In Seattle on August 30, 2010, two powerful forces, one ancient and one modern, collided at the corner of Boren and Howell. Police Officer Ian Birk exited his vehicle at 4:12 p.m. and approached Ditidaht woodcarver John T. Williams. Before Birk even stepped on the curb, he unholstered his semi-automatic pistol.
John kept walking, his back to Birk. He was carving a cedar board with a small pocket knife. At age 50, he’d been carving for nearly 40 years, having learned it from his father. John’s lineage of carving went back seven generations.”
John was deaf in one ear. He’d been drinking, but was happy because only a few hours earlier his brothers Rick and Eric had convinced him to return to Canada with them. After a decades-long downward spiral, he was finally going home with his family.
John stopped and closed his pocket knife. He slowly turned his head toward Birk, not knowing who was behind him.
“Hey! Put the knife down!”
Birk calculated John was about ten feet away, close enough to run and begin stabbing him before he had a chance to fire. He’d been taught by the Seattle Police Department that a suspect can travel up to 21 feet in the time it takes for an officer to draw, aim and fire.
“Put the knife down!”
John had already closed it. Why did this cop want him to put it down? John turned his body toward Birk.
“Put the knife down!”
Birk mistook John’s slow reaction and stern expression as signs of aggression. These were “pre-attack indicators,” according to Birk’s SPD training. So immediately after saying “down,” he began pulling the trigger. Five bullets flew at John in just over one second. Four hit his right side.
The impact spun John to the right and he collapsed to the sidewalk. Birk stood motionless, his pistol still pointed, as the seventh generation woodcarver lapsed into unconsciousness and death. A total of seven seconds had elapsed.
“I felt like I had literally been kicked in the gut,” Angela Basta recalls. She heard of John’s murder on the evening news.
“I call it, ‘The Day the Mountains Crumbled and the Seagulls Cried.’ That’s how big of an impact his death had on me.”
This year, on the fifth anniversary of John’s death, she organized a memorial at the site of the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole that now stands on the Seattle Center grounds. John’s older brother, Rick, who three years before had supervised the carving and raising of the Honor Totem, attended the event along with other Williams family members and friends.
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Since John’s death, Basta began participating in local protests against police brutality. She also began a Facebook group called, Native Park Woodcarvers, to provide a forum for Native carvers to post videos and eyewitness accounts of police encounters.
Jay Hollingsworth, a Mohegan working near the Chief Seattle Club at the time, recalls attending a press conference there the day after the shooting.
“I was left speechless and unable to move.”
Afterward, he stood and asked, “Is that it? That can’t be it! We have to get organized!”
Three weeks later, along with Idle No More leader Sweetwater Nannauck, he formed the John T. Williams Organizing Committee, which coordinated protests, attended court proceedings, and helped plan the creation of John’s Honor Totem. He currently serves on the Seattle Community Police Commission, a federally-mandated civilian oversight group.
For those close to the Williams family, the aftermath of the shooting was almost worse than the shooting itself.
“It’s very personal for me,” Linda Soriano remembers. “I avoided media who hounded the heck outta me because I was close to Rick, his girl.”
Although the media barrage was overwhelming, the police harassment was much worse. Sitting with John’s brother Rick at Native Park, Soriano, a Lummi, witnessed many incidents that made her fear for her own safety. She and Rick were continually confronted by police trying to intimidate them. Once, she was surrounded by police on horseback and questioned. Another time an unidentified vehicle tried to run over Rick.
“I couldn’t handle all that. I fled to Lummi.”
Since then she’s become involved with the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality and also speaks about John at Black Lives Matter protests. She’s become an activist and an advocate for the homeless.
“I have a voice and I use it.”
At this year’s memorial the Williams family showed solidarity by carving together in John’s memory. To them, carving is a sacred act.
“This family is very strong. The bond is unbreakable. Our hearts, our minds, our souls are intertwined. We feel each other’s emotions deeply,” John’s niece Gloria told ICTMN. She and her husband Gabe traveled from Canada to attend the memorial.
In addition, John’s death showed how the militarization of police forces across America has created armies instead of peace officers. Birk was taught “pre-attack indicators” and the “21-Foot Rule.” He saw John as an enemy he could kill with impunity. His racial prejudice was used to fuel a conflict worth billions in weapons and equipment sales for the police-industrial complex.
The sacrifice the Williams family made is almost beyond comprehension. Of all his brothers and sisters, John’s connection to the family tradition was the strongest. He died doing what they have done for seven generations. He died carving. Five years later in the shadow of John’s Honor Totem, Native carving in Seattle was transformed into a symbol of peace opposing a conflict over 500 years old.
When asked what people should learn from his brother’s death, Rick Williams blinked away tears and held up two fingers.
“You know what that means? Peace!”
The ancient force destroyed on Boren and Howell in 2010 lives on in the hearts of a community and now protects us all.
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