Mohawk Kuzma says he never set out to be an organizer for any activist groups in Seattle.
During recent demonstrations, ostensibly over a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to charge a white officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed young black man, he has become something of an unofficial spokesman for a loosely connected group of Seattle protesters.
It’s a role that has made him a lightning rod for some of the criticism that has followed the city’s three major protests since the Nov. 24 decision. One right-wing website, frontpagemag.com, recently dubbed him the “idiot Ferguson protester of the day” after protesters disrupted Black Friday events at Westlake Center.
Other websites and social media are less charitable.
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But if the criticism bothers Kuzma, he doesn’t acknowledge it.
Kuzma says he became committed to activism four years ago while watching news accounts of the fatal shooting of a First Nations woodcarver by a Seattle police officer.
“When I heard about John T. Williams, I did research and saw that it was not right, so I headed to Seattle,” said the Evergreen High School grad, who was living in Burien. “That’s how I got involved. I started paying attention to what’s going on.”
He has since become a familiar face at Seattle protests. He has taken part in Occupy Seattle demonstrations as well as the city’s annual May Day protests. But Kuzma, 24, said he does not participate in protests at random. He becomes involved when he feels called to a cause, he said.
His involvement in the Ferguson protests is more about voicing dissatisfaction with what he calls systemic injustice than with the grand jury’s decision not to charge former Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson with shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown.
On Wednesday, he and his confederates were outraged when a New York grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Emma Kaplan, an organizer for Seattle Oct. 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, which also has taken part in the Seattle protests, said the decision not to prosecute the officer over Eric Garner’s death was “absolutely outrageous and unacceptable and just another license for the police to go out and kill black people.”
Wednesday evening, demonstrators gathered at Westlake Park to protest the decision. About 100 people walked through downtown and Belltown for nearly four hours. One person was arrested for allegedly assaulting an officer, the Seattle Police Department said.
Not just Ferguson
Last week, Seattle’s Ferguson protesters shut down Interstate 5 for a time and disrupted holiday shopping at Westlake Mall on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. Critics decried the tactics and claimed protesters had no discernible cause other than to curse police, disrupt traffic and march throughout downtown and Capitol Hill.
“I protest depending on what’s going on in the nation,” Kuzma recently explained. “I protest for Michael Brown because of the prosecutorial misconduct, evidence tampering and witness intimidation. I protest against injustice — Michael Brown and his family need justice and it is the right thing to do.”
When asked what justice for Brown looks like, in a city approximately 2,100 miles from Ferguson, Kuzma acknowledges the root of his concern is not really just about Ferguson or Brown.
It’s bigger than that, he said. It’s about injustice, racial inequity, oppression and accountability.
“The police in Seattle, and everywhere, need to learn it’s not OK to go out and kill people. Police need to be held accountable. This is not the wild, wild West.”
During the recent protests, amid chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” participants have frequently cited the case of John T. Williams, the man fatally shot by a Seattle officer in August 2010.
The officer, Ian Birk, was not prosecuted for the shooting but resigned from the department after a shooting review board issued a scathing report. Then-Police Chief John Diaz formally fired Birk for misconduct even after his resignation.
The Williams shooting was among several incidents that resulted in a civil-rights investigation of Seattle police by the U.S. Department of Justice, which ushered in federal oversight of the department. That oversight includes new policies designed to specifically address many of the issues protesters have been raising.
On Wednesday, Kuzma joined more than a dozen protesters at a Seattle City Council Public Safety Committee meeting in demanding police be equipped with body cameras. This despite the fact the city has long indicated it would begin testing the cameras, with a pilot project involving 12 officers to begin within days.
“They’ve been saying that for four years,” Kuzma counters.
Agenda for Seattle
Kuzma said protesters want Mayor Ed Murray to release a statement confirming the city’s stated commitment to body cameras as well as “transparency and police brutality investigations.” He said protesters also want to see the city follow through with “strong investigations regarding police-misconduct issues,” Kuzma said.
“Racial injustice is not OK. The city needs to improve on race relations and how they treat minorities,” he said.
Kuzma said he never sought the limelight, but became known for his activism after taking on the job of handling the media and updating social media, which is how most of the protests are organized.
Media often turn to his Facebook page and tweets when trying to find the location and time of upcoming protests, where he is often among the few participants willing to speak to reporters.
He has been arrested twice in connection with his activism: in 2011 for investigation of pedestrian interference and in 2012 for investigation of criminal trespass.
Kuzma is currently volunteering for Habitat for Humanity after a stint working at three fast-food restaurants in Everett. He ran for a seat on the Highline School Board under his real name, Miles Partman, in 2013. He lost the election but garnered 4,972 votes, or nearly 23 percent.
“Becoming well-known is not preferred, but I speak out strongly about racial injustice. I am not the only person speaking out; it is a community effort. Racial injustice affects everyone, every single day,” said Kuzma.
Christine Clarridge: email@example.com or 206-464-983. News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.