An Explosive Interview with a KKKanadian Urban Guerilla
By Comrade Black
This is the second half of a two-part interview with Juliet Belmas, an activist with Direct Action and the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, two groups who used explosives or incendiary devices in the early 1980s to further anti-colonial, ecological and feminist struggles. Juliet was arrested in January 1983, at the age of 19, along with the other four members of the Vancouver 5. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Today, Juliet makes independent films and does work around issues faced by womyn in prison.
The first half appeared in the March-April 2010 Earth First! Journal.
To order a back issue, write collectiveearthfirstjournal.org.
Comrade Black: How did you learn the skills needed, and get the guns, TNT and so on that you used in these actions?
Juliet Belmas: I registered for a Firearms Acquisition Certificate (FAC) soon after meeting Brent Taylor in 1981. Then, I bought and licensed two mini-14 assault rifles about a year later, because I wanted to learn how to shoot for self-protection. Gerry Hannah didn’t want his name on any lists, so I registered his gun for him under my FAC … and that’s how Gerry and I got our guns. The rest of the Direct Action (DA) arsenal was expropriated from gun collectors before I officially joined DA on June 30, 1982.
Although, I joined in order to get rid of the video porn shop in my suburban neighborhood, the priority of the group at the time was the Litton action and the expropriation of support material to make that action happen, like getting our hands on two-way short-wave radios and dynamite. It was disappointing for me to have to put off target practicing with my new mini-14 .223 caliber Ruger until we succeeded in finding a Department of Highways TNT cache full of dynamite, and then it was, “Wait until after Litton.”
Anyways, we were all really tired and on our way home from another day of uneventful searching around for dynamite between Squamish and Whistler when, suddenly, I started pointing at the vehicle directly in front of us and laughing hysterically. It was a Department of Highways service vehicle tagged with an explosives sign in plain view for us to see! Naturally, we followed it to its destination a mile or so up the road and then followed it back to a highways-compound, where it parked overnight. Then, we returned under the cover of the night to steal the keys that were sitting in plain view on the dashboard and unlocked the gate to the service road, helping ourselves to more than 2,000 pounds of dynamite. It was that simple!
CB: One thing very unique about your group was that you were anarchists, not Marxists like most other guerrilla groups such as the Red Army Faction, the Front de Libération du Québec, the Irish Republican Army, the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground. How did it work to be an anarchist using a model generally shaped by Marxists?
JB: Those rigid models caused a vanguard mentality even in our group that eventually produced a lot of tension and ultimately divided us in the same way that media uses black and white (didactic) stories to sell newspapers and dummy everything down for purposes of social control. Seriously, as soon as the shit hit the fan when people were injured in the Litton bombing, everyone became more rigid in the group fast! Sure, some political idealism is about envisioning utopia and how to get there, but the nuts and bolts behind revolutionary illegal political activity is a different thing altogether. I have to say that I was attracted to being a real life bad girl devoted to drugs, guns and fucking in the streets! That’s what made me want to become an urban guerrilla, not some rigid political ideology. No way! And I challenge anyone who tries to say otherwise, or who tries to say that it makes me any less of a revolutionary in the struggle for freedom. In fact, I believe I was ahead of my time in many ways.
CB: So, you were only 18 years old when you got involved with underground radical action. How does someone that young get involved with something so radical? Was it a mistake to get involved at that young of an age?
JB: ’K, so I’m hanging out with my new punk friends that I met on a film set that we were all extras in called, “All Washed Up,” a.k.a. “The Fabulous Stains.” I had a car and, as soon as I graduated from grade 12, I told my parents I was going to live in this punk house off Commercial Drive. They weren’t too happy, but, like I said, I had a lot of freedom growing up. So, life’s one big party at the Punk Manor until one of the punk guys gets drunk and boots a neighbor’s car in. The next day was Italian Day 1980, and we were suddenly attacked by a group of masked-men wielding baseball bats. I’ll never forget the moment as carnival sounds from the parade from [Commercial] Drive meshed with windows smashing and people screaming from the violence in the foreground and then the desensitizing effects that stayed with me for years!
Anyways, after that incident, I went back home and began challenging my family and friends over newspaper accounts of death squads operating with impunity throughout the third world and pointing out that it could happen here too.
That’s how I became involved so young—the violent repression I experienced as a punk girl in resistance to mainstream norms was so extreme that it set off a compulsion for guns and militancy that probably attracted other militant cohorts or they attracted me. Whichever way it worked, that’s how I became so radical at such a young age, and was it a mistake? As I get older, I think not. I think it was all meant to be.
CB: Did you think you would get caught? Go to prison? What was prison like for you?
JB: Yes and no. It’s weird, because I was prepared to do what I had to in order to stand by my word and back up my friends/comrades, but there was no suicide pact—while, at the same time, I am heard on the wiretap several times saying that I’d rather die than go to prison.
CB: Did you receive a fair trial?
JB: No! Immediately, my comrades wanted to censor the wiretap transcripts, and I did not see key pieces of evidence during my prosecution. Two bugs were placed in our underground house: one upstairs in the kitchen and one downstairs in Ann and Brent’s room. My comrades, including my boyfriend, didn’t think it was good for me to see the downstairs wiretap transcripts and advised against it. This is problematic, because I was convicted of conspiracy with them, and I should have had access to all evidence before and during trial just like everybody else in this country.
Also, when you consider that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had only been enacted about 30 days before our arrest, I’m sure you can understand that, given the climate we were in, it’s unlikely I received a fair trial.
CB: Do you have any advice for activists looking at a long prison term?
JB: My advice is to focus your time on education, because it is the only thing that holds equal value in the semi-free world. Like, a lot of prison activists focus on work programs for prisoners, which I suppose have some merit in the sense that one earns a skilled trade before leaving prison, but who the hell is going to hire someone who got their hairdressing degree from Oakalla or Prison 4 Women? Really, it’s a sad joke when you think about it.
It’s also important to keep notes and document your experiences as you’re doing your time in order to share your ordeal with others. After all, a unique set of experiences put you there.
CB: How can we work to support anarchist and other revolutionary prisoners?
JB: Sure, it helps to write letters of support and visit anarchist and revolutionary prisoners, but it’s even more important to offer moral and/or financial support to the families, who are often left out in the cold wondering what the hell just happened.
CB: What was your connection to punk, and did the punk scene have any affect on your political actions?
JB: Me? I just wanted to look cool. I wasn’t trying to do anything like revolution at first. I know people would like to think that I was always about breaking boundaries of politics and gender, but Gerry and I didn’t really have time for that; we were really too busy trying to pull enough money together for records, beer and the rent. But, I have to admit that, during the early ’80s, there was way more social-political activity going on all around in Vancouver—much more than any time since, that’s for sure: peace marches by the thousands, lots of socialism themes in the various political rallies, Rock Against Prisons every August, the Trade Union movement, general strikes, and so on and so on. Amidst all of that, I identified as a punk, because I wanted a safe place where I could express myself in less “feminine” ways than other girls—to be assertive, aggressive, outspoken—and reject that good-girl shit as soon as it was pushed in my face and made me feel uncomfortable.
It’s important to note that its very common for adolescent males to reject mainstream norms and expectations by identifying with a sub-cultural identity of some sort, and the Vancouver punk rock scene was no different. It was accepted as a right of passage for men, whereas, for women, it was very different. Sure, I was just as disaffected and rebellious as my male peers in rejecting society’s norms and expectations, but, moreover, I was actively resisting both the constructs of feminine norms as well as sexist punk attitudes that valorized adolescent masculinity, toughness, coolness, rebelliousness and even aggressive possessiveness of punk girls. Unlike punk guys, I was constructing my identity from two opposing constructs, which does in fact hold broader implications for thinking about DA and violence as an inherently male trait. I have to think about that for a while.
Anyways, looking back, I believe that when me and my punk friends, especially the guys, were attacked with baseball bats for being punks, it sublimely impacted how I viewed the playing field of politics as one of violence.
CB: What were some of the biggest influences on you?
JB: Violence, love, punk rock music, DIY ethics, episodic ’70s television …you get the progression.
CB: Ann Hansen put out a book entailing her version of your collective story, Direct Action, Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla. What do you think of her book?
JB: It was a shock to read how she depicted me as a romantic rival and both Gerry and I as stupid. And she doesn’t talk about her life in prison and her relationships with the rest of us after the trial. In my opinion, the emotional aspects of all of that are important, and that is what I feel was lacking from Ann’s book.
CB: So, you grew up near Robert Pickton, right? And I believe you told me before that you knew wimmin in prison who disappeared at his hands? Also, do you think the allegations that the pigs were working with Pickton are accurate? How did this dumb fuck get away with raping and killing wimmin for so many years?
JB: Yeah, I grew up a few blocks over. In February 2002, when he and his crew were arrested and their pictures splattered all over the place, I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s the guy who stole my dog and harassed me back in ’97!” Yeah, I sensed the danger, and, luckily, I was still a fighter and recorded the license plate number and had the good sense to hold onto it. On the day, I tried reporting it to the local police, who weren’t interested at all—they were more interested in me being on parole and not bothering people in my neighborhood!
Sure is creepy though the way all of that DNA from bone fragments of missing women dated back to 1982, the same year I picked up the gun and blamed a video porn shop for bothering my neighborhood. Then, after so many years and so many women I knew from prison disappearing from the Downtown Eastside and then the police descending on the century-old farmland and the neighbor charged, damn! If you only knew of the integrity of those women … They’d never turn their backs on you, no matter what! And one thing they all had in common was that they cared more about others than they cared about themselves. I still have a very hard time reconciling what happened to those women there and don’t know if I ever will [get over that].
I would tend to agree with those allegations, considering how the trial played out and then more. How ‘bout all of those media bans? That was a huge indication to me that something was going on behind closed doors, at the systemic level. One thing people should realize is that, all of the time, the police and crown collude and omit things that they don’t want entered into evidence and made public. Rules of admissibility of evidence are what drive our criminal justice system. Anyways, I attended a few days of Pickton’s pre-trial arguments and found it surprising similar to our trial in that it all came down to admissibility of evidence and trial by media. And the most troubling aspect of it all was knowing that, deep in our collective consciousness, he didn’t realistically act alone. We know that there’s a community of people also who [were so] desensitized that they don’t notice or want to notice body parts laying around in garbage cans, cops included. It’s a moral conundrum. I think he got away with it by passing himself off as a “hard-working asshole,” and cops and everybody left him alone.
CB: We are gearing up here for the Olympics, and there is a large resistance movement against it. There is also heavy police repression already, with the pigs coming to the homes of activists in both Vancouver and Victoria to harass them and look for informants. They are also training especially for the Olympic security. Do you think the activists have a chance? What are your general opinions on the Olympics and anti-Olympics movement?
JB: I think that the time is now for a convergence of activism to succeed, as odds are that the Olympic movement does not want images of police brutality and repression following it wherever it goes (next stop, Europe), and, although the anti-Olympic movement is smarting from repression, there is a chance of changing the way people view colonial/capitalist spectacle, like the Olympics, for years to come.
CB: What are your general impressions of the feminist, environmentalist and anarchist movements today?
JB: It’s reaffirming to see the movements catalyze around protecting the Earth, queer rights and First Nations empowerment.
CB: What do you think of the bombings of the ENCARTA sour-gas pipelines happening in northern British Columbia in the last year?
JB: I think whatever people do to protect their land and local health needs is righteous!
CB: I have a friend in Edmonton who feels that, whenever someone claiming to be an anarchist blows shit up, it harms the movement. What do you think?
JB: I see media buzzwords and images used all of the time to sell stories and hook the viewer into thinking they can actually make a moral judgment or an informed decision about another community’s moral conscience and direct action. In the same way, your friend’s “keep ’em separated” and “violence is not me” subtext is moralistic in tone and smacks of censorship, because uncompromising anger is the true force behind all social change.
I think the Gandhian, non-violent, direct-action movement is based on a romanticized Hollywood notion that idealizes a time and culture altogether different than what we’re experiencing. Today’s post-colonial police state has had a lot of time to perfect techniques that keep people in perpetual submission and within the confines of capitalist norms and institutions. For instance, I’ve noticed a surge in bank-manager syndrome: It has now become an acceptable and justifiable part of everyday life to say, “Talk to the hand,” and dismiss the first intonation of anger in anyone, no matter the circumstances, political activists included.
I don’t think the Movement will go very far if it doesn’t address this tendency to want to censor out militancy from its collective psyche. Fear of political violence and imprisonment has effectively neutered the movement. People fear to fight for freedom; activists attempt to convince rather than challenge, and the mere suggestion of violence has become the purple elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about.
CB: In an interview you gave while you were still in prison, they stated that you renounced the use of violence. Is this true? Do you still feel the same years later?
JB: It is interesting, because, in the beginning of all this, I really didn’t understand why I became an urban guerrilla and I definitely didn’t understand how it would impact my perspective later on in life. I was very spontaneous and of the moment back then. Now, after many years of reflection, I return to my past with a clearer understanding of events and a firmer belief that action speaks louder than words.
CB: Here is the million-dollar question: If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you? Do you have any regrets?
JB: Yes and no; I truly regret that I injured people, but the ship can’t be turned around.
Comrade Black is a genderqueer green-anarchist feminist from Victoria, British Columbia. They are a founder of the Victoria Anarchist Bookfair collective, Victoria anarchist reading circle, and a member of the Camas Collective Infoshop.