He lies with his feet toward the east, beneath a simple black gravestone, inscribed “Our Beloved Brother John T. Williams.” The letters are carved in a gleaming black slab set flat in the ground.
The arc of his life is written: February 27, 1960 – August 30, 2010, the day he was shot dead by a Seattle police officer.
Ian Birk opened fire just seconds after seeing Williams walk in front of his patrol car near the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street, carrying a board and a small pocketknife.
What happened on that day 10 years ago reverberates today: an outpouring of grief that the life of an Indigenous man could be taken by a police officer who was neither charged with a crime, or fired — he simply resigned.
The killing of Williams ultimately proved a catalyst for ongoing federally mandated reforms to the city’s Police Department, as Seattle’s mayor and City Council debate cuts to the city’s budget that would eliminate the positions of dozens of police officers.
Williams, a member of the Ditidaht First Nation on southern Vancouver Island, suffered from chronic alcoholism and spent much of his life homeless. He also was a beloved local fixture, known on Capitol Hill and around Pike Place Market where he carved totem poles on the street for a living, like the rest of his family, now through seven generations of carvers.
His violent death in Seattle was one beginning in the movement now reawakened across the nation after the death in May of George Floyd, a Black man, under a white officer’s knee.
“I saw the same look in his face, the same lack of caring,” Rick Williams, one of John’s brothers, said of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, captured on a bystander’s video shifting his knee to keep weight and pressure on Floyd’s neck. The officer was subsequently fired and has been charged with second-degree murder.
These deaths of Black and brown people by white violence are nothing new, said Mike Tulee, an enrolled Yakama tribal member and executive director of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, a Seattle social service nonprofit. “It’s always been like that, it’s just now because of video and cellphones we can prove it.”
Legacy of Williams’ killing
Williams’ killing was captured on Birk’s dashboard camera.
Birk stopped at a light as Williams walked, head down, across the street and out of frame. Birk then exited his patrol car and yelled, “Hey!” and, “Drop the knife!” at Williams, who it would later be learned was hard of hearing, and intoxicated at the time. With no warning, or even identifying himself as a police officer, Birk started shooting.
Evidence presented during an inquest showed about four seconds elapsed between Birk’s first order for Williams to put down the knife and when he opened fire.
A review by the department’s Firearms Review Board found all four bullets were fired from a distance of 9 to 10 feet, and struck Williams in the side. The board determined the shooting was unjustified. Williams died, handcuffed, on the sidewalk.
The shooting was rooted in deeper problems at the Seattle Police Department, federal investigators later reported.
An investigation and 2012 lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice against the city of Seattle found the Police Department engaged in a systematic pattern of excessive force by its officers against people who posed little threat — and more than half of those people were minorities. Indians and Alaska natives comprise less than 1% of the population of Seattle, according to the 2010 census.
The investigation uncovered a terrible catalog of violence: Officers striking people with batons and flashlights, physically abusing handcuffed suspects, and piling multiple officers on lone individuals — who frequently were mentally ill, intoxicated or otherwise vulnerable and unwell.
In their review of the more than 1,200 use of force reports filed over more than two years, investigators found only in five instances did any supervisor in the entire chain of command ever question what had happened, even in obvious instances that the force was excessive.
The department, investigators concluded, was deliberately indifferent to the use of excessive force by its officers, and was well aware of the problem, with millions paid out in legal settlements by the city — including $1.5 million to the Williams family.
Among the signatories to the investigation’s report and lawsuit demanding reform at SPD was Jenny Durkan, who then was U.S. Attorney General for the Western District, and now is responsible for overseeing the force as mayor.
City officials last June announced they would withdraw a request that could have cleared the way to lift federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department, following a fresh wave of citizen complaints about police tactics during days of major demonstrations over the killing of Floyd.
Anguish over the Williams killing and others by police recently helped spark the campaign for I-940, a ballot measure that removed a 32-year-old barrier in state law that made it virtually impossible to bring criminal charges against police officers believed to have wrongfully used deadly force. The Puyallup and Muckleshoot Indian tribes — each of which lost members to police shootings, including a pregnant mother — joined with other tribal nations in the I-940 campaign, gathering signatures and helping to pay for a signature-gathering firm, to put the measure on the ballot. It passed with strong support in 2018.
The first charges brought against a police officer since the initiative passed were filed Aug. 20 by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg against Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 2019 fatal shooting of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey.
Grief, and change
The 10 years since Williams’ death have relentlessly focused something else not new to the Indigenous community in Seattle: a commitment that stretches back generations to care for one another.
The night Williams was killed, hundreds of people rallied at a candlelight vigil at the Chief Seattle Club, where he was known and cared for. And in the years since, the nonprofit club, a Seattle human services and day center for urban Indian people experiencing homelessness, has continued to step up its efforts.
Ray Williams, a Swinomish elder who leads talking circles at Chief Seattle Club and who is not related to John T. Williams, said the focus in the community is on healing, helping to recover spirits injured by homelessness and trauma — such as the shooting of Williams and other systemic violence.
Colleen Echohawk, who is enrolled Pawnee, became the organization’s executive director four years after Williams was killed. “It was still just so raw and reverberating in the community, and we have many Native folks right now who are experiencing homelessness, who experienced homelessness with John. … How have we let this situation go on for so long, in the city of Seattle?”
Native people, she noted, have been experiencing homelessness since 1865 when Seattle settlers kicked them out of the city.
Housing is a priority for Chief Seattle Club. First came Eagle Village in South Seattle, opened in 2019, where Indian and Alaska Native people can get off the streets and into transitional housing, created from 24 shipping containers. The club has two more housing projects in the works due to be completed in 2021.
“From a time when there was very little City Council and county and state money going into this issue of Native American homelessness, we now have three major programs happening,” Echohawk said.
The Seattle Indian Health Board, specializing in the care of Alaska Native and urban Indian people, has grown since its founding in 1970 to provide health services for about 6,000 patients in Seattle and King County, with a budget of nearly $30 million.
The Urban Indian Health Institute, a division of the health board, also has investigated police data across the country, decolonizing it to uncover previously unreported murders and sexual assaults of Native women and girls. The institute’s 2018 report has helped stoke an international Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement seeking justice.
Esther Lucero, chief executive officer for the board, recognizes she and other Native leaders today stand on the shoulders of generations of leaders before her — such as former Puyallup Tribal Council member and Chairwoman Ramona Bennett.
Now 82, Bennett was on the council when she joined the fish camps on the Puyallup River to defend Native fishermen against state game wardens and police, who were swinging clubs and firing tear gas and guns. To help financially support fishermen in the encampment, she drove their iced catch all the way to the Bay Area to sell, to get a better price.
“I’d go down there in my one-eyed Ford twice a week,” Bennett said, using a tire iron to shift gears, as seat cushions puffed the stink of tear gas whenever she hit a bump. A reminder of the takeover of Fort Lawton on March 8, 1970.
More than 100 Indian people climbed the fence of the recently decommissioned Army installation in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, using her same one-eyed Ford as a ladder, denting the roof. They occupied the property, claiming it for a Native cultural and social services center. A portion of the property eventually, after a series of negotiations, became home to what would become the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, where the United Indians of All Tribes is headquartered.
“You can’t say you will try at something, you just do it,” Bennet said. “To say you will try admits the possibility of defeat.”
“A warrior without violence”
For Rick Williams, the present moment, as the country is engulfed in the Black Lives Matter movement, is a time to also remember his grandfather’s teachings about being a warrior — without violence.
Williams, 65, carries two legacies now. That of his family’s carving tradition in Seattle, and that of his brother.
Williams calls himself “the other carver,” as curious onlookers who don’t know his story strike up conversations while he sits carving, crossed legged on the grass, beneath the memorial pole raised for his brother on the grounds of Seattle Center in 2012.
He used a pencil to sketch a design on a piece of cedar, and then with a pocketknife — like the one his brother held as he was shot — sent the chips flying, burying his pack of smokes. The Monorail slinked by and the sun crossed past the Space Needle that brackets his brother’s honor pole in the park.
Young people, fresh from a march for Black and Indigenous lives, saw Williams carving at the pole, and came to sit at his feet. They sought advice, counsel and permission to use his brother’s name in their march.
Of course, Williams said. Use it. But never in anger.
“Don’t let it turn violent,” Williams said. “I say: Peace.”
He carves every day for his living, returning at day’s end to his room at a motel on Aurora Avenue. Sometimes on Fridays he comes to visit his brother.
The Hills of Eternity Cemetery, consecrated in 1874, covers a lovely rise on Queen Anne Hill. The family laid Williams to rest in one of its prettiest spots, overlooking the water and the Cascades. Their father is buried on the hill to the north, at Crown Hill Cemetery across town.
John T. Williams was buried next to a pair of yew trees, a wood so hard he couldn’t carve it, “you have to use a mallet and a chisel,” Rick Williams said. He still misses carving with his brother, speaking together in their native language, and covering the ground with cedar chips.
The yews bent in the snow after Williams was buried and were cut down by maintenance staff. But in the years since, they have sprouted new life.
So has Rick Williams, who says he has been inspired by the activism in Seattle, especially the recent months of protests against police brutality and for racial equity.
What would keep the kind of unjustified police violence that took his brother from ever happening to anyone else, again?
Williams paused. Then envisioned out loud a gathering of public officials, police, and community members in a talking circle, at the cemetery, around his brother’s grave, each listening to the other as they sit on ground hallowed by his brother’s death. “Listen to one another. That is the only thing that will change this,” he said.
He touches his brother’s gravestone, where someone has left the gift of a braid of sweetgrass.
“In my heart, I’m proud — even John would be glad to see how big it’s become,” Williams said of the protest movement. “It took 10 years since John was taken, to see moms, grandmoms and veterans standing up. I watch Seattle totally in awe.” He sees the future in the young people, now joining the work.
For them, he offered his grandfather’s advice.
“Rise. Stand your ground. We change the course of history by saying ‘peace.’ Stay calm. Be a warrior without violence.
“Honor the person that was taken.”
A gathering and march will be held to honor John T. Williams beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30, at the Space Needle at Seattle Center, near Fifth Avenue and Broad Street.
Correction: An earlier version of this story published last year misidentified the tribal affiliation of Esther Lucero.