Ann Hansen, in conversation with Peter Steven of Between the Lines Press, 2001
Peter Steven: Direct Action is a book about radical politics that might seem uncomfortably close to advocating violence. Given the events of September 11 in the U.S. what are your thoughts and feelings about what happened in New York and Washington?
Ann Hansen: My first reaction was deep sorrow for those who died and compassion for those who must endure the pain of living without those people. Sadly, those who died were the innocent victims of both the suicide-bombers and the U.S. legacy in the Middle East. Sadly, because those who died were no more responsible for U.S. foreign policy than the Afghan people are of the Taliban’s policies.
PS: During your days in the early 1980s as a member of “The Squamish Five” or “Direct Action” you committed robberies, firebombed stores, and toppled hydro towers, in British Columbia, and bombed the Litton plant in Toronto. Most people who pick up your book will want to know if you still believe in political violence. How do you respond?
AH: I am certainly not opposed to peaceful protest. Yet, I also believe that to make real social change people and movements must be prepared to go beyond. In some cases that means so-called political violence. We didn’t see ourselves as terrorists. I prefer the term sabotage because that implies a strategic action, with references to economic issues, and not simply a violent reaction or lashing out in frustration. I don’t agree with terrorism as a political tactic because it is morally wrong to punish the innocent for the crimes of their leaders. And it’s not politically effective because fear does not enlighten people, but instead will often drive them to support even more reactionary actions by their leaders.
Our goals were to expose Litton’s role in arms production and to stop the environmental destruction within B.C.
PS: You’ve admitted some mistakes. Are you sorry about the past?
AH: I’m sorry about some things that happened, but not everything. An underground group was probably not necessary–we should not have been so isolated from the social movements. The bomb we used at the Litton building was too big and we didn’t properly assess the police response. We thought that they would take our warning seriously and clear the building. I am very sorry that people were hurt. And yet, there was, and is, huge damage being done by our governments–look at the legacy of the Cruise missile, in the Gulf War, for instance.
PS: How would you now assess your mistakes: youthful naivety, impatience, poor politics?
AH: We suffered from all those mistakes, and we also didn’t fully think through the consequences. But the most important error was in not realizing that without a revolutionary social movement in place urban guerrilla tactics won’t work–there is no continuity. These links between social movements and radical actions are strategic political questions that must be addressed. Global warming and climate change are huge problems–nobody seems very concerned.
PS: What was the biggest misconception that people had about your group?
AH: That we believed we could create a revolution ourselves. On the contrary, our aims were always more modest–to jolt activists into seeing the seriousness of the issues, and to hope that our radical actions might spark a new militancy. During our trial and afterwards we were looked at with a magnifying glass, but there was no serious discussion about the need for, and effectiveness of, our strategies.
PS: What were your thoughts when you saw the demonstrators at Quebec City and Seattle?
AH: I felt great. Here, finally, is a broad-based movement that encompasses so many issues. The mainstream media gravitate to the sensational and the most violent of tactics. They ignore the substance. Of course, the demonstrators went to Quebec with many motives. For some it’s exciting to be involved and close to danger. It’s also the result of genuine frustrations. I like to see these events in all the shades of grey.
What the media have missed in the recent international protests is that the actions are not indiscriminate. The targets are generally international corporations with a bad public record towards the environment or their workers, etc. These include the banks, the big car companies, the high-end clothing outfits, the McDonalds of the world. In other words the targets are politically motivated. Let’s not forget that politically directed events formed an important element in the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam movements.
PS: Is your book meant to be a cautionary tale for young political people today?
AH: Yes, to some extent it is. Many young people in this contemporary moment don’t think through the consequences of their actions. There are risks involved in serious political opposition and certainly when engaging in sabotage. Young people today could, perhaps romantically, duplicate our actions and also, like us, act without understanding the consequences. People should realize that the powerful will not sit back. There will be repression. But I mainly want the book to inspire more militancy, not less.
I really want a discussion of “going beyond.” I want real debate about these issues of sabotage and of going beyond legal protest. Unfortunately, there has been almost no reasoned discussion of illegal actions or uncivil disobedience. But history has shown that violence will be used by the police and the state, and some in the opposition will always move in that direction as well. So we must discuss it.
PS: Many people in the peace movement, such as the Toronto Disarmament Movement activist Murray MacAdam, argue that your forms of protest set the movement back. How would you respond to that?
AH: I respect his work but I still feel that if there is going to be social change there will be repression. If a movement is not strong enough to withstand some of this repression or stand up to the dominant media it’s not very effective. As one sympathetic writer put it, the “Direct Action people were not about to give the state the right to determine the allowable limits of protest.”
As far as the Red Hot Video actions were concerned, I believe we were directly effective. We shut down some of those places, they never reopened, and the public perception was turned around.
PS: Some feminists today might question your attacks on video pornography in the Red Hot Video chain.
AH: Red Hot was a special case. They carried the really violent videos. We firebombed those places because of the violence against women, not because they were simply pornographic. Red Hot specialized in explicit violence, gang rapes where the women were obviously not consenting. I believe in the effect of an increasing desensitization of people towards violence, and I believe that violent images of women are damaging.
PS: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
AH: Being honest in talking about our life-styles, talking about actions that were unacceptable or were mistakes. We were normal people, with flaws, like everyone else. It was difficult, but extremely important not to censor myself. My honesty was not “brutal” when discussing other people, but I do emphasize that in retrospect our decisions were not always the best.
The writing process was painful. There was social pressure from many directions and pressure from the authorities not to speak, but to put everything behind me. And yet the writing was also therapeutic because I had a strong desire to put our actions into a historical context. My memories and analysis are no longer just a memoir.
PS: You have said that you admire the M.P. Svend Robinson and anti-globalization activist Maude Barlow. In the past wouldn’t you have seen them as hopelessly compromised by working within the system?
AH: I’ve always admired Svend Robinson. He follows the beat of his own drum and he’s involved for the right reasons. He has a real idealism and honesty, and he was the only politician to visit us in prison. Social change occurs as the result of many actions and in huge social movements. There is no one way. I am now wary of simplistic thinking and of oversimplifying the political system and human beings. I was intolerant. I hope I’m less so now. I worry that too many people are passive and complicit. Maude and Svend certainly aren’t.
PS: Why do you spend so much time writing about the details of the robberies and the mechanics of the actions? Doesn’t that tend to sensationalize the events?
AH: Well, yes I suppose some readers might find that sensational. However, I wrote in detail about our robberies and small crimes to show what our life really was like. Once we decided to go underground we had to find money and food and the means to carry out the actions. Regular jobs and support from others didn’t seem possible. We cut ourselves off–by necessity.
The conversations and situations that I write about during our underground life were largely based on wiretap evidence gathered by the police and used in our trial. They show the dynamics of the group, the pressures, tensions, and problems that we faced. It isn’t pretty and I see it as anti-romantic. A true crime book like mine is hardly sensational or violent compared to something like The Sopranos that is hugely promoted by mainstream media.
Ann Hansen lives on a farm near Kingston, Ontario. Formerly the co-owner of a cabinet-making business, she is now a freelance writer.