Punk and Protest: Laws, Counterculture, Action!
“Bomb explosion rocks cruise missile factory.”
This was the headline on the front page of The Toronto Star, way back on Friday 15 October 1982. Above the headline were the words “Canada’s first terrorist attack, Etobicoke mayor says.” It isn’t that surprising the mayor would assume the first terrorist attack in Toronto must then also be the first in all of Canada, but it wasn’t even the first attack in 1982. Nor would it be the last.*
The attacks ended on 20 January 1983, when five people were arrested by the RCMP cunningly masquerading as a construction crew on the highway near Squamish, British Columbia. Julie Belmas, Gerald Hannah, Ann Lansen, Doug Stewart, and Brent Taylor were charged with numerous crimes, including blowing up a BC Hydro substation, firebombing several pornographic video stores in Vancouver, and setting off explosives at the Litton Systems weapon plant in Toronto.
Calling themselves Direct Action, and dubbed “the Squamish Five” by the mainstream media and “the Vancouver Five” by the underground press, the members of Direct Action would, after a series of highly charged trials, be given prison terms ranging from several years to a life sentence. While the length of the sentences reflected the level of individual involvement in Direct Action, all five members were committed to igniting social change through violent action against property.
The campaign mounted by Direct Action was organized against mainstream institutions the group felt were infringing on human rights, threatening people’s safety, and a detriment to society. Environmentalism, the Cold War, and women’s rights were three prevalent issues of engagement for the 1980s’ counterculture in general, and Direct Action in particular. The group was on the extreme end of a larger community that felt strongly about these issues – issues that would be points of political, cultural, and social contention throughout the decade.
While these three dominant issues mentioned above were also issues of engagement for the 1960s’ counterculture – when Jimi Hendrix finished playing at Woodstock that was by no means an end to these issues and their importance in society. In fact, many within the 1980s’ counterculture saw the baby-boomers as an utter failure; that the spoiled brats had ample opportunity to self-actualize, but instead of making a real difference had squandered their potential on free love and acid trips. The legacy of the 1960s had burnt out with Charles Manson, the Weathermen, at Altamont and Kent State – while the threat of nuclear war still remained, the environment continued to be ravaged for its resources, and debate over a woman’s right to choose still raged long after Roe v. Wade. Not only did those in the 1980s’ counterculture still see these issues as dominant and important, but they fought them while under less than the ideal circumstances the baby boom generation had experienced. Given less economic opportunity, having a better chance of coming from a broken family, having both the escalation of the Cold War and the new threat of AIDS looming over them while at the same time living in the shadow of their parents – the sons, daughters, and younger siblings of the baby-boomers attempted to carve out their own voice and succeed where the baby-boom generation had failed. (This is not to say that there was a completely cut and dry division between the baby-boomers and generation X; while there was conflict and tension there was also connection.)
For Direct Action, the main thrust of their attempt to rectify their contention with the institutions they perceived as being on the wrong side of the Cold War, women’s rights, and environmental protection was to carry out a series of violent attacks, or actions, against the property of those institutions. They felt that if enough was done to get the attention of the public and raise awareness of exactly what these institutions were doing, society would galvanize against them and put an end to their unjust practices.
And so, on 30 May 1982 Direct Action caused 5 million dollars in damage to a BC Hydro Substation that was part of the Dunsmuir-Cheekye development project on Vancouver Island. The group felt that the project was causing harm to the environment and disrupted the traditional way of life for local aboriginal communities. Conventional protest had already been carried out by others unhappy with the energy project, but the development had continued to advance. A major problem that earlier protesters had was that there was no public discourse carried out on the development project. This was an issue raised by Carl Rising-Moore in court when he was given a six month suspended sentence and $500 fine for protesting the project. He had six others were convicted in 1980 of contempt of an injunction levelled against them by the British Columbia Supreme Court that disallowed them from interfering with the project’s development (Globe and Mail, Thursday 3 June 1982).
Frustrated by the lack of success by the mainstream protest, Direct Action took matters into their own hands. While one was hurt and the project was put behind schedule for a short time, the action also incurred a dedicated RCMP investigation unit that would eventually help track down all five members of the group. In a statement given to the Canadian Press by Direct Action, the group explained:
“We reject both 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.”
“We also oppose the human oppression resulting from the economic and political systems throughout the world that are based on power and profit.”
“We must make this an insecure and uninhabitable place for capitalists and their projects. This is the best contribution we can make towards protecting the earth.” (Globe and Mail, Thursday 3 June 1982).
Then, on 14 October 1982, Litton Industries in Toronto was attacked. Members of Direct Action drove a vehicle across Canada filled with explosives and parked it near the security building within Litton property and called the company to tell them the explosives would go off shortly and to evacuate the plant. The workers were not evacuated in time, and 7 people were injured when the bomb detonated early. Direct Action had targeted Litton because of their development and production of components used in cruise missiles by the United States military. In other words, they targeted a Canadian company that was doing the bidding of the American military industrial complex. After the attack many of the Litton workers not hurt banded together to repair the damage– and the explosion had not harmed production capability due to where the vehicle had been parked.
Direct Action then returned to Vancouver, and in late November 1982 a series of stores in the Red Hot Video chain were firebombed in the city. Red Hot Video sold pornographic videos that depicted women in scenes involving rape and violence. Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, a group they worked with to carry out the attacks, felt these videos not only undermined women’s rights but also advocated such terrible and troubling behaviour.
Shortly after they the fire bombings of the porn shops, the members of Direct Action were arrested by the RCMP following a very intricate investigation. At the time of their arrest, they were planning on robbing a Brinks truck to finance their future operations, sabotage a vessel called the Terry Fox that was involved in Arctic sea exploration, and sneak onto the Cold Lake Air Force Base and blow up a bunch of fighter jets.
So since this is the end of the article now and I haven’t even mentioned music I’ll bet you are thinking, “say, but where is the punk?” This is part one of a series of articles on Direct Action, in which their links to the underground music scene (part II+III), and effects on society (part IV) will be discussed. Stay tuned for the rest of the story.
*The line from the newspaper was a misquote to garner attention in an effort to no doubt sell more papers along Yonge Street; the mayor of Etobicoke’s actual statement revealed later in the article related that it was the first attack of that kind in Canada. He must have meant the first attack to target a weapons plant, while people were working, with a stolen van full of explosives – because then he would be absolutely correct. I felt however, I would make a dig against people from Toronto in an effort to garner more of a readership in Western Canada. If it gets out that I actually really like people from T-dot I could lose all my prairie credibility, so keep that on the down-low. Yo.
Thanks to The Rocket and MaximumRocknRoll for the pictures.
Tags: Ann Hansen, Counterculture, Direct Action, Environmentalism, Generation X, Gerry Hannah, Julie Belmas, Protest, Punk, RCMP, Ronald Reagan, Terrorism, the Baby-Boom Generation, the Cold War, the Squamish Five, the Subhumans, the Vancouver Five, Toronto, underground music, Vancouver, Wimmin's Fire Brigade, Women's RightsYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.