Saturday 4 March 2017
The Heart of a Gun
A review of Ann Hansen, Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla
By Michael Schmidt
If I was to start talking to you about the Canadian anarchist guerrilla movement, you’d go “The what?” because in the modern era, outside of the separatist actions of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) over 1963-1970, and the armed Mohawk resistance over 1989-1990, Canada has not proven to be fertile ground for guerrilla movements.
But, like the Swedish anarchist guerrilla woman I interviewed a few years back, such a movement, however marginal and forgotten, did once exist, and in this day of increasing anarchist militancy in the North Atlantic world – even if a Black Bloc is a poor shadow of the armed struggle underway in the Rojava Revolution – is becoming relevant again, especially for the political and ethical lessons it provides.
Ann Hansen’s detailed memoirs of her migration from a nature-loving farm-girl to an armed urban guerrilla completely at home with automatic weaponry, who was finally given life imprisonment for her pains, makes for intriguing reading.
The heart of this heavily dialogue-driven book is the ethical conundrums facing militant anarchists in the developed West where conditions have seldom been conducive to guerrilla actions. Frustrated by a “democratic” government that built mega hydroelectric projects, collaborated on guidance systems for US cruise missiles, and allowed the public sale of violent misogynous pornography, with its ears completely deaf to the reasonable pleas of the affected communities, Hansen and a small group of friends formed a guerrilla cell called Direct Action in 1982.
Enervated by a year-long trip to Germany in which she had made friends among the outer support rings of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), and inspired by the then-current insurgency of the Sandanista rebels in Nicaragua, Hansen and her partner Brent Taylor were clearly the intellectual leaders of the cell, which also included former punk bassist Gerry Hannah of The Subhumans, his 20-year-old girlfriend Julie Belmas, and an anarchist loner, Doug Stewart.
Much of Hansen’s book is dedicated to the complex interpersonal relations of the group and a heartfelt yet unflinching self-interrogation of the stresses and contradictions imposed on their friendships and politics by having to live clandestinely, shoplifting food to survive, and stealing vehicles and identities to stay undetected, and gear, dynamite and weapons for their actions.
For example, after two years of living underground, and having already bombed the turbines of a hydroelectric line and the Litton cruise missile works in Toronto – which mistakenly resulted in several severe injuries to staff – and firebombing a chain of video porn stores, she writes: “The side-effects of our unhealthy social isolation were beginning to surface. There weren’t enough social outlets for our emotions, and we didn’t have other friends who could act as sounding boards for our ideas and behaviour. If I had doubts about what we were doing, I could only share them with the converted – us. This situation of not being accountable or responsible to anyone was leading to questionable political decisions.”
This is the crux of the matter when it comes to anarcho-insurrectionism: can it truly act as a raiser of popular consciousness and a catalyst of combined action by the masses, or is it self-isolating and ultimately socially unsanctioned and so politically irresponsible behaviour?
While I recognise insurrectionism as an important minority strain within the anarchist movement with much historical legitimacy depending on the objective circumstances within which groups operated, there are vast differences between full-scale anarchist armies like the 110,000-strong Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) defending a free zone of some 2-million people and yet submitting itself to the decisions of plenaries of peasants, workers and insurgents (in much the same way as today’s Zapatistas submit their guerrilla forces to civilian oversight), and the precipitate action of a tiny isolated group.
A far more fair comparison, however, would be between Direct Action and the militant actions of a similarly small group, like the Algerian section of the Mouvement Libertaire du Nord Africain (MLNA) over 1954-1957; but the MLNA was fighting in a liberation war against a French ultra-right colonial regime, whereas nowhere near similarly threatening conditions obtained in Canada in the early 1980s.
In some respects, Direct Action were nevertheless a child of their time, forming at the tail end of a series of anarchist armed groups in the shadow of the late Cold War that distinguished themselves from the RAF and other Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movements of the time: Resistencia Libertaria of Argentina, the Angry Brigade of Britain, the Komando Autonomo Antikapitalistak (KAA) of Basque Country, early Action Directe (AD) of France, the pan-European tendency fighting the Spanish dictatorship that culminated in the Groups of International Revolutionary Action (GARI), and Organización Popular Revolucionaria - 33 Orientales (OPR-33) of Uruguay.
Hansen is hard on herself for her decisions, especially those that resulted in the injuring of 10 people in the Litton bombing – and the negative impact on the youngest of the cell, Julie Belmas. Belmas conducted her own defence, diverged from their unified political line during her trial (this is not mentioned by Hansen), was sentenced to 20 years, and is reported to be busy writing her own biography. Hansen has adequately soul-searched and performed her mea culpa where necessary – but also in the book and in subsequent talks, she has maintained the necessity for militant direct action.
Though over-long, Hansen’s testimony is remarkable for its believable reconstruction of long-past dialogue and emotion, including those of the police on the guerrillas’ tail: at least the latter chapters of conversation obviously derives from transcripts of the bugs police planted in the cell’s homes.
It is a valuable exposition of the transformation of anarchist youth in a formally “democratic” yet actually unyielding and uncaring political environment, a trajectory that so many of my own generation started out on so long ago, from late Cold War punk rockers to serious anarchist revolutionaries – with the difference that she went on to engage in armed struggle.
It was not a step taken lightly, and she paid a heavy price (she wound up spending eight years in prison) for relatively small political gains. I respect both her honesty and her actions because armed struggle – preferably in defence of a mass movement of the oppressed classes – remains a necessary anarchist option against the callous anti-societies of neo-liberalism and neo-fascism.
As former GARI guerrilla Ariane Gransac Sedori told me a few years ago while cooking up a delicious dinner in her kitchen, “The only thing I love more than armed struggle is this!” and she punched her index finger forward in the air, indicating how she would switch off the unreal and false world offered by capitalist television.
* A CBC documentary on Direct Action is here.