by Aric McBay
When they asked for those to raise their hands who’d go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it high up as I could get it. I guess if I’d had any sense I’d’ve been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.
—Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader
Methods of outreach and recruitment vary depending on whether a group is aboveground or underground, how it is organized, and what role is being filled. There are really two kinds of recruitment, which you might call organizational and mutual recruitment. In organizational recruitment, an existing organization finds and inducts new members. In mutual recruitment, unorganized dissidents find each other, and forge a new resistance group. When resistance is well established, organizational recruitment can flourish. When resistance is rare or surveillance extensive, dissidents mostly have to find each other.
Recall that a movement can be divided into five parts based on roles: leaders, the cadres or professional revolutionaries who form the movement’s backbone, combatants or other frontline activists, auxiliaries, and the mass base.
Leaders, if they are recruited at all, are likely to find each other early on or be recruited from within the organization (especially in the underground, for the obvious reasons that they are known, have experience, and can be trusted).
The cadres and combatants or frontline activists are recruited in person, screened, and given training. Recruiting such people may require the bulk of recruitment resources, but that commitment of resources is necessary; cadres form the backbone of the resistance as professionals who give their all to the organization, and combatants are, of course, on the front lines.
Auxiliaries may be easier to recruit because they require a lesser commitment to the group, and the screening process may be simpler because they do not need to be privy to the same information and organizational details as those inside the organization. However, there generally should be some kind of personal contact, at least to initiate the relationship.
The mass base does not require direct recruitment because they support the resistance because of their own circumstances or experience, combined with propaganda and outreach from the resistance. Outreach to the mass base can take place through inexpensive mass media like books and newspapers, so that they require minimal effort per person to “recruit,” but they also offer little or no material support to the resistance. However, they may take some action on prompting from the resistance, and participate generally in acts of omission or noncooperation with those in power.
So how does one recruit? It depends. Aboveground groups have it pretty easy in terms of recruitment, because recruitment plays to their strengths. It’s relatively easy for them to engage in outreach and to publicize their politics and actions. Of course, because of this they are more vulnerable to infiltration. Underground groups need a somewhat more involved recruitment procedure, largely for security reasons, and they have a much smaller pool of potential recruits. All of this brings us to one of the most important conundrums for modern-day militants, what you might call the paradox of militant radicalization.
Most people who want to change the world start with low-risk, accessible activities, things like signing petitions or writing letters. When those don’t work, activists may escalate to protests, disruption, and civil disobedience. Maybe they are teargassed or beaten at a protest, and they become radicalized. If they care enough about their cause, they will continue to ratchet up their action until it works. Unless their issue is popular enough to be solved with legal action, activists eventually hit a wall at which further escalation is illegal or dangerous. At this point, some people choose to act underground. And here’s the paradox: aboveground action is based on getting attention. The people who have been the most persistent and relentless and most successful at raising awareness—the very people with the dedication and drive needed to go underground—may be the people who are at the most risk in going underground.
People living in overtly oppressed groups do not have the privilege of ignorance, and are more likely to be radicalized younger and in greater numbers. But within a surveillance society that doesn’t alter our fundamental problem: the process of militant radicalization is liable to draw counterproductive attention to the radical, simply because most people don’t turn to militant action until they have personally exhausted the less drastic and lower-risk avenues. Many of the most serious and experienced members of aboveground resistance thus become cut off from further escalation.
There’s no perfect solution; serious resistance entails risk, and all members have to decide for themselves what levels of risk they are willing to take on. Keeping a low profile is part of the answer. Someone who is considering serious underground resistance should avoid prominent, militant aboveground action; it’s important not to draw unwanted attention in advance. That doesn’t mean that people should stop being activists or stop being political, but militant aboveground action is a definite disqualifier for underground action.
This paradox must be addressed by individual communities of resistance having a culture of resistance. We must offer alternatives to the traditional routes of radicalization. Rather than simply following the default path, budding activists need to be told that there is a choice to be made between aboveground and underground action. Activists can privately discuss these options with trusted friends, but without planning specific actions (which would entail extra risk). This applies regardless of whether a movement is willing to use violence or not. As we have discussed, repression happens when a movement is effective, regardless of their tactics: witness Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Furthermore, it’s our assumption that successful resistance will grow, gather attention, and progress toward more militant activity as needed. That growth will increasingly draw unwanted attention and infiltration from intelligence agencies. That means any resistance movement that plans to eventually succeed needs to incorporate excellent security measures from the very beginning. Because the situation has been worsened by the rapid development of electronic surveillance, we radicals have been a bit behind the curve on this. Recruitment is a crucial area to apply good security.