The Trouble with Direct Action

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This is the final instalment for rabble’s six-part series based on the book Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla, published by Between the Lines. Here, writer and activist Maggie Helwig presents her counterpoint to Ann Hansen’s point of view.

***

I do not believe in the escalation theory as it is held by many police officers — that the person who paints graffiti today will break a window tomorrow and move on to assassinating the prime minister by Friday. I do not condemn all forms of violence against property. But bombing presents a very particular problem.

Certainly, with the first Red Hot Video bombing (and I would like to take up the issue of censorship, but I just don’t have the space), if not with the Cheekeye/Dunsmuir dynamiting, the members of Direct Action crossed a crucial psychological threshold — they knowingly undertook actions which posed a risk to human life, a risk of causing not only possible injury, but possible death.

They must, on some level, have been aware that this risk, when you start playing with dynamite, may be reduced but can never be removed. And once that boundary has been crossed, once the willingness to kill has entered the picture, there are no more limits.

Hansen describes her anguish at the thought that the Litton bomb may have killed people. Yet that anguish seems to have been rather short-lived. At the time that she and the other members of Direct Action were arrested, they were planning an armed robbery. They were carrying weapons, and in fact heading into the mountains for target practice.

Whether Hansen wants to admit it or not, they had allowed into their thinking the possibility that they would directly and immediately inflict death upon human beings who worked for Woolco, Brinks or the police force; not even the decision-makers of the capitalist system, but participants at some of the lowest levels. And — there is no other way to say this — they were willing inflict death in order to gain possession of money.

Hansen was, by her own account, deeply distressed at this prospect; in fact, much of her book, Direct Action, is concerned with her evidently quite genuine emotional pain at the way she lived and some of the choices she made. Yet she does not report that she ever tried to change the group’s plans, or simply refuse to participate. She seems to have been caught up, by then, in a momentum of her own making that she could no longer control.

Violence has this way of taking charge of situations.

Looking back from a distance of nearly twenty years, what can we say about the political effects of the Litton bombing? It is probably fair, if not especially inspiring, to say that neither the bombing nor the non-violent campaign had any significant impact on the military industry. From a distance of nearly twenty years, it becomes apparent that the grassroots groups that materially changed the course of the Cold War and its arms race were people like the Moscow Trust Group and the Neither East Nor West Network, who concentrated on human rights in the Soviet bloc and on building relationships with activists on the “other side” of the superpower conflicts.

The effectiveness of the bombing in stemming the arms race, however, is not the real measure of its success or failure, because the intention was not so much to prevent the manufacture of cruise missiles as to ignite a larger social revolution. It seems reasonably clear that it didn’t work; it didn’t even come close to working.

(It is interesting that almost identical strategies can be employed by groups whose politics are profoundly antithetical; the abortion clinic bombers in the United States are acting less out of a desire to prevent abortions as such, and more because they are hoping to spark a “Christian” right-wing uprising. Even more depressingly, they seem to have been somewhat more successful than Direct Action was.)

On the other hand, the pacifist Cruise Missile Conversion Project (CMCP) can claim to have left behind a significant group of citizens who felt politically empowered, able to take action for social change; and many CMCP veterans are still active today on a variety of fronts.

The same cannot be said of the bombing, which was carried out by a very small cell, and which left the larger social movement feeling confused, sometimes angry and — given the police crackdown that followed — ultimately frightened and discouraged.

Hansen reports that Ivan LeCouvie, a CMCP activist, was treated brutally by the police in the wake of the bombing. She does not tell the rest of the story — that Ivan was so traumatized that he was effectively driven out of active work for social change.

Obviously, the police are the ones directly responsible for this, but it is disturbing that Hansen does not at any time acknowledge any degree of responsibility herself, and almost seems to blame the rest of the movement for not being prepared for a crackdown they had in no way invited nor even been warned of.

I remember waking up the day after the bombing, seeing the headlines and immediately thinking, “Oh shit, we’re in big trouble now” — a trouble we had no way of foreseeing or forestalling, brought on us without our consent; and made more severe by the fact that Direct Action did not come forward to admit to the bombing but allowed the police reaction to be directed widely against many uninvolved people.

I think that sometimes the left gets mixed up between the quite arguable position that capitalism is wrong, and the demonstrably incorrect position that capitalism is fragile. Capitalism, like it or not, has proven itself to be a remarkably flexible and resilient system; surpassed in this probably only by patriarchy, which has managed to thrive in every known human society to date. One or two, or even a hundred bombs, do not create a crisis in capitalism. They are a price that the system is easily able to absorb.

But social change does happen. It has rarely been spectacular or instant, but significant social change has taken place in my lifetime, and it might be worth looking at some successes; of which, surely, the most significant and wide-ranging is the change brought about by the women’s movement.

You cannot put your finger on a defining moment, a dramatic crisis, or even significant charismatic leaders. But when writer Alice Munro’s character, Ada, predicts that “there is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women,” she is speaking at the beginning of a truly revolutionary era.

Sometimes we do not realize just how much our society, our world, has changed, because the changes infiltrated us so quietly. But women in Canada now have access to birth control and abortion, legally, safely. We are not shamed and harassed out of universities. We are not legally subject to our husbands. Though domestic violence has not been eliminated, there are shelters, resources, possibilities for women to leave that never existed before, and the stigma has moved from the victim to the abuser. The way that rape and domestic abuse are handled in court has changed significantly. We can move in our lives in a way we could not before, and we are seeing women around the world stand up in their own cultures and use their own voices, demanding their right to live and move as well.

Sometimes the left hates to admit that change has taken place; somehow we seem to think it is a strategic error if we do not constantly present our situation as the Worst It Could Possibly Be. But our difficulty in acknowledging our victories as well as the remaining challenges may prevent us from being able to look at movements and strategies and actually see what works.

The women’s movement has worked because it has been as flexible, as protean, as the system it opposes. It has been something that women could participate in as part of their lives, whatever their lives might be. It has been a demand to live fully, and women have made that demand in all sorts of ways. And yes, this has included ways that are very much within the system, and some actions that have been, from my political position, deeply compromised.

But it is a part of the strength of feminism that it can encompass compromise and resistance, it has included women who held elected office and ran businesses as well as women who organized illegal abortion services and shut down corporate offices. It has made sense to a broad spectrum of people, and it has taken shape in every woman’s life, in the way she chose to live it, in the way that she felt was a fuller and truer life.

And overall, despite the compromises, despite the grey areas and despite the failures, it has made life better — not perfect, not utopian, but better — for every one of us, women and men.

There is something tragic buried in Direct Action. Hansen, for reasons that are apparently as mysterious to her as they are to me, does not seem to have seen much value in her own life; she puts aside what was apparently a deeply felt desire to have a child in favour of a wretched kind of self-inflicted martyrdom.

There’s not much indication that she enjoyed being an urban guerrilla; her unhappiness pervades the book. “I had no bad memories to obliterate,” she writes. “Why was I choosing this path that would inevitably lead to self-destruction with little or no social change as a result?” She speaks of:

... a compulsion to complete this mission to fight in every way I could a society that made [a young Native prostitute’s] life inevitable. I truly believe that if there was a God and he or she appeared in front of me and said “Ann, if you are willing to die right now, no more animals will become extinct at the hands of man, horses will run free, no more rivers will be cesspools for factories, and no more Native girls will have to be prostitutes,” I would willingly have sacrificed myself.

I do not for a moment doubt Hansen’s sincerity. But what ever gave this poor young woman the idea that to make the world better, she had to sacrifice her own life and all her own desires? What ever made her think that God would want the destruction of Ann Hansen in exchange for the world?

What can I say to this but that God (for I personally believe there is a God) wants us to love our lives as truly as we do the lives of others? I want to tell the young Ann Hansen to go, have her babies if she wants them, and raise them well, raise them to love and struggle and live as fully as they can. Make art, make music, go to school if you want to, cook good meals; have friends for the sake of having friends, not just because they are revolutionary comrades. Work for social change, absolutely, but let your activism grow out of your own being, out of love for a world that includes yourself.

If we begin by believing that the world is forcing us to sacrifice our own lives for the sake of justice, we will end by believing that the world is forcing us to sacrifice the lives of others.

Maggie Helwig is a Toronto writer and activist who has worked withmany peace, environmental and human rights groups. Her latest book,Where She Was Standing, is a novel set in England, East Timor andCanada, published by ECW Press.

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