Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla
By Ann Hansen (Between the Lines/AK Press, 2002)
Paperback/493pp/No price given/ISBN 1 902593 48 0
This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in revolutionary anarchist praxis. The author, Ann Hansen, writes of her involvement in the Canadian urban guerrilla group 'Direct Action', evoking an era of daring possibility through superb prose.
In the early 1980s the Canadian political scene had fully awakened to the ecological and nuclear devastation threatening vast areas of its pristine wilderness. In Vancouver, British Columbia, thousands flocked to demonstrations and rallies in a vain attempt to prevent the collusion of capitalism and the state in exploiting these natural resources. Against this background of protest and a strong punk counterculture in the city, a determined group of anarchist idealists decided to push the struggle in a more militant direction, hoping that their actions would inspire others to build a revolutionary movement capable of taking apart the prevailing structures of power.
This book is the story of Direct Action - a small urban guerrilla group whose dramatic acts of economic sabotage gave them world-wide notoriety. Their struggle was relatively short-lived. The headline grabbing bombings of the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir hydro-electric power line on Vancouver Island, and Litton systems plant in Toronto (where Cruise missile components were being built) succeeded in focusing the full resources of police investigation and surveillance on their activities. Despite being largely underground, the group were ambushed and captured on their way to a weekly shooting practice session near the town of Squamish less than one year after the group began. The 'Squamish Five', as they became known, were later tried and sentenced to between ten years and life for their actions.
Ann Hansen, the author of this book, was one of the founders of the group, and the book is testament to her unswerving political beliefs. She began on the path to urban guerrilladom whilst living in Germany and becoming involved in the support of the Red Army Faction, whose militancy and ideals she greatly admired. However, aware that Europe was far ahead in the field of militant resistance, she opted to return to her native Canada in the hope of building a guerrilla movement there. She moved to Vancouver, finding political community in the vibrant counterculture of activists inhabiting the city. In a relatively liberal nation-state, mass popular protest had crystallised around a number of ecological and anti-nuclear issues. The imminent testing of American cruise missiles on Canadian soil had created a movement of outraged opposition, yet for all the rallies, it had achieved very little. Hansen documents the gradual coalescence of the 'Direct Action' group from a few individuals seeking to move beyond single-issue campaigns and protest tactics into more militant and revolutionary acts of defiance. She met up with Brent Taylor and Doug Stewart through the Vancouver political scene, and the three were later joined by Gerry Hannah and Julie Belmas from the punk counterculture. In contrast to the mainstream peace and environmental groups, Direct Action was anarchist, anti-capitalist and eco-feminist from its inception; politics which consciously informed their actions: "We're not just opposed to pollution, nuclear technology and all that stuff. We're opposed to the entire lifestyle and values of this society." (p. 65)
This rejection is very evident in the complete lifestyle of resistance led by the group. Clearly (and rightly!) proud of their blagging, scamming, robbing and other nefarious activities, Hansen writes extensively of their many excursions into petty crime. This countercultural lifestyle was blatantly lived for its own ends - and Hansen admits they were a little obsessed with theft. Yet these activities were also critical to prepare for their political actions - obtaining the necessary cars, cash, false ID and dynamite needed to go underground and undertake uncompromising acts of sabotage. Of this time Hansen writes: "I loved the excitement of our lives during those months. I would wake up in the morning never knowing exactly what new adventure the day would bring." (p. 48) This reminds us of the way in which many urban guerrillas have ended up getting caught. Although it wasn't what got Direct Action nicked, many underground groups have been caught through their unrelated (and often completely gratuitous) excursions into shoplifting or other similar petty crime. As some people are fond of saying, "If you going to break the big laws, don't break the small ones!"
The days brought solidarity work, political discussion, and self-education on issues facing British Columbia. Strategically, they were concerned with building up public support for militant actions on issues that already had a momentum of resistance. Their first actions were relatively small-scale, targeting Amax - a large mining corporation whose toxic waste dumping was causing sea-pollution and affecting the way of life of the indigenous coastal population. First they graffittied the company's head office, and later did a nocturnal paint-bomb and flare attack on the Ministry of the Environment which was sanctioning Amax's activities. They hoped their action would create publicity and garner positive support. However, despite sending out communiqués, the group's actions were labelled as petty vandalism, and they swiftly planned to move on to more dramatic tactics which could not be so easily dismissed.
Their next target was to be the much-hated Cheekeye-Dunsmuir powerline construction on Vancouver Island - a development symptomatic of the growing industrialisation of the island. Conventional tactics had totally failed to halt this project, and the group decided to up the ante by blowing up a portion of the line. Having earlier stolen dynamite stored by the government to clear highway landslips, Ann and Doug took out one of the crucial substations on the hydroelectric line. The action certainly created the desired publicity, as well as considerable support from those whose conventional methods of campaigning against this much-hated project had failed. However, the unprecedented action was immediately the focus of a intense police investigation, and in order to continue their tactical escalation, Direct Action were now forced fully underground.
The paraphernalia of urban guerilladom which the group had been preparing prior to the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir action now came into use. They rented an apartment using false ID, went on regular shooting practice sessions with their stolen cache of guns, and began to prepare for their next hit.
It is clear that some of the group found the transition to underground status more problematic than others. For Ann, the step was a logical and expected necessity, "...even if I had to sacrifice seeing my friends and family in order to make a significant contribution to revolutionary change it was all worth it." (p. 387) However, for some members of the group - notably Gerry and Julie - this way of life caused deep stress, and there was clearly a great deal of interpersonal tension within the small group. Hansen writes about these group dynamics with a total frankness, leaving the reader in no doubt about the unromantic realities of life on the run.
Some of the group decided to leave the heat of the West Coast and head for Toronto to carry out their next action - bombing the Litton systems plant where cruise missile components were being manufactured. Despite careful preparations intended to minimise the likelihood of injury to those working in the plant, the bombing went badly wrong. Police failed to clear the building following a telephone warning, and unpredictably the timing device was triggered early, creating a scene of carnage unforeseen by the group. Amazingly no one in the plant was killed, but Direct Action now found themselves catapulted into a glaring limelight they hadn't wished for. After initially considering suicide, the group decided that they should go on, but that their communiqué claiming the action should include a sincere apology and acknowledgement of the mistakes made. (Hansen usefully includes copies of the main Direct Action communiqués as Appendices in the book.)
This communiqué, along with the others written by Direct Action, was to prove the downfall of the group. Whilst they continued to plan further actions and robberies, a journalist in Vancouver had noticed a striking similarity between the style of the communiqués and that of editorials written in a defunct radical magazine distributed in the city. The editorials were in the name of 'The Friends of Durutti', who had a PO box address in Vancouver. Once the police were tipped off, they swiftly made connections between the registered PO box holder (a friend, political ally and ex-flatmate of Brent's) and the group. Unfortunately, their previous public campaigning efforts had given some of them enough of a police file to make them viable suspects. When they were located on their return to Vancouver, they were immediately placed under surveillance.
Hansen dedicates about a third of the book to describing this time between the Litton bombing and their capture, piecing together the story with her own memories, supplemented by documentary evidence gathered by the police. At times the detailed recounting of their daily lives makes slightly frustrating reading, but it does serve to paint a realistic picture of the group's claustrophobia and rising paranoia. Surprisingly, despite their concerns the group were planning a substantial robbery, as well as further actions. In fact, Ann and Julie decided to involve others outside the group, in order to work on a women's anti-pornography action against the much-hated Red Hot Video chain. As the net of police investigation closed in, the 'Wimmins Fire Brigade' firebombed 3 of the Red Hot Video stores, garnering considerable support from the various groups campaigning to close down the hardcore porn dealers.
Despite being aware of the group's activities, the police held off from arresting the five until they had secured wire-tap evidence of their involvement in the Litton bombing. As soon as this was secured, (a graphic lesson in not discussing your political activities in the 'seclusion' of your own home!) the state prepared an ambush to catch the group on its way to shooting practice near Squamish. The 'Squamish Five' were swiftly behind bars, facing over a hundred charges.
The account of the surveillance and capture of Direct Action makes chilling reading; the police appointed 'watchers' to follow each member of the group, approached their neighbours to gain co-operation in monitoring and wire-tapping their apartment, and tailed their vehicles wherever they went. Hansen's detailed description of the police operation is particularly illuminating since much of the dialogue comes verbatim from the evidence given in court. However, her use of composite characters (to whom she ascribes thoughts and feelings), both here and in other parts of the book is something I found problematic. Stylistically, it certainly makes the book more readable (and this is one of the reasons for recommending the book so highly), but the mixture of fact and fiction can leave the reader questioning its authenticity. I don't want to be too critical of this feature, however, as it is rare to be reading a first-hand account of a group like Direct Action and the fact that Hansen is the author, rather than some random biographer gives the book an indisputable level of credibility. (There is of course the issue of bias, but Hansen never claims to be writing an objective account of the group's history.)
In terms of the book's relevance for the present time, a number of things can be said. It is certainly debatable whether many of the techniques used by Direct Action would still be viable - cars these days are surely more secure, robberies are complicated by the prevalence of CCTV, and criteria for ID becomes ever more stringent. This is a shame, since some of the book's detailed descriptions lend it the air of a 'how-to' manual! Yet even if the methods are outdated by 21st Century technology, the group's sense of possibility and determination to achieve their political goals remains inspiring. And whilst other members of the group may have renounced their notorious past on release from prison, Hansen has used her freedom to explain their actions without apology. Throughout the book she engages with the difficult political and philosophical questions which informed her life as an urban guerrilla, and her writing now. Foremost amongst these issues is the problem of trying to create revolutionary change in a climate where the aims of protest are largely reformist, the tactics are generally kept within 'acceptable' limits, and the support for greater militancy is nominal. For those of us at the present time attempting to resist the mega-machine of global capitalism, highly militarised nation states, and social power structures which oppress and compromise our freedom, we would do well to heed Hansen's ultimate conclusions;
"There are many different forms of direct action, some more effective than others at different points in history, but in conjunction with other forms of protest, direct action can make the movement for change more effective by opening avenues of resistance that are not easily co-opted or controlled by the state. Unfortunately, people within the movement weaken their own actions by failing to understand and support the diverse tactics available. Instead of forming a unified front, some activists see the sabotage of destructive property by protesters as being on the same level as the violence of the state and corporations... If we accept that all violence is the same, then we have agreed to limit our resistance to whatever the state and corporations find acceptable. We have become pacified. Remaining passive in the face of today's global human and environmental destruction will create deeper scars than those resulting from the mistakes we will inevitably make by taking action." (p. 471).