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Ann Hansen, 'Direct Action. Memoirs of an Urban Guerilla'

AK Press 2002; ISBN 1 902593 48 0; 493pp; £15

Ever felt so righteously outraged at the state of the world, the greed of the corporations, humanity's insane militarism, the fact that we are killing the planet (etc) that you considered blowing shit up? Well, that's what Ann Hansen found herself doing across Canada in the early 1980s.

Damaging nuclear weapons components manufacturers, porn chains and electricity substations, carrying out burglaries and car thefts (they needed explosives, guns and getaway vehicles for their actions), Hansen and a handful of “urban guerrillas” went (mostly) underground and carried out a series of audacious actions.

Initially inspired by the European revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction and the like, Hansen finds herself hooking up with less Marxist/more anarchist types in her native Canada. This book charts her journey - in terms of her own political development and the action-adventures along the way.

Of course, it all ends in tears - in 1983 Hansen and her four compadres were arrested and she was subsequently given a life sentence for her role in the bombings. She served seven years.

While clearly not philosophically or tactically nonviolent, Hansen's group appear to have gone out of their way to minimise the risk their actions would have of hurting others. However, when, in 1982, the group plants a car bomb outside the Cruise missile component manufacturer Litton Systems, they end up narrowly avoiding killing anybody and do seriously harm three or four of the employees.

It is clear that this is a memoir - not a statement of fact, though much of the detail in the latter stage of the book is drawn from transcripts of the Mountie's wiretap evidence used against them. The group was under surveillance for months before their arrest.

I liked this book a lot, partly because it is a well-written personal story and partly because, if you have been involved in radical direct action of any form, you will feel the tension. It also feels quite honest in its appraisal.

The author acknowledges tactical errors, their internal struggles and group dynamics, the challenges of attempting to live underground and the needs of the personal vs the political, the tension between wanting to build a revolutionary movement while in fact operating as an isolated cell. All familiar territory.

One thing I found amusing - though I'm not sure it was intended - was some of the dialogue. If you weren't involved its hard to know how people spoke, but sometimes it's almost Citizen Smith: “Power to the People!”

In her defiant statement to the court during the trial, Hansen says: “The politics of Direct Action saw the interconnectedness of militarism, sexism, environmental destruction and imperialism” and cites patriarchy and capitalism as the driving forces behind these ills. She ends, “I believe that if there is any hope for the future, it lies in our struggle.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the group's tactics, the issues are as pressing today as they were 20-odd years ago and there are things to be learnt from this story. Read it.