The city of Seattle agreed on April 29 to award $1.5 million to the family of Native woodcarver John T. Williams, shot to death by former Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk, in a case later ruled unjustified by the Seattle’s Police Firearm Review Board. His death fired up Seattle’s American Indian community, who united for the first time to stand up for their civil rights.
Williams, a 50-year-old member of the Ditidaht people on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island was shot to death August 30 last year in an encounter with Birk that lasted seven seconds. Birk spotted Williams walking in an impaired state with a piece of wood and a carving knife. Williams had his back to Birk as he yelled “hey,” next “put the knife down” before shooting him five times.
The senseless death of a harmless and talented carver, who had spent many of his years living homeless and much of that succumbing to alcoholism, triggered outrage in a community that had felt oppressed for too long. They marched, they rallied and were soon joined by people from all of Seattle’s minority groups. Minority leaders spoke out. A letter writing campaign by more than 30 civic organizations led the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation to determine if Williams’ civil rights were violated. A separate DOJ investigation is underway on policies and procedures of the Seattle Police.
The money awarded to the family “is not justice,” said the victim’s brother Rick Williams. “The [Seattle police department] cares about saving face and not saying they did something wrong to a Native man. There has to be justice, this man has to pay. That’s what gives people hope that anyone can stand up for their civil rights.”
William’s mother, Ida Edward of Vancouver, British Columbia sued the City of Seattle after the family’s efforts to have Birk charged were unsuccessful. She will receive $250,000, and $1.25 will be paid to William’s estate. Rick Williams said his elderly wheelchair bound mother won’t see any of it. “Her hospital bills will eat it up.” He said mother expressly told two lawyers handling the case she wanted all the awarded monies divided between her seven remaining children. The money in the estate will eventually go to the victim’s siblings, Rick Williams said.
Discomfort persists in the American Indian community. Community organizer Fern Renville, who directs an American Indian youth theater group and who has reportedthis issue for ICTMN, said the persistent unease stems in part from the police department’s public patting of themselves on the back when the review board announced it’s ‘unjustified’ determination. Heavy in the minds of American Indians, Renville said, is that every police officer who testified said that Burke was following proper protocol. “They perjured themselves to sway the inquest jury,” Renville said.
There has long been a strong feeling in the Native community that Seattle’s police discriminate and use excessive force, Renville said. “This oppression has gone on for a long time,” she said. She has heard some of those stories at the Chief Seattle Center, a day center frequented by homeless American Indians. “They’ve shared stories like those for years.”
Causing another kind of pain is the local media’s continuing description of Williams in their news stories as a chronic inebriate. “There is an ongoing devaluation and dehumanization of John T. Williams,” Renville said. “In researching the case in depth, I cannot help but think that racism and classism is at the root.”
There is healing, too, in a new totem pole project. “Rick is consumed in this healing project, in honor of his brother as an artist and a carver who helped carry on a thousand year tradition,” Renville said. The totem pole project is part of a grassroots effort to erect two totem poles in the city to honor Williams’ legacy and educate residents and tourists about Native culture. Rick Williams started carving the first of two 30-foot totem poles on April 30, as soon as it was placed at the Seattle Center. The area is home to the city’s landmark Space Needle, and Fisherman’s Wharf that draws large crowds of tourists. The tourists are what motivated William’s grandfather to move from the north, and he carved in that spot all his life. The totem pole was visited opening day by people from all over the world, Renville said. Tribal leaders from throughout the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Alaska and Arizona came to shake Rick’s hand.
The story is far from over because, said Renville, depending on the DOJ’s determination, “Birk can still be charged with violating his civil rights,” Renville said. “The SPD could also be compelled to change its policies and practices.” She said the first investigation could result in a federal prison sentence, as happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when police shot unarmed African Americans trying to flee the floodwaters, and killed two and injured four. DOJ indictments sent many of those involved in the shooting and subsequent cover up to federal prison.
The fallout can be seen through the eyes of Rick’s young granddaughter, now afraid to go in the street, “because I’m part Indian.”