Bearing Witness

 bernie classman

I know all about bearing witness. I started doing it when I was five when I tried to help Hiroshima Maidens hosted and put up by my Quaker Meeting when in NY, USA for no charge reconstructive surgery.

They stayed with Quaker families who drove them to and from treatments, They also were in a terrible condition, although each had her own particular troubles.

In my version of witnessing, you hold that which you know and you verbally share it, as well as try to correct the problem. I am seasoned in this aspect of myself. … I’m in my sixties. If I haven’t figured it out by now, it is hopeless.

Now a little background is needed. It has to do with Quakerism in my case. …Now the Quakers are a strange bunch according to some norms. Some Quakers are Buddhist oriented. Others are atheists and others are dyed of the blood of the Lamb (meaning Jesus) oriented. Yet the commonality is that we all try to serve life’s improvement.

Now one of my friends died Freedom Riding. A sheriff pulled his car over.

Routine traffic stop? Not really. Their police car was filled with redneck men.

The two white fellows and the one black one, the Riders, were tied to trees. Then Michael was asked to kick and beat the blacky to death to spare his own life.

He wouldn’t do it. So it went. Ditto for my childhood  friend, Andy Goodman, and the next summer, I was tasked with taking care of Ben Chaney, as the mother had her hands full with FBI and the press. So my parents sent him to my family, who paid for his travels. Yet I had my own duties — to train him in civil disobedience and healing. Way to go as a Quaker family. Push our ways forward.

All three three Riders were beaten and kicked to bloody pulp. Remains like slammed broken meat were put in a farmer’s concrete dam.

The FBI put up 10,000 dollars to find out the truth. Someone squealed like a little money-hungry piggy. They money didn’t even come from the FBI. It was passed from the Goodman family and, yet, FBI took credit for it. … Eat it, FBI. Eat your lies.

Yet Quakers aren’t only ones bearing witness. My childhood dentist, a Jew named Irwin, met blacks in army during WWII. So he opened his practice to them, the dark skinned people, on Saturdays. Many were poor and gave him a few crumpled dollars, a cooked chicken or an apple pie for payment.

He decided that this pattern was BS. So he integrated his practice in the 1960’s.Yes, he knew that he would lose some white skinned customers on account. Oh, he didn’t lose my family.

Then he went further after Andy Goodman died. He knew Andy, too, and started Freedom Riding for all of August. He practically had his car chassis touching the ground due to the car loaded with heavy weight from donations from his Synagogue to the financially poor in the south. … You ought to have seen him scrape car bottom when he hit the street curb from his driveway

We, his family of wife and two children, along with my family, waved bye-cry. We cried because we remembered Andy and didn’t want the hell to happen to Irwin.

He had to go. He had to bear witness since the blacks were being treated the way that Jews had been treated for a long time.

If you think that bearing witness is only intellectual or only involves driving a car down south, I have news for you. I got past EMT level in training. I trained for First Responder level.

I cut my emotions off from myself. It is the only way to go forward when you face someone possibly dying.

You do a full body check and do what you need to salvage life. You even make do with your small first aid kit kept in your car. You do lung ventilation using aluminum foil. You keep someone conscious even when he can’t breathe without the ventilation while his shoulder is dislocation and he has stroke based on pupil dilatation disparity.

There is time for crying and shaking, but while there is time for personal reactions, the action time is not appropriate for that sort of response.You just have to work like hell until the EMT’s and their ambulance equipment arrive.Try it for around an hour and you will see about what I mean. … You cut your feelings away and just do first aid.

Laying yourself out there is not easy. It was not easy for Andy and Irwin.It is not easy for others who I still know — family members and friends.

We do it because it is necessary. We know our meddle and won’t shirk our duty.

We don’t always get what we want. Yet sometimes we do get what we need. … Irwin needed to heal from Andy’s death. So he freedom rode, my dentist, in his stead. I went out to raise money for bus rides to Selma for the King march and tended Ben Chaney. Yes, we can sometimes get what we need. … And we step up really hard in the absence of that which we lost.

I know all about bearing witness.So do many of my family members and friends.And we don’t

quit our stances, including our our own possible deaths on account of the positions that we take. We do not shy away from our duties.

We want to be our authentic selves in our full humanity, We won’t be half-humans. Oh, don’t I know it. We turn ever more hefty to make up for our losses, the ones that break our hearts.

I have liked bearing witness since I was young. It keeps me whole in my sense of identity.That is the way that I know myself, my understandings, and my capabilities.


Sally Dugman is a writer from MA, USA



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