fishhooks, amphorae, anchors, lamps, furniture, jewelry, etc. are all on display — there is even a loaf of carbonized bread and examples of Roman graffiti on slabs of stone. My personal favorites were a pair of bronze Lares familiares statuettes and a highly ornate gladiator's helmet. Except for its discoloration and missing plumage the fierce looking Samnite-style helmet appeared to be in near-perfect condition and ready to be donned in the arena.


Drunken Silenus, Naples National Archaeological Museum

Displayed prominently among the surviving portions of decorative wall paintings is an exquisite bronze statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Equated with the Greek Dionysus, the much-venerated deity and his drinking companion Silenus are well represented in the principal gallery. One panel depicting Bacchus, his consort Ariadne, and Silenus reminded me of the painting of Io at Canopos from the Sanctuary of Isis (Naples National Archaeological Museum). The similarity in the expressive features is striking. Painted in what is termed the Fourth, or "Fantastic," Style of later Pompeian painting, I believe the same artist could have executed the works.


Reminiscent of Pompeii's famous lupanaria, the exhibit has a small replica room of a brothel, complete with lectus cubicularis (chamber bed) and miniature fresco of a prostitute pleasuring two pigmies. Separated from the rest of the exhibit, the sexually explicit nature of the room hints at the "scandalous" Secret Cabinet. The only thing missing was the phallic street markers pointing the way.

Phallus relief,
Pompeii


The highlight of the show is undoubtedly the collection of skeletal remains and plaster body casts of the victims. Buried beneath the hardened ash and rubble the decomposing corpses left cavities where they fell. During excavation the Neapolitan archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823-1896) poured plaster into the pockets, forming the macabre figures. Most disturbing (to me) were the casts of a writhing guard dog and the horrific expression preserved in the visage of a young child. The gruesome collection is the largest ever and a poignant reminder of the price paid for posterity's fortune.


A victim from the Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

I've been lucky enough to visit Pompeii twice so far, and visiting this exhibit brought back so many fond memories. The $25 admission fee is well worth the price considering you can only see most of these artifacts by visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum or the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius runs through September 2011 and I highly recommend it.

Discovery Times Square is located at 226 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue.

March 17, 2011

A Celebration of Genocide

By Niccolò Graffio

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • (a) Killing members of the group;
  • (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2, UN General Assembly, 9 December 1948.
Tomorrow will mark the “official” creation of the "nation" of Italy 150 years ago. I must confess that unlike many of my Southern Italian compatriots here in the United States, I shall not be in a celebratory mood. First and foremost because I long ago learned the true history of the so-called Risorgimento (It: “Resurgence”) which brought Italy into being. I learned in my youth there is no such creature as an ethnic Italian, in spite of what the bulk of humanity may otherwise believe.

I learned of the megalomaniacal ambitions of one Vittorio Emanuele II of the Kingdom of Savoy, Piedmont, and Piedmont-Sardinia (the “Prussia of Italy”) to unite the entire Italian peninsula and surrounding islands under the iron-fisted rule of his corrupt family. I learned of the duplicity of Giuseppe Garibaldi in garnering support for his expeditions against the natives of Italy.

I learned of the destruction of my ancestral homeland, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to accomplish this perfidious goal of “unification”. Unification, I might add, that eventually resulted in the emigration of hundreds of thousands of my people in a diaspora that continues down to this day.

What have we to celebrate, I ask you? The armies they sent to conquer and then to crush us robbed, raped and murdered us with impunity and without mercy. The Piedmontese dismantled the factories we had already begun building and shipped them north…or destroyed them outright! They allowed what arable lands remained for the use of the peasantry to be further amassed into huge latifundia, plantation systems around since the Roman Empire (and which Pliny the Elder called “the ruin of Italy”). In terms of human degradation and bondage, the peonage system of these latifundia rivaled anything seen on plantations in the antebellum South of the United States.

After they conquered us, those who didn’t flee to the far corners of the globe were forced to work for slave wages on these plantations, or in the factories built exclusively in the northern part of the new country. Southern Italy was basically reshaped into a huge agricultural colony populated by peons to guarantee a steady flow of cheap food and labor to the cities of the North.

They took our children and put them in schools they built to teach them Italian (a language their conqueror-king never bothered to learn, I might add). Our own native languages (Sicilian, Neapolitan, etc) were relegated to the status of crude dialects, in spite of the great bodies of literature written in them.

Injury (in the form of butchers like Enrico Cialdini and Gaetano Negri) wasn’t enough for them. They had to insult us, as well. They raised “scientists” like Cesare Lombroso, who used the pseudoscience of anthropological criminology to “prove” our inferiority relative to our "Padanian" masters, and therefore justify our continued lower-caste status. Just as the English used the degraded status of the Irish (which the English themselves caused) to justify their misrule over them, so too did “Italians” in the northern part of the country use the same over us, and still do to this day.

When the more intelligent and talented of our kind manifested themselves in whatever fields they endeavored in they were invariably called “Italians” to hide the truth of their ethnicity. Benedetto Croce, Ettore Majorana, Luigi Pirandello and a host of others too great to list here. I have seen this done too many times not to know the reason behind it.

All this smacks of a genocide against our people! To be sure, there will be those who claim the word “genocide” is too strong. I disagree. While our "fellow Italians" in the North may not have physically exterminated us (not from lack of trying), they went to great lengths to destroy our culture, history and spirit as a people. Sadly, to a great degree they were successful.

The great majority of our people who fled overseas were poor and uneducated. In most cases they readily assimilated into the new host populations. Even here, though, the bigotry of our conquerors followed us (in the form of immigrants from northern Italy). These “Italians” never hesitated to poison their hosts against us, for it aided their own attempts at acceptance and assimilation. Thus, it is not at all uncommon in places like America to find people who make a ready distinction between “Northern” and “Southern” Italians.

Some of us have not forgotten our roots, though. Among both our brethren in Italy and in the diaspora are those of us who keep the embers of ethnic identity alive. We wait for the day soon to come when the corruption of Northern industrialists plus the profligate spending of politicos in Rome bankrupts the pseudo-nation of Italy. Our hope is afterwards the embers we have kept burning will coalesce into a bonfire of ethno-nationalist sentiment that will sweep the South and culminate in a free and independent Repubblica dei Due Sicilie.

No, my friends, I will not be celebrating tomorrow. I have nothing to celebrate. After all, I am not an Italian. I am a Sicilian.

Further reading:

March 15, 2011

Celebrating our Resistance

There are many reasons not to celebrate Italy's 150th anniversary. For me, the trivial facts like Venice and Rome were not annexed until 1866 and 1870, respectively, or that the first King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, couldn't speak Italian, are not among them. For many of us the day is a grim reminder of the invasion of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Piedmont and the atrocities committed against our ancestors.

I could write about the Fenestrelle death camp, the massacre at Auletta or something similar (there is no shortage of material), but other consequences are just as important. We shouldn't focus exclusively on the negative aspects. We are a people with a rich, vibrant history and plenty to be proud of. The conquest of the Two Sicilies does not define us as a people. We are much more than the losers of the Risorgimento.

It can, unfortunately, be difficult to promote pride in our history when that history is vague to our own people. After unification our culture, history and languages were so repressed that today, even when unintentional, it's done almost by default. This is as much a crime against our people as the bloodshed. Without this knowledge, many people will not understand why we are protesting. We need to help them understand. Instead of simply denouncing unification, we should be commemorating our own Southern Italian heroes, history and traditions to counter it.

All this should be enough to protest the celebrations; however, my main reason is because today’s Italy offers little promise of a better future. Cultural leveling is still occurring. Anti-southern sentiment is still common, as is political and economic domination from the north. Movements that do address our situation often ally us to detrimental or foreign causes. In modern Italy, everyone seems to be using us to their own benefit, and not ours.

Italy's upcoming centocinquantenario stinks of desperation and chicanery. It's reminiscent of the mock plebiscites (and their predetermined outcomes) used to "legitimize" the military conquest and colonization of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Lacking any real substance, the state-sponsored celebrations simply serve as momentary distractions from lurid government scandals and urgent national issues: economic inequality, corruption, waste disposal, immigration, declining birthrates, etc.

Thankfully, the occasion is helping to galvanize southern Italian consciousness and the desire for historical truth. Protests were organized against the Lombroso Museum in Turin and Garibaldi's landing in Marsala; commemorations for the victims of Savoyard brutalities were held in Pontelondolfo and Gaeta; and an impressive show of force was mobilized at the San Paolo football stadium, where scores of tifosi flew the flag of our ancient Regno in opposition to the unpopular anniversary.

While not yet reaching the point of an all-out revolt, more and more southerners are no longer willing to meekly accept the status quo. They're actively working towards greater autonomy and self-determination. Hopefully this awakening won't just lead to a superficial change in government (Left or Right), where we could expect more of the same lies and broken promises, but instead into a true attempt to found a new southern homeland.

It would be poetic justice if the event meant to celebrate so-called "national unity" was the impetus needed to achieve southern independence.

Forza e onore!

March 14, 2011

The Murder of Sicilians in New Orleans

Among the Largest Mass lynchings in American History
Storming Parish Prison
By Lucian

When one thinks of frontier justice or violent lynchings in the United States, it conjures the specter of lawlessness in the old West or the anti-black intolerance of the Deep South. This is inevitable, not only because of the magnitude of such atrocities, but because of the attention brought to them by modern American society, which largely sprung from the political machines of the victorious North after 1865. Historical violence outside these categories, such as the New York’s Draft riots, is not censored, but neither are they given as serious attention. Of the lesser know violent events in America's past, one in particular attracted my attention several years ago. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I spent time in both Public and Catholic schools. Never once did they mention to me that one of the largest mass lynchings in American history was directed against Southern Italians, Sicilians specifically.

On October 15th, 1890 unknown assassins mortally wounded New Orleans Police Chief David C. Hennessy. It would be incorrect to state that the seeds of anti-Italian sentiment were sown on that day. It would be more accurate to say that this incident was used as a catalyst for feelings already being promoted by some American leaders at the time.

After being gunned down, one witness claimed that Hennessy said that “Dagos” were responsible for shooting him. After hearing this, New Orleans Mayor Joseph A. Shakespeare gave his police force the order to round up every Italian they came across. The spirit of his orders was followed and within a week, after several instances of brutality and illegal actions, hundreds were interrogated. This resulted in 18 Italian men and one 14-year-old boy being arrested and detained.
“We owe it to ourselves and to everything that we hold sacred in this life to see to it that this blow is the last. We must teach these people a lesson they will not forget for all time. What the means are to reach this end, I leave to the wisdom of the council to devise.” Pre-trial quote by Mayor Shakespeare. (From The Innocent Lynched, by Joseph Gentile, pgs. 16-17)
The 19 detainees were regularly beaten in an attempt to extract confessions. A confession was dragged from one of the men, Manuel Politz (Emmanuele Polizzi), but he was so obviously mentally ill that judge Baker ruled his testimony inadmissible during the trial. Jury tampering occurred even though there was not a single Italian on the jury. Several of the prosecutions “witnesses” could not keep their stories straight. Despite torture, fabricating evidence and other illegal tactics, the case was so weak that on March 13th, 1891 the jury members voted either not-guilty or mistrial. A second charge of “lying in wait to commit murder” had not been settled, but Judge Baker chose not to pursue it. He ruled, “their lives cannot be again imperiled by the law, and the State will in a day or two nolle pros the case and the men will go free”.


Mayor Shakespeare and the council, which orchestrated the arrests, were not pleased by this result. The council, also known as the Committee of 50, arranged a rally to rectify the problem.

“All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14th, at 10 o’clock A.M., at Clay Statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case. Come prepared for action.” (The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith, pg. 213)
Approximately 10,000 people were to have attended. A leading New York City newspaper wrote: “There was a crowd of young and old men, black and white, but mostly of the best element.”

The crowd was riled into a murderous rage by men such as William Parkerson (a crony of the Mayor) and John Wickliffe (a Kentucky lawyer who was expelled from West Point). The lynch mob proceeded to march on Parish Prison to impose their will with violence.

Elements of the police force tried to deter the lynch mob, but were overwhelmed. Warden Lemuel Davis tried valiantly to stop the angry mob from reaching the Sicilian prisoners, but failed. Eleven of the prisoners were killed. Their bodies were publicly displayed and each member of the mob was allowed to pass and view them, thousands took part in the gruesome procession.

No one was arrested. To add to the insult, William Parkerson one of the leaders of the lynch mob, enjoyed his freedom with celebrity status. The Federal government refused to interfere. Secretary of State Blaine even told the Italian ambassador “It is absolutely impossible for the federal government to interfere with the administration of justice in a single state.” Perhaps Secretary of State Blaine had forgotten about the politics surrounding his country’s Civil War less than three decades earlier.

The American reaction to the incident was varied; however, the Italian government suspended diplomatic relations with the U.S. because of it. Many American leaders and future leaders condoned the lynching; even Teddy Roosevelt was quoted as saying that it was “…rather a good thing.”

The unfortunate jurors were either bullied into leaving New Orleans or ruined financially. Predictably members of the Committee of 50 appeared to profit the most from the lynching and the seizure of Italian business interests afterward.

After learning about the events that took place on that fateful day I was reminded of other injustices that the U.S. government has recently apologized for; namely the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932-1972) and Guatemalan syphilis experiment (1946-1948). If they haven’t apologized for experimenting on 4,000 U.S. soldiers with mustard gas before the end of WW2, at least they finally officially admitted it in 1993. There are people who would call me un-American for bringing all this up, but if other demographic groups can say it then why can’t I, why is one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history just a footnote?

Before I began researching the lynching in New Orleans I asked people if they knew anything about it. Few did, and most of them believed that the Ku Klux Klan or a similar group organized it. I’m sure there must have been people like that who attended; the size of the crowd alone would almost guarantee it. However, after looking into it I found that the lynch mob consisted of both blacks and whites, and both participated directly in the killings.

Considering the “politically correct” stance that it currently promotes, it is not surprising that the American government overlooks the fact that the largest mass-lynching on it’s soil was organized by Capitalist political leaders and carried out by a multiracial mob against a small Southern European ethnic group. On the other hand, there could be a simpler reason for the lack of publicity; maybe they don’t feel that we are important enough to care about.

Unfortunately, New Orleans wasn’t the only place that this happened. In addition to Louisiana, Italians were lynched in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

I knew that we were discriminated against, but the magnitude of the violence against Italians in America was also something that I never learned about in school or from the media. I did not know it until I read the article Just Another Day in 'The Big Easy' — How an Entire City Committed Murdeby Niccolò Graffio. For a more detailed description of the mass lynching in New Orleans, and an interesting summary of the city’s history leading up to that point, I recommend reading it.

References:
• The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith
• The Innocent Lynched by Joseph Gentile
• Vendetta by Richard Gambino
• Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick (p193)

Amended on March 27, 2017