A Word In Edgewise: Seeing Clearly: “Sir, I Know Just How You Feel”
Speaking at the funeral of one of two murdered New York police officers, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said, in part:
Rafael Ramos was assassinated because he represented all of us, even though, beneath the uniform, he was just a good man. […] And maybe that’s our challenge.
Maybe that’s the reason for the struggle we’re now in—as a city, as a nation. Maybe it’s because we’ve all come to see only what we represent, instead of who we are […] The police, the people who are angry at the police, the people who support us but want us to be better, even a madman who assassinated two men because all he could see was two uniforms, even though they were so much more. […]
If we can learn to see each other… then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a department. We’ll heal as a city. We’ll heal as a country.
Seeing one another is not the norm in our society: officers Ramos and Liu were murdered, randomly, because they were policemen; black shopper John Crawford was gunned down in a Walmart for holding a BB gun sold in that store—in Ohio, an open carry state.
Seeing clearly can be achieved, sometimes at great cost to the seer. On June 21, 1964, three Freedom Riders, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by Mississippi Klansmen. Martin Luther King, Jr. biographer Taylor Branch, interviewed in the January, 2015, Smithsonian magazine, recounts that in the later confessions of Schwerner’s murderer and a witness, each separately stated that moments before he was shot, the 24-year-old, prodded with the killer’s gun, had simply said, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”
Branch defined Schwerner’s extraordinary words as “the epitome” of King’s active nonviolence: “You’re not giving in to your terror, your anger, and you’re trying to make some sort of contact with a snarling animal. There’s an expression of faith that there’s something human, even with no sign of it.”
Schwerner’s words are also a stunning example of what Bratton is asking when he urges Americans to “See one another.” It requires going beyond the physical, being what King called a “moral witness” to the other, to affect our nation’s healing.