.… hearing that Pacifism As Pathology: Reflections On The Role Of Armed Struggle In North America was going into its 3rd edition took me back to this piece, originally published in 1988 in Open Road … an reflection on / analysis of the role of armed struggle , particularly within the context of Canada and the actions of Direct Action / The Vancouver Five …
THE POLITICS OF BOMBS
REFLECTIONS ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF ARMED STRUGGLE IN CANADA
The quality of the response to the article, “Julie Rats Out”, in Resistance no. 10, and the recent discussion surrounding the letter to Open Road, indicate the degree to which we, as a movement, have not addressed even the most basic issues raised by the actions of Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, or the subsequent arrest and trials of the Vancouver 5.
It has been our tendancy to treat this example of armed resistance within the boundaries of the Canadian State as if it were an isolated, unprecedented, and wholly ahistorical event. After all, with the exception of the FLQ in Quebec between ’63 and ’70, Canada has no modern experience with homegrown armed resistance – in fact, very little history of militant resistance of any stripe. It is our weakness that we fail to recognize that in this way Canada is not representative of West European societies, but is, in fact, unique. Virtually every other West European society has developed and sustained an armed movement since the early 70s. If we are to understand the Direct Action – Wimmin’s Fire Brigade – Vancouver 5 experience, if we are to critically assimilate and build upon it, we must look at it in this broader context of West European – American resistance.
Why Armed Struggle?
If we are to look at armed struggle as a serious option within the Canadian State, we must establish what we believe to be the objective goals of armed struggle. Clearly stated armed struggle has three potential purposes in the situation in which we are currently living:
(1) armed propaganda.
(2) sabotage – causing real material damage to the State apparatus and capitalism.
(3) pose the revolutionary option; lay the base for a future popular armed resistance.
(1) Armed Propaganda
“The coordination of urban guerilla actions, including each armed action, is the principal way of making armed propaganda. These actions, carried out with specific and determined objectives, inevitably become propaganda material for the mass communications .”
-Carlos Marighella, “Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla”
All guerilla actions are inevitably armed propaganda. The success of such actions as propaganda tools, however, depends on a variety of factors. The greater the degree to which the target of the action is associated in popular consciousness with some aspect of oppression, the greater the ease with which it can find broad-based support. If the target has been a clear focus for ongoing work on the part of the legal movement, the reason for the action will be immediately clear, at least to those comrades aware of the issue. This will be especially true if the activities of the legal movement have failed toalter the behavior of the target, despite an ongoing and consistent campaign. The timing in this case is important. Armed propaganda will be most effective if the legal movement has hit an apparent impasse.
It is equally important to the overall propaganda success of an armed action that innocent lives not be endangered. Any reticence regarding armed struggle within the movement will be reinforced by the injury or death of an innocent party, and any potential popular appeal will be completely precluded. However , we must equally recognize that such injuries and deaths, as unfortunate as they certainly are, will always be a possibility in the context of armed resistance, particularly as the State often has a secret interest in allowing such incidents to occur (if not creating them) to fuel its propaganda war against the guerilla. It must equally be recognized that all States, including the Canadian State, are daily engaged in genocide and violent attacks against 3rd World peoples, against other species and against the earth itself. No error on the part of the guerilla could begin to touch this daily violence, which has become acceptable as a structural part of our society to such a high degree as to go on virtually ignored, except in the most rhetorical way.
Beyond the actual action itself, the success in terms of propaganda depends, to a great degree, on the capacity of supporters in the legal movement to effectively do propaganda work , The action must become widely known and contextually understood to receive the maximum popular support. The guerilla cannot be expected to do this, and by and large will not be in a position to do this. This job is the responsibility of sympathetic people active in the legal movement.
Every urban guerilla action directed at property is an act of sabotage. Whereas the legal movement can raise consciousness regarding a particular issue, as long as it is public and legal, it can do little to actually disrupt the ability of the State apparatus to carry through with its intentions. Only a flexible, clandestine, armed movement is in a position to carry out relentless attack and sabotage, albeit in a limited form. Such sabotage, while it may not ultimately stop a project, slows it down and greatly increases the cost.
(3) Pose The Revolutionary Option
“The principle (is) that revolutionary action in itself, the very act of arming oneself, preparing, equipping, and pursuing activities that violate bourgeois legality, generates revolutionary consciousness, organization, and conditions.” -a Tupamaro
“The mass armed capability which will destroy the State has its beginnings in very small armed actions, and through these guerilla actions the mass armed capability develops.” -RAF
By engaging in armed struggle, even in its formative stage, the guerrilla raises the issues of militant armed resistance to the capitalist State from a dim theoretical concept to an immediate practical possibility. In doing so the nature of left discussion is qualitatively changed. The possibility for revolutionaries to engage in effective armed resistance is affirmed. While this preliminary armed resistance will, de facto, receive only limited support, even on the left, this limited support is the potential nucleus for the eventual armed struggle that will be necessary for revolutionary change to occur in any nation-State.
As well as indicating the possibility for militant resistance, armed activity demonstrates the possibility of pinpointing the system’s weak points and attacking offensively and effectively, even from a perspective of relative weakness. By so doing the myth of the invincible State is deflated and new possibilities for resistance are opened up.
“Urban guerilla warfare aims to destroy the domination of the State by striking at single weak points, and to destroy the myth of the omnipotence of the State and its invulnerability.” -RAF
When carried out in a consistent way guerrilla politics can be empowering to even the legal left. The guerilla, because of its clandestine organization, is in a position to add a concrete dimension to the propaganda and agitation of the legal left.
In short, the guerilla is the offensive position adopted by. a limited number of comrades to give offensive character to the otherwise defensive and educational work of the left. The guerrilla is the revolutionary expression of our rage in the face of a seemingly monolithic and untouchable enemy.
Arguments Against Guerilla Politics
Almost every example of urban guerilla resistance has been subject to a litany of attacks from the “traditional” left. The most common and recurrent criticisms are that:
(1) the time is not right and, as such, armed resistance is elitist.
(2) armed resistance brings down repression on innocent (legitimate?) left organizations and individuals.
(1) Waiting for the Right Time
“If there is not a reasonably prepared group, the revolutionary conjunctures are simply wasted or not taken advantage of.” – a Tupamaro
“It would be wrong to engage in armed struggle only when the ‘consent of the masses’ is assured, for this would actually mean to renounce the struggle altogether, as this consent can be obtained only by struggle itself. True mass armed struggle can only take place when it is understood by the masses, however, the comprehension of the need for armed struggle can only be aroused through beginning armed struggle.” -RAF
The concept that when “the time is right” for armed struggle we will recognize it and by some amazing osmosis absorb the information and ability we need to effectively wage guerilla warfare is indeed a curious one. Clearly, if we don’t begin now to prepare for the eventual armed conflict with the State, the State will take all necessary precautions to assure their ultimate control before the point of crisis likely to motivate massive resistance in the First World actually occurs. In fact, it is clear that the modern techno- police State is fairly advanced in this area. While we carry on our low-level, largely educational, and, by and large, ineffectual political work, the State is busily developing the means of surveillance that will allow them to identify and, if necessary, monitor the movement and activity of each and every individual in this society. If we do not act now to organize an effective clandestine opposition (within the constantly narrowing field of possibility) the total surveillance State will be quietly placed in motion, perhaps curtailing once and for all the possibility of effective revolutionary upsurge.
It is not a matter of elitism, it is simply a matter of those individuals who are conscious of the need to resist the rise of the new “techno-fascism” acting now, before it is too late. If small groups do not act now, the possibility for mass organizing in the future may be closed forever.
(2) Armed Resistance Brings Down Repression
“Repression is indeed part of revolution, a natural anti-thesis, the always-to-be-expected defense-attack reflex of the beleagured, toothless tiger.” -George Jackson
The concept that armed activity brings down repression on innocent people on the left is one of the more revealing statements to come from sections of the left opposed to armed struggle.
Such a perception presumes that somehow the. State is willing to stand by and allow left opposition to unfold unchallenged as long as it remains non-violent. Clearly, this is not the case. While non-violent, legal organizing may not illicit direct intervention from the State, the police apparatus will engage in constant intervention, infiltration, surveillance, and destabilization. Andy Moxley’s work as an infiltrator in the Peace Movement stands as witness to this.
This statement further presumes that there exists some form of valid left activity that will allow the left to play an objectively revolutionary role without threatening their security vis-a-vis the State. Such a concept reflects little more than the First World left’s desire to engage in “left” politics without threatening their comfortable middle-class lifestyles.
The unrecognized reality is that armed activity does not create repression. Repression is a structural part of the “techno-fascist” State on every level. Armed resistance simply brings ‘it out into the open “, where it can be seen and understood for what it is.
Finally, the legal left often fails to realize that the primary motivation for raids, arrests, and other repressive actions against the legal left in the wake of a guerilla attack is not to capture those who are responsible, the police know they won’t be found in legal left organizations, but to drive a wedge between the legal movement and the guerilla. The tragedy is that the legal left, by and large, falls right into the strategy, often going on to do the State’s anti-guerilla public relations work .
“If we accept revolution, we must accept all that it implies: repression, counter-terrorism, days filled with work, nervous strain, prison, funerals.” -George Jackson
Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade
Having established a general framework for evaluating armed struggle in First World urban environments, we’d like to turn our attention to the particulars of the Direct Action and Wimmin’s Fire Brigade experience.
(a) The Actions
(1) Cheekeye-Dunsmuir Power Substation
On May 31, 1982, Direct Action bombed the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir power substation. From both an ideological and a strategic perspective this action was armed activity of the highest order.
As an act of sabotage it was very successful. The power-substation, which was just about ready to go into action, was rendered useless. Direct Action’s 4 bombs caused more than $5 million damage, necessitating the reconstruction of the substation from near scratch.
In terms of posing the revolutionary option, the action was well timed. The legal movement had spent years petitioning, letter-writing, picketing, blockading, etc. without successfully putting a halt to Hydro’s plan to develop Cheekeye-Dunsmuir regardless of environmental or human costs. Direct Action showed that when the State closes all legal channels there still remain options for people who are opposed to the policies of the State, and these options can be exercised by small committed groups with few resources.
In propaganda terms the communique was clear and concise, explaining simply why the bombing had been necessary:
“We reject the ecological destruction and the human oppression inherent in the industrial societies of the corporate machine in the West and the communist machine in the East. In the last two hundred years industrial civilization has been raping and mutilating the earth and exterminating other species at an ever accelerating rate.” We say this is not right. Jobs, progress, standards of living – nothing is sufficient justification for the horrible damage being done.”
“While being in complete opposition to further ecological destruction, we also oppose the human oppression resulting from the economic and political systems throughout the world that are based on power and profit. In fact, ecological· destruction is directly related to the human oppressions of sexism, racism, hierarchy and imperialism. The desire for power, the insensitivity to the suffering of others and the need to feel superior are the sinister bonds that underlie all these human relations.”
-Direct Action, “Cheekeye Dunsmuir Communique”
If there was a weakness in propaganda terms, it didn’t lie either in the action or the accompanying communique, it is to be found in our inability as a movement to recognize the parameters of what had occurred and to widely circulate the communique and develop a discussion around it.
(2) Litton Industries Bombing
As an act of sabotage, the Direct Action bombing of Litton Industries on October 14, 1982, was a massive success, causing an estimated $7 million damage and eventually playing a role in creating the situation whereby Litton systems of Canada was not invited to bid on the contract for the guidance device for the advanced version of the Cruise Missile. Litton President, Ronald Keating, made clear in April 84 that both public pressure and the Direct Action bombing played a role in knocking Litton out of the running. He said, “(Protesters) are an irritant, they get a lot of publicity, and the Americans read every damn bit of it. Pressure from these people is making the Americans look twice.” He added, “No one else has been bombed.” (He’s got a valid complaint, someone ought to do something about that.)
Again the communique was clear and concise as to the reasons for the attack.
“The insanity of nuclear war, and the continuing development of weapons for nuclear war stands as a horror for all to see. In the industrialized world more resources, scientists and engineers are engaged in creating the armies and weapons systems for nuclear war than any other single pursuit. Three to ·ten new bombs are added daily to the arsenals of global annihilation and over $300 billion is spent every year increasing and upgrading an overkill stockpile of more than 55,000 nuclear weapons. In the U.S., Reagan has asked for a 31 increase in the Pentagon’s $1.7 trillion five-year budget and has also announced a new $1.5 trillion arms program. Who can doubt the dictators and militarists in the Kremlin are far behind.”
“Industries in Canada that produce nuclear weapons components are fully integrated with the nuclear policies of the U.S. through the U.S./Canada Defense Production Sharing Arrangements. These arrangements cover the production side of the NORAD agreements for a continental defense policy and set out the division of labour between Canada and the U.S. for weapons production. The federal government directly assists and subsidizes Canadian armament manufacturers through a myriad of programs designed to help the death merchants win U.S. Defense Department contracts available under the Production Sharing Arrangements. Through the Defense Industry Productivity Program, the federal government has given Litton $26.4 million to subsidize production of the Guidance system for the Cruise Missile. In addition, the government has given Litton a five year $22.5 million interest free loan for the same purpose.”
In fact, from a sabotage and propaganda perspective, It seems likely that the action would have been a success had it not led to 7 injuries, some of them quite serious. The injuries were the result of the bomb exploding 12 minutes early (there has since been some speculation that police using radios accidentally triggered it) and of security personnel and the police failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation and evacuate the building immediately. As it was the workers were leaving the building at the exact moment the 550 lbs bomb exploded, leaving them open to the maximum injury.
Direct Action released a communique taking responsibility for errors on their own part, as well as indicating actions on the part of Litton security personnel and the cops which contributed to the tragedy. This detailed communique said in part:
“We sincerely regret that any injuries occurred as a result of this action. We never intended any harm to come to anyone – especially to the workers at Litton – but instead, we took care in preparing what we seriously assumed were adequate precautions to insure the safety of all people in the area. Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case.
“We do not regret, however, our decision to attempt to sabotage the production of the Cruise Missile’ s guidance ‘brain’. We only claim in all honesty that this action was never meant to be an act of terrorism. We were not trying to threaten or kill the workers or executives of Litton Systems. We were attempting to destroy part of an industrial facility that produces machinery for mass murder. We wanted to blow up as much of that technology of death as possible.”
The communique then went on to delineate all of the errors which led to the injuries. (It is too long to print or summarize here, but it is well worth reading for a view as to what errors Direct Action made and the degree to which police and security incompetence contributed to the situation.)
As could be expected the injuries served to alienate certain sections of the left. Even in the “anarchist” community certain individuals were tripping over themselves to express disapproval. In the November 15,1982 issue of Strike! Lazarus Jones runs virtually the whole gamut in dredging up attacks on Direct Action:
“Under certain circumstances, and under certain conditions, armed struggle is valid and necessary. Unfortunately the individuals who comprise Direct Action seem to have taken no account of the necessary conditions or circumstances.”
The classic “time is not right” argument.
“Direct Action’s statement on the injuries caused by the bombing is both deluded and equivical. They claim to ‘sincerely regret that any injuries occurred as a result of the action.’ This is probably true. I would suggest that Direct Action reflect on the fact that by taking the course they seem to have chosen they must be prepared to kill and maim.”
The mad terrorist argument.
“Even if the challenge (of armed struggle) is taken up the only real result, as the European experience has shown , is an expansion of the vanguard and the reinforcement of the basic elitism of the guerilla and his/her contempt for those who refuse the path of revolutionary suicide.”
The guerilla as futile elitism.
And Pat Murtagh, in a fanciful article about “Canadian Anarchism” written for the “Liberation Workers Bulletin, an Australian Anarcho-Syndicalist paper, says:
“A certain element (of the Vancouver Anarchist scene) veered off into mindless advocacy of anything that was violent, whether anarchist or not. This element has born its fruit in the present activities of Direct Action.”
Armed struggle as mindless violence.
The police moved quickly to exploit any uncertainties in the movement regarding the actions via a series of raids against legal peace groups. Raids were carried out against the Cruise Missile Conversion Project, the Alliance for Non-Violent Action, and World Emergency, as well as against prominent individuals in the peace movement. These actions, clearly intended to drive a. wedge between Direct Action and the peace movement, were, in large part, successful, with some leading figures in the peace movement going as far as to cooperate with the police investigation and to publicly state their hope that Direct Action would be successfully apprehended. There were, of course, also laudable examples of individuals in the peace movement who clearly expressed their solidarity with Direct Action (and later the Vancouver 5) in the face of State attacks.
(3) Red Rot Video Firebombings
The November 22, 1982 firebombings of 3 Red Hot Video locations in the Lower Mainland of B. C. was far and away the most popular armed attack of this period. The short four paragraph communique read as follows:
“We, the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade claim responsibility for the fire-bombing of three Red Hot Video outlets in the Lower Mainland of B.C. on November 22, 1982. This action is another step towards the destruction of a business that promotes and profits from violence against wimnin and children.
Red Hot Video sells tapes that show wimmin and children being tortured, raped and humiliated. We are not the property of men to be used and abused.
Red Hot Video is part of a multi-billion dollar pornography industry that teaches men to equate sexuality with violence. Although these tapes violate the Criminal Code of Canada and the B.C. guidelines on pornography , all lawful attempts to shut down Red Hot Video have failed because the justice system was created, and is controlled, by rich men to protect their profits and property.
As a result we are left no viable alternative but to change the situation ourselves through illegal means. This is an act of self-defense against hate propaganda. We will continue to defend ourselves!”
This action was extremely successful, reducing 2 of the 3 Red Hot Video outlets attacked to ashes. In the 3rd case the incendiary device failed to ignite. It was also an action immediately embraced by all sections of the women’s movement as one which expressed their rage. Groups as diverse as the B.C. Federation of Women and the Montreal based Feminist Coalition Against Pornography publicly embraced it. It was soon clear that women recognized in this action the final option when faced with the total intransigence of the State.
In spite of the unfortunate injuries at Litton Industries, the Direct Action and Wimmin’s Fire Brigade campaigns of 1982 were, by and large, effective on all levels. As propaganda the actions and communiques were extremely pointed and effective, interlocking well with large-scale public campaigns. We wish to reiterate that any shortcomings on the propaganda level were in large part based on the lack of recognition on the part of sympathetic people active in the legal movement of the necessity of distributing the communiques and encouraging discussion around them and the strategy which they represented. It was not until the injuries at Litton that the movement began discussing Direct Action and their strategy; and those of us who wished to defend the strategy were forced into an intensely defensive position, a very poor position from which to begin such a complex discussion. Retrospectively, it was a major error to let the positive example of the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir bombing pass with so little attention given. The fact that the Litton bombing was destined to be Direct Action’s last action further complicated matters because we were still in the midst of the very complex discussion surrounding that action and the injuries at the time of the arrests.
The arrest of the Vancouver 5, on January 20, 1983, was, when one looks at it retrospectively, almost inevitable. The quantity of organizing these 5 individuals had to do in virtual isolation made errors that would lead to their eventual arrest virtually certain.
Nonetheless, it appears as if the comrades made certain errors that indicate an inadequate conception of police tactics. They are errors that must be recognized, examined, and understood, so as to be avoided in the future.
The fact that they continued to live in the Vancouver area and continued to maintain contact, even at a very low level, with some friends was a complete misjudgement of circumstances. Clearly, if and when the police pinpointed them as suspects friends and acquaintances would be put under surveillance. At that point it was only a matter of time until the police came in direct contact with one or more of the 5, after which the arrests were a virtual certainty. If one is to believe the police version of the surveillance that led to the 5 (and certain parts of the police story appear to he totally implausible – which is logical enough because they have a vested interest in making sure we know as little as is necessary to guarantee convictions, so as to prevent us from developing effective counter-surveillance) then this is exactly what happened.
There are lessons to be drawn from that information available regarding the nature and style of the police investigation. It is clear that they are more aware of where individuals are at ideologically than we sometimes give them credit for. They were able to draw up a pool of suspects reasonably quickly, and although this pool contained many individuals who were totally uninvolved, it appears to have eventually provided the key connection that led to the 5, after which it simply became a matter of collecting the necessary information. It is clear that they are capable of sophisticated surveillance. They claim to have had as many as 8 – 10 cops surveilling a single suspect at times, and they claim to have been able to place Brent in Calgary at a certain point due to “a paper trail” which he left. It is also clear that they are willing to overlook criminal activities if they are holding out for a bigger bust. They clearly let several possible stolen vehicle arrests pass, and quite probably watched the Red Hot Video firebombings, while holding out for a more major arrest.
Some of the lessons to be drawn from this are clear. Comrades engaging in illegal activity on this scale must be prepared to go completely underground, which implies severing all contacts with their previous milieu and friends. Such contacts, while emotionally and psychologically significant, are suicidal from a security perspective. Police surveillance is sophisticated. If comrades involved in clandestine work are to avoid it, they must practice sophisticated counter-surveillance. Primary in this is a capacity to remove themselves from the areas where investigations are likely to start. And, of course, it is clear that any sense that the police are aware of one’s activities, particularly any direct contact with the cops, however seemingly innocuous, requires that the guerilla destroy everything that night allow the cops to trace them and disappear. All of this implies a highly developed network.
“The urban guerilla presupposes the organization of an illegal apparatus, in other words, apartments, weapons, ammunition, cars, and identification papers.” -RAF
It appears that by remaining in the Vancouver area, by maintaining contacts with friends, and by ignoring significant brushes with the law , the 5 greatly facilitated their own ultimate arrest.
The approach of the 5 to the legal system and the trials was a serious political misjudgement. By first maintaining their innocence rather than defending the actions rather than defending the actions and approaching the trials as a vehicle for a discussion of their analysis, their strategy, and the role of armed struggle in a First World country they completely abdicated any control over the trials.
By hedging their bets on minimizing their sentences, the 5 put themselves in a situation where they could not actively use the trials for propaganda purposes without threatening their legal strategy. In so doing they promoted several erroneous perceptions. First of all, they de facto recognized the right of the courts, and by extension the State, to judge their actions, rather than pinpointing the role of the legal system as a pillar of class justice before which no equitable judgement can ever be suspected, and least of all in a case involving armed resistance. This error was further compounded by the fact that they ultimately placed the case in the hands of Lawyers and hung their hopes on legal challenges regarding the legitimacy of wiretaps, and similar details of legal protocol. Such a statement of faith in the legal system served only to contribute to further mystification surrounding the theoretical “neutrality” of the courts, and by extension the State.
The response of supporters was to adopt the liberal demand of the “right to a fair trial”. The more we worked with this demand, the more we boxed ourselves in politically. If the 5 were maintaining their innocence and we were demanding “a fair trial”, then we were de facto blocked from engaging in the primary discussion regarding the actions and the role of armed struggle in Canada
If questioned regarding the actions, we were forced by our line to treat the issue of armed struggle as secondary or even inconsequential. Although the 5 did resist this, they did so in a fairly weak fashion.
“We know that if there was such a thing as fair trials & justice – we would walk free. But there is no justice & we will not receive a fair trial. Yet because it is sometimes possible to exploit the contradictions inherent in the bourgeois democratic legal process (which result from the need for lawmakers to appear fair and legitimate), we will be participating in the courtroom facade to try and minimize the legal attack against us.”
-Julie, Ann, Gerry, Doug, Brent – 13-03-83, “Free the Five Newsletter”
It was not, however, until issue no. 7 of the “Free the Five Newsletter”, issued on Nov. 16, 83, that 4 of the 5 first publicly opposed the “fair trial” strategy, which by that time had been going on for nearly 10 months.
“Much of the political work done around our case has been centered on the issues of ‘right to a fair trial’ and abuses of process by the media, police, and prosecution.”
“We would like to see the political work done on our case center around what we consider to be the real issues: environmentalism, feminism, anti-imperialism, & radical activism.” -Ann, Gerry, Doug, Brent
However, in spite of these statements the defense/support milieu failed to change gears. We continued to orient our work around State excesses and illegalities, dispensing information, but refusing to engage in the central debate: What is the role of armed resistance in Canada? How can militant resistance be constructed here?
If we are to attempt to pinpoint the reasons why we failed to respond positively to the situation the arrests and trials presented us with, several weaknesses become apparent. Both the prisoners and their defense/support committees failed to see the judicial experience, both the courts and prison, as an integral part of the armed struggle. The 5 failed to take the lead in using the courtroom as a platform for propaganda and the prison as a central element in the confrontation be tween oppression and resistance. For our part we fell into the trap of believing we could somehow save our friends if we dwelled on the contradictions within the State’s legal system and downplayed the armed actions of Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade. The liberal deviations that occurred in this scenario were never rectified in any important way because no shared conception of politics in general or of the trials in particular ever evolved between the 5 and their supporters. Because there was no solid political analysis of the situation coming from the prisoners and the supporters failed to evolve one, the possibility of using the trials to build support for the armed struggle was lost.
The situation further slipped from our control when the guilty pleas were filed. On March 17, 1983, Julie and Gerry pleaded, guilty. Julie pleaded guilty to conspiracy to rob a Brinks armoured car, attempted arson of the Port Coquitlam Red Hot Video, car theft, possession of explosives, possession of weapons dangerous to the public peace, and bombing Litton Industries. Gerry filed the same guilty plea, less possession of explosives and the Litton bombing. On June 4, 84, Ann pleaded guilty to the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir bombing, the Litton bombing, possession of explosives, and possession of weapons. Ann had already been found guilty of conspiracy to rob a Brinks armoured car, possession of explosives, possession of weapons , possession. of stolen property, yehic1e theft, and breaking and entering. On June 8, Doug pleaded guilty to the Cheekeye Dunsmuir bombing and Brent pleaded guilty to possession of weapons and possession of explosives, having already been found guilty of the same charges as Ann in the first trial (listed above).
While the desire to put an end to dead time faced in endless trials is understandable, especially given the fact that the outcome of the first trial was hardly a victory from a legal perspective, Julie having been sentenced to 20 years and Gerry to 10, after pleading guilty, and Ann and Brent having been found guilty on all charges, the guilty pleas left little to be recouped politically following the almost exclusive focus of the defense/support politics on the “right to a fair trial.” Particularly damaging politically was Gerry’s decision to accept a guilty plea on the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade action as part of a plea bargain. This was particularly disorienting as the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade had been generally recognized and accepted as an all women’s group and the action as an all women’s action. Gerry’s decision to plead guilty purely as a practicality, while understood by those supporters closer to the decision making process, was not necessarily so clear for the broader political community watching the trials, some of whom were taken aback both by the guilty pleas (we had done such an effective job of our “right to a fair trial” campaign that some people in the political community actually believed that the 5 were persecuted innocents and in the face of the guilty pleas felt their trust had been betrayed. This is rather a large statement of how effectively we buried the key issues in our defense/support work.) and left unsure as to whether the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade had actually been a statement of women’s resistance, or simply Direct Action using another name for reasons of political efficacy. Given the massive popularity of the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, particularly in the women’s community, to introduce such unclarity was a political error.
It was not until the sentencing that the first real political statements came from the 5, and this was 1 1/2 years after the arrests and nearly 2 years after the last action. On June 5, 1984, Ann read her statement. This long, eloquent and powerful statement said, among other things:
“In the beginning, when I was first arrested, I was intimidated and surrounded by the courts and prison. This fear provided the basis for the belief that if I played the legal game, I would get acquitted or perhaps less time. This belief obscured my vision and fooled me into believing that I could get a break from the legal system. But this past eight months in court has sharpened my perceptions and strengthened my political convictions to see that the legal game is rigged and political prisoners are dealt a marked deck.”
“I would prefer to live in peace, but when I looked around me, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Everywhere I looked, the land was being destroyed, the Indians were victims of genocide, third world people were oppressed and massacred, people lived in industrial waste and women were being raped and children molested. I could never live in peace – only quiet – the kind you find in cemetaries.”
“Even though I knew that a few militant direct actions would no make the revolution or stop these projects, I believed it was necessary to begin the development of an underground resistance movement that was capable of sabotage and expropriations and could work free from police surveillance. The development of an effective resistance movement is not an overnight affair – it takes decades of evolution. It has to start somewhere in small numbers and whether or not it grows, becomes effective and successful, will depend on whether or not we make it happen.”
On June 21, 1984, Doug made a short and pointed statement, which explained the environmental perspective of Direct Action and the reason for the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir bombing. In part, he said:
“The reason that I did the that (bombed the Cheekeye-Dunsmuir power substation) is that the Cheekeye-Dunmuir project is going to inflict large-scale, severe damage on the environment of B.C., and I consider that reprehensible and intolerable.”
“The destruction of the world’s environment is a direct consequence of modern industrialism, but it also springs from certain fundamental perspectives of our culture.
Most people in our society and certainly those with the wealth and power are of the opinion that the Earth belongs to us, that it exists only for our use, and it is of value only to the extent that we value it. It’s taken for-granted that we have a natural birthright to manipulate the entire world’s ecology for our ends.
That is not how I see it. In my opinion, all life on earth has a right to be, and is of worth and importance in and of itself. The natural world is a home that we should share with the trees and the birds, and which we should treat respectfully and gently, not as something to ruthlessly lay to waste.”
Finally, on June 25, 1984, Brent was sentenced and made his sentencing statement. A brief portion follows:
“My purpose in speaking today is simply to reaffirm my commitment to the basic values and ideals which motivated me to struggle. I believe that both the ideals, and the struggle, are just and that they hold the promise of a better future. I continue to desire the creation of societies based upon feminist, humanist co-operative ecological and non-authoritarian principles.
Illegal activities were one part of my activism in the struggle against the injustices and threats to life manifest in modern industrial civilization, and the political and economic system of imperialism. The overall purpose of any illegal activity I was involved in was to further develop the struggle and thereby contribute to the possibility of a better world – one in which all people can finally live in freedom and international unity. Even if this does not come about in my lifetime, it is my hope that one day our future relatives will live in such a world.”
The sentencing statements were powerful political statements and were received as such. As good as the sentencing statements were, coming as they did, at the end of a long and intense process, they did not serve as a rallying point for a discussion. Had such statements come early in the legal process and had the defense/support committees chosen to stress the politics inherent in the actions and accompanying communiques and in the sentencing statements, rather than organizing around the demand for the “right to a fair trial”, the political potential of the trials might have been realized. As it was the political issues, quite simply, came to the fore too late.
As serious a political setback as the injuries at Litton and the political mismanagement of the trials were, the real blow to the 5 and their supporters was Julie’s decision to break with her former comrades and recant.
In an emotionally charged performance Julie used her sentence appeal to focus the bulk of the responsibility for Direct Action and Wimmin’s Fire Brigade actions on Ann and Brent, particularly Brent whom she identified variously as the leader and the planner. She
claimed to have been harassed into the group, to have been young and impressionable, a state she described as adolescent crisis, and to have been worn down and molded by constant pressure and abuse. She claims that her seeming vigour for revolutionary activity on the wiretaps and bugs was not representative of her true feelings, but part of an effort to appear tough in order to ward off the constant criticism she was a victim of. She even went as far as to suggest she would have left the group, claiming she feared to do so after reading Marighella’s “Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerilla”, where she claimed Marighella said anyone leaving the guerilla must be liquidated.
It is important to note in passing that Marighella didn’t say this. What he, in fact, said regarding leaving the guerilla was:
“When he (a guerilla) cannot face the difficulties, or knows that he lacks the patience to wait, it is better to relinquish his role before he betrays his pledge, for he clearly lacks the basic qualities necessary to be a guerilla.”
While the purpose of Julie’s patchwork story of lies, distortion, and paranoia was clearly to save her own ass, the quality of her story, the degree to which it fits into the standard State line on guerilla politics, the degree to which it is tailored for counter- insurgency , indicate that she must have fallen victim to fairly intense police pressure, that she had become a palm in the larger police strategy. The long sentence that Julie was given was doubtless part of a strategy to break her spirit so that she would be open to approaches from the State. Towards the end of having this excessive sentence reduced, Julie was willing to engage in whatever grovelling was required and to portray her former comrades, particularly Ann and Brent, both of whom had sentence appeals forthcoming, as deranged and irresponsible, if not out and out remorselessly evil.
The outcome was predictable. Ann and Brent had their sentence appeals denied. Julie, for her part, received a 5 year reduction from 20 years to 15 for her propaganda role in the State’s attack on Ann and Brent in particular, and the guerilla in general.
With the end of the appeals came the end of the Vancouver 5 as a public issue and the comrades withdrew from the public eye to serve their sentences. In Ann’s case life, in Brent’s 22 years, for Gerry 10, and Doug 6.
As was the case with the trials, the comrades have not used their prison time or the repression they face there as a springboard for a discussion of guerrilla resistance. Rather than asserting themselves as political prisoners in an ongoing way, they have assimilated themselves into the anonymity of the prison milieu. This has led to a situation where their courageous acts of resistance and their entire strategy as enunciated in the communiques and the sentencing statements have been all but forgotten by all save a few tiny, isolated pockets of supporters.
To sum up, the 5 and their supporters have thus far failed to play their potential role in advancing an understanding of armed struggle within the Canadian State. This lack is due to serious shortcomings in our political understanding of the elements at play. We failed to recognize and utilize the possibilities for advancing the strategy of armed struggle available in the trial process. In so doing the opportunities opened up by the actions of Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade were lost, being replaced by the mystifying demand of the “right to a fair trial”, a demand which could lead no-where positive and served to liquidate the key issue of armed resistance in Canada. Although the history of Direct Action and the Wimmin’ s Fire Brigade has doubtless left its mark on the Canadian left, although the concept of armed resistance has been put on the agenda in a practical way so that it will never again be the non-issue it was prior to this experience, to date we have not really overcome the pacifying effects of the political errors we have made.
It seems that both the 5 and their supporters, having suffered this defeat, have turned away from the discussion of armed struggle to focus their energy elsewhere.
If we are to overcome the errors we have made, we must critically examine these errors, we must critically examine the events surrounding Direct Action, the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade and the Vancouver Five. As painful as it may be we must pinpoint the errors and shortcomings of both the prisoners and their supporters and deal with them honestly. We can learn by studying the national liberation struggles of Third and Fourth World peoples in the Third World, Western Europe and the USA, as well as by examining the history and current practice of the urban guerrilla movements in the USA and Western Europe. And, of course, we must face the responsibility of developing our own practice in Canada.
We have written the above not as an attack on the prisoners or their support community. We extend our love and solidarity to the imprisoned comrades who have contributed so much of themselves towards the realization of armed struggle in Canada. We also extend our love and solidarity to all who have worked to support the imprisoned comrades, and to all those who struggle for revolutionary change.
We cannot see any way to avoid certain criticisms given the current situation on the Canadian left. However, we have offered the above criticisms not as a personal attack on anyone, nor to create further divisions in the movement, but in the hope of creating a genuine discussion about the experiences of armed resistance and in the hope of pushing the struggle forward.
“It is better to err acting than to do nothing for fear of erring. Without initiative there is no guerrilla warfare.” Carlos Marighella