Farewell Fellow Worker Justin Vitiello—Teacher, Poet, & Class Warrior
By Nathaniel Miller, X343337
Justin Vitiello grew up in New York City and lived for many years in Philadelphia where he taught Italian at Temple University involving himself with various local anarchist activities. He was a published poet and spoke at least three languages fluently. Justin traveled extensively and lived in Italy, Spain and Algeria. He attended the Port Huron conference, organized with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Poor People’s Campaign, established anti-mafia collectives with Sicilian anarchists, and devoted his life to working-class struggle. Justin was an IWW member for years, always made sure to pay his dues well in advance, and served on the IWW’s International Solidarity Commission with whom he traveled to Mexico, Haiti and Palestine. It was during the later two ISC delegations that I came to love and respect him.
While Justin was around the Philadelphia IWW General Membership Branch long before me, I didn’t get to know him until 2008 when we traveled as part of the IWW delegation to visit with workers in Haiti. I vividly remember drinking rum with him one night on the roof of the guesthouse we were staying in, a building leveled less than two years later in the earthquake, looking across Port Au Prince to the ocean, the city mostly dark without electricity in the vast shanty towns below, the mountains behind us lit with the villas of that incredible nation’s tiny elite. Justin was instinctively on the side of those the world over who stand outcast and starving amidst the wonders they’ve made.
Justin was 40 years older than the rest of us on that trip to Haiti, and the delegation to Palestine two years later, yet despite his age and a bad hip he was able to keep pace as we shuttled from one meeting with workers to the next. Memories of Justin stream back. May Day 2008 walking around Port Au Prince trying to keep up with the fluid demonstrations taking place; the day we were caught in a flash flood coming back from a meeting with a worker/peasant cooperative in the mountains where we ate fresh mangos while we listened to workers’ stories. Occupied Palestine—Ramallah, Hebron, Jerusalem, Nazareth…
He had a sharp wit and sense of humor too. Our Palestinian hosts invited us to visit with a group of political prisoners in the Golan Heights who had just been released. We were stopped at an Israeli checkpoint. Justin was taken off the bus for further questioning. The Israeli soldiers asked him what he was doing on a charter bus full of known Palestinian activists whereupon he pretended to be a confused old man, telling his interrogator he’d always wanted to see the Golan as he’s heard it was beautiful so he boarded this bus in Jerusalem and didn’t know who any of these people were. Somehow that worked. I’ve too many of those small memories to write here. Mostly I remember Justin as a man who lived his life in solidarity with his fellow workers.
Justin self identified as an anarchist, a teacher, and a poet. Until the last he was a fighter, and like all great working-class soldiers understood that we must fight for bread and roses too. Justin organized poetry readings against the mafia in Sicily, telling me that the best way to fight hate and ignorance was simply take a public space as collective triumph over fear, and in Philadelphia he always stood on the picket lines. That fearless determination is his legacy. Farewell Fellow Worker.