Direct Action: Memoirs Of An Urban Guerilla
Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Wednesday, March 27 2002, 8:35 AM
During the early 80s, Ann Hansen was a member of the Squamish Five in Vancouver, B.C. With four associates, she founded the militant group of the same name, using violent means in order to achieve her organization's ends. From the proseletyzing passages of the early part of the book, Direct Action fused together a variety of different post-sixties ideologies. Their lifestyle encompassed an anarcho-communist spirit, with thought informed by social ecology, radical pacifism and the anti-pornographic feminism popular in Canada during the time. Anyone interested in the history of contemporary militancy should check out this memoir, particularly if you're looking for a monograph of the iconographic fringe of radical activist culture currently associated with John Zerzan, the Animal Liberation Front, and to a lesser extent, the Black Bloc.
Direct Action's first activity was the bombing of a group of transformers along the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir electrical line. Some Canadians were upset that the only reason for the construction of the line was to support the industrial development of Vancouver Island. The demolition of the transformers didn't do much to prevent British Columbia Hydroelectric and simply turned up the heat on protestors of the project. The logistics behind the bombing are fairly interesting, provided by Hansen in excruciating detail. Direct Action got a lot of information from Soldier Of Fortune, the magazine for mercenaries, and the author does convey the sheer adrenaline rush these thrill-seeking revolutionaries got from their training.
In their next operation, the group bombed the Litton Systems of Canada plant in Toronto. Litton was manufacturing guidance systems for cruise missiles. Direct Action failed to take into account some basic logistics and a number of people were injured in the process. Their communique expressed remorse at the injuries, but the complexities of the ethical underpinnings of whether the means justified the ends might have been more thoroughly explored. Because U.S. defense contractors meticulously tracked problems with foreign subcontractors, the contract with Litton to build the guidance system was cancelled. The scale of the explosion, close to half a ton of dynamite, stolen from a construction company, put the Canadian authorities on Direct Action's trail.
After their return to B.C., Hansen became heavily involved with the radical feminist movement, helping to plan the fire-bombing of several Red Hot Video stores. Red Hot carried violent pornographic videotapes, depicting women subjugated to sadistic sex acts. These fire-bombings garnered tremendous community support and ended up helping inspire the enactment of the toughest anti-pornography laws in North America. Those who have followed anti-pornography and other freedom of expression legislation might note that the same laws were used to confiscate books by Andrea Dworkin and other feminist writings in Canada. Hansen might have spent some time analyzing the moral contradictions and political ironies inherent in this, but she never deals with the complexity of the issues involved.
By this point, Direct Action came under surveillance. This is where the book becomes much more interesting. Clearly, Hansen had access to transcripts from government listening devices. Direct Action had been stealing cars but began to plan the armed robbery of a Brinks truck driver. The expansion of the group from three members to five amplified their internal conflicts during the decision-making process. Interesting juxtapositions between Hansen's internal exegesis of the group's activity and the Canadian authorities' external investigation show a clash of social ideologies and obviously antithetical viewpoints.
This first person account of involvement in militant anti-authoritarian activity is a valuable addition to the field of revolutionary writings. I imagine that some portions might resemble what one would read in a Harlequin Romance novel, particularly the book's passages where Hansen describes her relationship with Brent Taylor. I was also disappointed with the lack of serious self-criticism, particularly in regards to the moral dilemmas involved in using violence to achieve progressive political ends. Accounts of pre-surveillance dialogue in Direct Action also seem fairly contrived.
Such deficits aside, practical suggestions and tips abound throughout Direct Action, as do some probably antiquated police counter-surveillance techniques. However, there's more here than simply a new edition of William Powell's Anarchist Cookbook or Dave Foreman's Ecodefense. Hansen points out the consequences of such activity, as all members of the group spent serious time in jail. This is the point in the book where all of the ambiguity of Direct Action's handling of the just employment of violence comes into sharp focus, almost as though it were a cautionary morality tale for would be young militants. A fascinating read, particularly given recent coverage of Illych Ramirez, AKA Carlos the Jackal's engagement to his French attorney and the purported return of the Red Brigades in Italy.
Direct Action is available from AK Press