Some Say Tomāto, Some Say Tomăto, I Say Political Activist, You Say Terrorist

“Is Any Place Safe?” (1995), the headline alone evokes vivid images of youths perpetrating assaults and robberies; the most sick and twisted of offenders à la Paul Bernardo; and bullets shattering windowpanes as violence erupts in otherwise peaceful communities. Surprisingly, however, the headline actually refers to a group of political activists who went by the name of “Direct Action” or more infamously branded, “The Squamish Five”. The Squamish Five were a group of self-proclaimed “urban guerrillas” who viewed the Law as a means of perpetuating injustice.  Convinced that the more traditional methods of political activism were ineffective, they resolved to go “underground to fight for [their] cause” (Sudlow, 1995). Their highly publicized stunts (see overview) is what eventually led to captions like the one above and that, in my opinion, is highly problematic. Information about crime that is transmitted by the media shapes how we understand, view, and respond to it. But how can we understand, situate, and respond to crime if it is presented to us in bits and pieces?  The following analysis on the Squamish Five illustrates how the media, whether deliberately or unknowingly, contributes towards the criminalization of dissent.

The ability to select which types of events to cover is only one part of the media’s construction process. Framing is another important process and refers to the way information is presented to us. Boykoff (2007) describes this process as the “structured strips of everyday affairs, each strip an arbitrary slice or cut from the stream of ongoing activity… simplified snapshots are converted into events, and events are converted into news stories” (p. 217). An example of the media’s framing process can be seen in the case of the Squamish Five. Constructed as enemies of the state, media outlets quickly began labelling them as “terrorists” and with their legitimacy and advocacy increasingly being called into question, the term “extremist” became all too prevalent in the news (Mulgrew & Slotnick, 1983), (Bernard, 1984), (Ferguson, 1995). At the time, one would be hard-pressed to find any news regarding the Squamish Five that didn’t include such disparaging labels. In fact, all of the newspaper articles I make mention of within this analysis used the word “terrorist” and/or “extremist” either in their description of the group or in reference to how others had characterized the group; leading to a shift in public perception. Indeed, according to Boykoff (2007), mass-media coverage of dissident movements not only take away from the issues being opposed, they “also produce a net shift in citizens’ issue support” (p. 217). An example of this can be seen in the following:

“The trial and conviction of five extremists has ended a tale of terrorism” (Bernard, 1984)… “They seized an arsenal of weapons, false identification, disguises, camping equipment, electronic gear, a police scanner and a number of books on self-defense and weaponry… There were no political tracts in the seized material… only a crudely printed sign reading ‘Mutate Now Avoid the Post Bomb Rush’” (Mulgrew & Slotnick, 1983) … “[They’re] menace(s), a real threat to our Canadian way of life” (Mulgrew, 1984).

Net Shift in Citizens’ Issue Support

When the Squamish Five were finally apprehended and brought to trial, defence attorneys argued that due to the publicity, it would be impossible to find impartial juries. A random sample survey revealed that 58.9 per cent of residents in the area from which a jury would be selected had already judged the five guilty prompting a partial blackout of media coverage.  For this reason the defence counsel was allowed to question the potential jurors extensively about their attitudes toward the five and their beliefs about the court system and until the trials ended, “the media were prohibited from: describing the accused as the Squamish Five, terrorists, [extremists], anarchists or any like epithet;… police, lawyers, witnesses and court officials [were also forbidden] from making comments on the trial to the media” (Bernard, 1984, p. 4), something that was unprecedented at the time.

Popular Discourse

The disguised police armed with M-1 rifles swarmed out of the bushes flanking the brown pick-up truck just as its rear window was shattered by two tear gas cannisters. Kenneth Gates – a policeman – yanked opened the driver’s door [and] shoved his revolver against the temple of the thin woman driver pulling her onto the roadway… None had the chance to reach for or use the arsenal the truck carried. The .45 calibre magnum revolver, the semi-automatic rifle, the pump-action shotgun, two semi-automatic pistols and the .357 magnum handgun… a year-long crime spree by a self-styled band of urban guerillas had come to a sudden and well-executed halt. (Mulgrew, 1984)

The quotation above sounds like something straight out of a Michael Bay film or an episode of “Cops”. Remarkably, however, it is a Globe and Mail excerpt detailing the arrest of “The Squamish Five”. This type of media coverage has long been objected to by dissident movements because it is typical of the cultural representations of criminals often present in entertainment media. Entertainment media works by creating a dichotomy between the “good” and “law abiding citizen” and the “bad” or “criminal offender”. The explosion of reality TV and crime dramas has reinforced beliefs about the need to “get-tough on crime” and the audience develops a sense of personal empowerment in being able to identify with law enforcement personnel.

Counter-narrative

The unfolding of events from the perspective of the Squamish Five is one that is all too often missing from television and literature. As was stated earlier, at the time one would be hard-pressed to find any news regarding the Squamish Five that did not include any defamatory remarks. Published nearly two decades later, “Life After Anarchy…”  attempts to remedy this by 1) offering a more humane outlook of the group and 2) contextualizing their objectives and political motivations.

An interview with Ann Hansen, the de facto leader of the group, reveals that Direct Action was not created on a mere whim;

from a young age I had been disturbed by environmental destruction, even around where I grew up, and so there was an emotional background there, she says. And then as I learned more about political theory, my natural instinct was to dedicate myself to radical social change. (p. 3)

To that end, she studied Marxism at the University of Waterloo and flew to Europe to research urban- guerrilla groups for an academic paper. While there, Hansen quickly took interest with a group of black-clad anarchists during a large trade union demonstration in Paris. That experience left her determined to become a full-time revolutionary and to hook up with other militants in Canada. She eventually came into contact with other like-minded individuals (Taylor, Belmas, Stewart, and Hannah), people who abhorred capitalism and feared that its survival would result in environmental ruin, and in 1982 they came up with the name Direct Action.

Direct-action initiatives recognize the importance of disruption to effective dissent. Indeed, “social movements win only when, by using disruption, they raise the costs of an elite project to a point [where] it becomes in the interests of elites to obey dissenters” (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 17).The actions of the Squamish Five had something to do with Litton eventually losing its contract to build cruise missile components as well as the closure of many Red Hot Video outlets in B.C and therefore one can contend that they were partially successful. However, their decision to align themselves with a similar group (Friends of Durutti) via Direct Action communiques is what eventually led to their capture on January 10th 1983, in the quaint town of Squamish. When everything was said and done, what haunted them most was not their impending prison sentences, but the fact that despite “all [of their] good intentions and motives during the past few years, [they] would receive no airplay or newsprint; only [their] actions in [its] criminal context would be of interest to the mass media” (p. 2).

Conclusion

To conclude, “the minute we recognize that it is possible to target people who are dissenters for control, whether or not they commit specific illegal acts of dissent, we are ready to see that “crime control” and “dissent control” can never be disentangled” (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 9).

 

References

Bernard, M. (1984, Jun 23). Legal debate still reverberating after BC extremists’ trial ends. The Globe and Mail Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/346330989?accountid=15182

Boykoff, J. (2007). Mass media deprecation. Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (pp. 216-47). Oakland: AK Press.

Ferguson, A. (1995, Apr 22). Is any place safe? Toronto Star Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/437220139?accountid=15182

Mulgrew, I., & Slotnick, L. (1983, Jan 22). Police plan to arrest others over litton, B.C. bombings. The Globe and Mail Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/386676622?accountid=15182

Mulgrew, I. (1984, Jun 19). The defiant squamish five: Down to earth with a thud. The Globe and Mail, pp. 7.

Starr, A., Fernandez, L. A., & Scholl, C. (2011). What is going on? Illustrated edition. Shutting down the streets: Political violence and social control in the global era (pp. 1-22). New York University Press.

Sudlow, R. (1995, Jul 24). Urban guerrillas of the 1980s deny they were terrorists; B.C. mail bombs revive memories of squamish five. The Ottawa Citizen Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/239946458?accountid=15182

Ward, D. (2002, Jan 19). Life after anarchy: She lives peacefully now, but former squamish five member ann hansen hasn’t abandoned her political ideology. The Vancouver Sun Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/242497833?accountid=15182

 

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