A Field Guide to Resistance Narratives

You are in the resistance. You made a decision over the last year that it was vital to resist tyranny. Perhaps you resisted before; perhaps you are new to this struggle. But you’re here now, and you oppose this regime. You know what the consequences might be: you’ve seen the possible outcomes in history or in fiction and you realize that now is your “If I were around during…” so it’s time to get to work.

What sort of resistance are we in now, and what sort of resistance might it become? There are several resistance narratives and it’s important to select strategies and tactics for the specific struggle you’re in. But it’s also crucial to be aware of how the situation can change. Fascism and authoritarianism creep step by step and it can be hard to keep track of slow shifts from freedom towards tyranny. Know your narrative: know where you are now, and where things might lead. Prepare for the situations you might not want to consider, because when that net closes it might be too late.

Look around you and see which scenarios most closely resemble the late-capitalist dystopia which surrounds you now. Select the most effective resistance tactics based on the narratives you’re currently occupying. Check back often: things can get much worse faster than you expect.

Civil Rights Movement

You live in a democratic republic, imperfect as it may be. Those in power respect the will of the people, at least in principle. Protests and demonstrations can raise awareness of inequities and open a path to change within the system, and through traditional exercise of power.

Martin Luther King Jr. marches from Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. By Jesse Douglas

Your tools are protest and dissent; persuasion and outrage. Non-violent direct action gives your movement rhetorical power. You seek to shift the Overton window your direction in order to open avenues for long term change without fundamental destabilization. Building a movement is crucial.

It is important to avoid disruption by police and others with power. Retain the moral high ground through actions within the broad boundaries of what constitutes acceptable protest — even though there will always be those who object to your methods.

Germany in the 1920s-1930s

You remember what it was like when you were optimistic about your country’s trajectory. Was that really so long ago? Your idols are vanishing and your enemies are gaining power. You must do what you can to prevent fascists from solidifying their hold while also laying the groundwork for other sorts of resistance in the event that they do.

The Edelweiss Pirates, a group of German teenagers who resisted the Nazis

You intervene in the streets when those vilified by the current regime are attacked by its adherents. Your movement continues to protest, but this is increasingly dangerous because of the brutal tactics of the police and others. Direct action takes on a harder tone: not optimistic objection, but stoic confrontation. Every day, you imagine how things will get worse, and prepare for what else you may need to do. Will you help others who are more vulnerable to escape or be forced to flee yourself? How can you add sand to the gears turning towards tyranny?

The state watches for signs of dissent. You must take this time to build tight-knit teams whom you can trust and rely upon. You take greater care about the records you produce and how you represent yourselves publicly. Privately, you accumulate supplies and contingencies for whatever comes next.

The Underground Railroad

Your state is systematically oppressive. It’s unclear whether there’s hope for future change. The twisted laws of your era give vastly different protection to different human beings based on the circumstances of their birth. You can make the greatest difference by protecting the most vulnerable right now.

Your tactics mix the above-board and the covert. Sometimes, you can publicly support those at risk: by raising money or though actions of direct solidarity. Other work is necessarily sub rosa because the laws penalizing certain categories of people make no allowance for humanitarian action in their defense.

Compartmentation and confidentiality are key. You must keep your work of questionable legality away from the eyes of police who will certainly make every effort to destroy you if the find out how you have been protecting those in need. Your activities might require a substantial logistical operation involving supplies and safe-houses. These details must be hidden well by concealing them among ordinary activities.

La Résistance

Your land is controlled by fascists bent on conquest, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other crimes against humanity. The rule of law is a farce — laws give the weak no protection; it is rule by those with most power. There can be no public protest or dissent. The only way to challenge your violent overlords is with espionage and sabotage.

A unit in the French resistance, 1940–1944, France, photographer unknown. (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

Your tactics are illegal; many are dangerous. Disrupting supply lines and damaging depots makes you an enemy of those with power. You may have support from beyond your borders: covert communications and contraband materials.

It is vital to ensure that your work never harms civilians, only those committed to violent oppression. You are critically aware that resources are slim for many, and plan your work so that it harms your oppressors most, and your neighbors least. You are a criminal and a spy; you are forced to hide in the shadows while presenting a cheerful face so none suspect you.

The Rebel Alliance

You are at war. What once was a republic has most assuredly fallen. Simple sabotage will not stop the empire. You are an army, nowhere-near as well-supplied as the imperial forces, but prepared for battle nonetheless. You rely on the resources you managed to set aside before the empire’s power became absolute, and on the comrades who slip through its fingers as its grip tightens. If you lose, there is no hope for freedom.




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Tom Lowenthal

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