Revolts within highly oppressive environments make sense. And it makes sense that the worse the conditions, the less one has to lose by revolting. Often huge risks are required, and taken, in those situations to obtain freedom. The stories of risks African-American slaves took, for instance, to escape slavery in the South, are stunning. Prison uprisings are another area of intense conflict between ultimate authority that constructively answers to no one, and a disempowered and controlled population. Prisoners have been able to organize, arm themselves, and revolt for better conditions, within prison walls, throughout history. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Other amazing records of rebellion exist from within Nazi “extermination camps.” To see that people were able to hold on to enough hope to DREAM of such radical escape, under conditions like that, humbles me and my little world of stupid problems immediately.
In 1971, thirteen hundred prisoners inside Attica maximum-security prison revolted, taking guards hostage, for days. Attica, at this time, had an 85% African-American and Latino inmate population, while the guards were predominantly Caucasian, and openly racist. The prison functioned as a sweatshop, with prisoners making 40 cents a day for labor in manufacturing. The prisoners presented a list of 27 demands for better living conditions, which included issues of hygiene, legal rights, authority, food, and working conditions. These prisoners/workers, even in the most oppressive of situations, were able to unite and rebel. They demanded union recognition as workers, even in prison. They demanded the warden involved during the uprising be removed. They demanded amnesty after the revolt. But instead they were met with 1,000 state police and National guard soldiers, who stormed the prison on Sept. 13, killing at least 40 people. Thousands of prisoners revolted in solidarity with the Attica uprisings thereafter. The Attica uprisings brought prison issues into the spotlight and public discourse.
Rebellion also came from the African-American slaves in America’s Southern states. While white slave owners talked without censorship near slaves, oblivious, assuming the slaves were stupid, the slaves were poisoning the slave owners, sabotaging them, and collectively doing things like running the Underground Railroad, which lead to tens of thousands of slaves’ freedom. In 1831, a slave uprising led by Nat Turner alarmed the authorities, when he and other rebel slaves, went door to door killing approximately 60 white people, saying God told him to bring judgment against whites for slavery. About 100 slaves were killed, and another 16 hung, to suppress the uprising. Due to all of this, many politicians and activists from the North argued slavery was causing a security threat within America. Northern government officials and abolitionists alike argued the continuing arsons and murders involved in the slave resistance, was justified, and would continue on, creating a criminal environment in the South, until slavery was stopped. Thus many in the North held the Southern slavery policies responsible for slave uprisings, rather than the slaves, themselves. Again, these uprisings brought public reflection upon social institutions of oppression.
Extreme examples of revolt, under conditions that normally would debilitate a person, are recalled from the histories of Treblinka and Sobibor Nazi death, or extermination, camps. In 1942, a Jewish prisoner at Treblinka bolted forward during roll call, and stabbed an S.S. officer. Chaos ensued, the prisoner was shot to death immediately. Ten more men were shot on the spot by the S.S. in front of the other prisoners after the stabbing, and the following day, another 150 men were shot in retaliation. The S.S. officer died en route to the hospital. The underground in the concentration camp circuit, if one can even imagine such a thing, took these reactions to the prisoner’s actions into account when considering future revolt plans. The S.S. guards also took note, and changed methods after this stabbing. What the Jewish prisoners learned was that one courageous act, such as killing one S.S. officer, could end up killing 160 Jews. And thus it was realized among the prisoners that random individual bravery could actually be dangerous to the whole.
In December 1942, a transport of 2,000 prisoners arrived by train, at night, at Treblinka death camp. Normally transports arrived in the daylight. As the usual processing chaos began, and people began to be herded into the gas chambers, they began yelling, “Don’t Obey the Germans! Don’t Undress!” Suddenly people from the transport got the message and took sticks, produced knives, and attacked the German S.S. and Ukranian guards on site. These brave souls actually produced a GRENADE and threw it at the S.S. and guards, who opened fire in the dark on the crowd with rifles and machine guns. People ran at the barbed wire fences that surrounded the camp, but since no one could get out, they suffered an inevitable death. In all that, only 3 S.S. men and guards were injured. After this event, transports only occurred during daylight. The Nazis refined their techniques through trial and error. And due to this refinement, most of the escapes from Treblinka happened in the early months of its existence.
While the Nazis were trying to hide the extermination purpose of these camps, to quell rebellion from prisoners and outcry from the public, some prisoners were able to escape and tell people in nearby areas, such as Warsaw, about what they saw. Several escapees from Treblinka were involved in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. In January 1943, a man who escaped from Treblinka attacked and injured the commander of an outgoing deportation. In Fall 1943, 2 Treblinka prisoners escaped on the train carrying the possessions of those killed in the camp. In Winter 1943, 7 prisoners who worked on the railroad platform were caught trying to escape. They were killed, and the S.S. announced that for each escapee, 10 Jews working in the camp would be shot. Yet escapes were still attempted. Seven prisoners dug a tunnel from their barracks to the outside of Treblinka’s first fence. The S.S. and guards pursued the escapees, following their footprints in the snow. One prisoner did escape, but the rest were caught, tortured, and then hung. The last prisoner to be hung shouted political statements from the gallows. By Dec. 1942, it was obvious that these escapes were costly, and organized prisoner resistance was considered, and implemented.
At the Nazi extermination camp at Sobibor, lessons like those at Treblinka in prisoner solidarity were also being learned. Nazi operations began at Sobibor in April 1942. Operations ended after the inmates pulled off one of the most successful concentration camp revolts in history. The organized prisoner resistance lured S.S. officers and Ukranian guards systematically to their deaths on that fateful day of revolt. When the organized resistance announced to the rest of the prisoners (many of whom had no idea the revolt had been planned) that most of the Germans in the camp had been killed, and that the revolt was on, they asked that anyone who lived to tell, make sure to bear witness to the crimes at Sobibor and the revolt. A resistance leader supposedly said, “Forward comrades! Death for the fascist!” leading the camp forward, as prisoners were ignited with the news. Unfortunately, the fields around the camp had land mines, and the resistance was going to use bricks and wood to touch them off, but did not have time, so prisoners were dying in the fields from mines after escape, while running under gunfire from the few living S.S. men and guards left. Running into forests and the darkness of night, as had been planned, approximately 300 prisoners escaped that night in October, 1943. 100 were caught or killed shortly thereafter. 47 lived to tell the story of Sobibor after the war. Sobibor was never reopened after the prisoner revolt in 1943. An estimated 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibor death camp between 1942 and 1943.
The arrogance of authority is often shown in uprisings, as the oppressors stand like Americans after 9/11, saying “Why us?” as if they are innocent victims. Often slave owners felt betrayed when they found their own slaves had undermined, or even poisoned, them! And the Nazis present for Sobibor’s uprising stood in shock, unable to understand how this could have happened. They even theorized the rebellion must have come from outside partisans, just as slave owners often blamed outside abolitionists for slavery revolts that literally came from the slaves, by themselves, for themselves. It has been said that the oppressed know more about the oppressor than the oppressor knows about the oppressed, which is really a very precarious position for the oppressor. Which perhaps explains the severity authority engages in to establish artificial control. And it is not that the oppressed want to know about the oppressor. They HAVE to know about the oppressor for survival. The oppressed are forced to know more about their oppressors, since they are the ones in the dependent positionality.
Revolt is never static, and oppression refines its technique, as revolt shifts to penetrate the weaknesses of authority. Revolt requires constant reevaluation to accommodate new oppressive upgrades. Certainly after the Attica prison revolts, routines at prisons changed all over the country. After Treblinka revolts, no transports came at night anymore. And after the Sobibor revolt, the camp closed. Revolt and oppression fine tune themselves to one another. Revolts do not occur in a vacuum, and the more refined one’s knowledge of the enemy at hand is, the more effective the revolt will be. Of course, the opposite is also true, that the more the enemy knows about the rebellious faction, the less effective rebellion will be. Evidence shows that while single acts of rebellion are inspirational, they can endanger others. The examples we see at Attica, on the Underground Railroad, and in Nazi death camps, show a pattern of prisoner solidarity overcoming unbelievably intimidating obstacles. Although some of these uprising were “successes,” and some “failures,” really they were all successes, as the only failure in these situations would be the failure to try.
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