In Part Two of the definitive 3-volume work The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp sketches the strategy of “alternative communication system.” Sharp writes, “Under political systems which have extensive control or monopoly over systems and media of communication, the creation by opposition groups of substitute systems of communication may constitute nonviolent intervention when they disrupt the regime’s control or monopoly over the communication of information and ideas.” That’s a dead-on description of America and the NSA, as well as a reason to review a neglected strategy.
Types of Secret Radios
Secret radio provides an alternative means by which to network and to spread information. Especially radios that run on batteries can substitute for the internet and for phones. My alternative communication system includes a ham radio and a short-wave one. (Other people might prefer FRS Walkie Talkies or CB radios.)
Ham radios are transceivers – a combination transmitter and receiver – which broadcast wirelessly on specific frequencies; the direction is controlled by antennas. The most common ham radio (VHF) is limited in range because it works according to “line of sight” but that range can be greatly expanded through a system of repeater stations that pass the signal along. Because ham radios are wireless, they are not vulnerable to being “shut off” or controlled remotely. Moreover, unless it is in use or a person is looking at it, the presence of a ham radio cannot be detected. A license is required to legally broadcast, however, so records exist.
Short-wave radios are receivers that can pick up foreign radio broadcasts by means of “skip propagation”; the broadcasted waves bounce off the Earth’s surface, hit the ionosphere, and reflect back down. This allows short-wave transmissions to bypass the curvature of the Earth (“line of sight”) and travel long distances. (Some ham radios use short-wave frequencies to take advantage of the skip propagation.) No license is required for a short-wave used as a receiver but, if the radio also transmits, then a license is needed…at least by law. Again, the radio is wireless and virtually undetectable.
Radio as a Non-Violent Resistance and Personal Prepping Strategy
Consider ham radio. The survivalist site SHTF – considered to be among the best of its kind – offered its prediction (August 29, 2013) of what will happen during a period of crisis in America. “The internet as we know it will no longer exist. The White House will apply preexisting executive orders on U.S. communications to restrict internet use….This leaves a gaping hole in our society’s ability to communicate information quickly and efficiently, and, it removes the alternative media from the picture.” SHTF had a solution: “Ham Radio, which is very difficult for the establishment to shut down. Ham Radio communication chains could take the place of the internet as a lower-tech but useful means of spreading information….EVERYONE in the Liberty Movement should have a Ham Radio set, or handhold model, and they should know how to use it.”
Totalitarian states agree with SHTF’s assessment of ham radio as a freedom tool. Indeed, the patron saint of ham radio was a political martyr with the ham call sign SP3RN. During the German occupation of Poland, the priest Maximilian Kolbe was accused of espionage, partly because of his ham radio broadcasts. He was eventually sent to Auschwitz and died in 1941. Kolbe was canonized in 1982.
Short-wave radio has an equally colorful history. It is an excellent source of the foreign and independent news that police states do not want people to hear. Thus, throughout modern history, totalitarian regimes have tried to block short-wave broadcasts by arresting operators and by jamming signals. Jamming occurs when noise or signals are transmitted on a frequency in order to disrupt another broadcast that is there. The Nazis tried to jam the BBC during WWII; the Soviet Union and East Germany jammed Western short-wave stations during the Cold War; a wide assortment of nations have been jamming since the Cold War ended, including China, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, and Iran.
But jamming is an inefficient way to censor short-wave radio. It is difficult to predict how radio waves will propagate, which makes them difficult to accurately jam. Moreover, changing atmospheric conditions can make a jamming signal that’s close-by fade while one that’s farther away is strengthened. Radio operators are also resourceful and tend to invent equipment that bypasses censorship attempts; for example, directional loop antennas which easily change the receiving direction.
It Could Happen Here
America has a checkered past regarding ham and short-wave radios. The Radio Act of 1912 was passed in reaction to the sinking of the Titanic. Through it, America became the first nation to license ham radio operators and to restrict their broadcasts to specific frequencies that were then considered useless.
When America entered WWI in 1917, Congress ordered all amateurs to dismantle their equipment. The restrictions were reluctantly lifted on October 1, 1919. The same announcement also reminded ham operators to renew their licenses. During World War II, Congress once again suspended all amateur radio operations, with the exception of those connected with the armed forces.
In times of crisis, it can quickly become illegal to use radio waves that the state does not control. If radio as a freedom strategy is appealing, then it is important to buy now rather than wait. Ham radios and short-waves are affordable, especially when sold as used gear at hamfests – a type of flea market that can be physical or online. The radios are durable and hand held ham ones are extremely portable. Licenses are a bit of work but not difficult to obtain, especially since the Morse code requirement has been dropped. To get started, I recommend what has been called the ham radio Bible: The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications.
Short-wave radios are even more user-friendly and quite inexpensive. As the War Resisters International states, “Even more valuable [than a CB radio] is short-wave radio [transceiver], since it can be received thousands of kilometres away. It would be impossible to shut down communication out of a country if every household had a short-wave radio, supplemented by many ‘public short-waves’, namely short-wave radios available for anyone to use, like public telephones.”
The main drawback of ham and short-wave radios is that anyone with another radio or a scanner can eavesdrop on a broadcast. Packet radio is a partial solution. This is the transfer of digital information from one computer to another using a ham radio. Translating the information back into computer data requires the right sort of decoding equipment. Of course, anyone else with the same decoder could also do a translation. Unfortunately, the only truly secure way to use packet radio is also illegal; namely, encrypting the information before it is sent.
Effective non-violent strategies are the ones most likely to become illegal. When they do, however, there will be just one more law to resist.