A crowd of hundreds settled onto the lawn, their backs to the Space Needle and eyes on a towering monument of another kind: the totem pole honoring the legacy of John T. Williams, a symbol of the city’s long reckoning with police reform.
Sunday’s vigil marked 10 years since a Seattle police officer shot and killed Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, as he crossed the street near downtown holding a small pocketknife.
“That was our George Floyd moment in the city of Seattle,” said Gabe Galanda, a Native lawyer, connecting the trauma of Williams’ death to that of Floyd, a Black man killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s killing has touched off protests for police reform across the U.S.
The killing of Williams, who suffered from alcoholism and lived much of his life homeless, sparked outrage that the police officer who shot him — seconds after confronting him — wasn’t charged or fired. It was a catalyst for many, like Jay Hollingsworth, to take up the cause of reforming police.
“Ten years. What has changed?” Hollingsworth said Sunday as he cycled through the decade of activism that followed Williams’ death.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice ultimately led to a consent decree, putting the Seattle Police Department under the oversight of a federal judge — where it remains today.
The furor over Williams’ killing, along with others who died at the hands of law enforcement, led to the Initiative 940 ballot measure that made a series of reforms — including a change to the law that previously had made it virtually impossible to bring criminal charges against police officers for using deadly force. On Aug. 20, King County prosecutors charged an Auburn police officer with second-degree murder in the May 2019 shooting of Jesse Sarey, the first time an officer had been charged under the new legal standards.
Despite these changes, Hollingsworth noted shortcomings in how police comply with the I-940 requirements, citing flaws in the investigation of Manuel Ellis’ death earlier this year in Tacoma police custody.
Hollingsworth is now serving on a new task force, convened by Gov. Jay Inslee in June, and advocating for the creation of a new independent entity to investigate police use of force, he said Sunday.
Not every vigil for Williams has been well attended, some speakers and participants said, but Sunday’s gathering brought more than 200 people to the Seattle Center lawn.
Among them was Larry Laffrey, wearing a T-shirt from a 2011 commemoration of Williams’ life. In his pocket Laffrey carried a newspaper clipping from 2012, when he joined a throng of people carrying the honor totem to the Seattle Center. There were, he recalled, “more carriers than they needed.”