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Chapter 8

Organizational Structure

by Aric McBay

There is one thing you have got to learn about our movement. Three people are better than no people.

—Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader

Resistance organizations can be divided into aboveground (AG) and underground (UG) groups. These groups have strongly divergent organizational and operational needs, even when they have the same goals. Broadly speaking, aboveground groups do not carry out risky illegal actions, and are organized in ways that maximize their ability to use public institutions and communication structures. Underground groups exist primarily to carry out illegal or repressed activities and are organized in ways that maximize their own security and effectiveness.

Some aboveground groups do carry out illegal activities as part of a campaign of civil disobedience, or they break or bend lesser laws as a means of causing disruption or confronting power (for example, through “illegal” protests). These groups often occupy something of an awkward middle ground, a subject we’ll return to. As police become more draconian and punishments more severe, such groups may split into underground and aboveground factions, with some members refraining from illegal acts out of fear of punishment, while others seek to escalate their actions.

There has to be a partition, a firewall, between aboveground and underground activities. Some historical aboveground groups have tried to sit on the fence and carry out illegal activities without full separation. Such groups worked in places or times with far less pervasive surveillance than any modern society. Their attempts to combine aboveground and underground characteristics sometimes resulted in their destruction, and severe consequences for their members.

In order to be as safe and effective as possible, every person in a resistance movement must decide for her- or himself whether to be aboveground or underground. It is essential that this decision be made; to attempt to straddle the line is unsafe for everyone.

The differences between aboveground and underground organizing are expressed in every facet of a group’s structure and practice. Some of these differences are summarized in the following table.

Regardless of whether they are aboveground or underground, any group which carries out effective resistance activity will be considered a threat by those in power, and those in power will try to disrupt or destroy it.





Membership Membership is likely open, membership of any given member known by others in the organization. Membership is closed or closely guarded. Members are not aware of the identity of members outside of their immediate area of the organization.
Public face and outward behavior The group aims to attract attention and conducts public relations using “its own face.” Members may strongly voice support for change and resistance. The group aims to appear unremarkable or to deflect attention from itself (though probably not its action). Communication with the public happens through anonymous communiqués or press offices.
Decision making May emphasize democratic, transparent, and participatory decision making. They tend to be more broadly participatory in nature. Members are likely to appear outwardly apolitical or conservative. Decision making process is internally known but outwardly covert, many decisions based on internal rank and structure.
Internal communication and movement Internal communication (with and between groups) may be open, frequent, and in the clear. Communication between groups is likely to be limited, guarded, terse, and encoded.
Actions Members may move between different groups routinely to share skills. Movement between groups is very limited, but skill sharing is still important.
Goal with regard to general populace Likely to announce in advance to maximize attention and media coverage. May target areas where enemy is strongest or most concentrated (i.e., demonstrations in financial districts). May hope to mobilize citizens or gain broader support. No advance announcement, or perhaps disinformation about upcoming actions. Targets areas where enemy is weakest or most diffuse. Is not concerned with support of the majority, but may want to increase network of sympathizers. Hopes to avoid reprisals carried out on general population.