“I’ve been telling these cops to stay away from me for six years.”
Rick Williams, older brother of Seattle police shooting victim John T. Williams, sat at a picnic table on the Seattle Center grounds with his son Thunderheart. The seventh generation master carver of the Ditidaht tribe was training his son and helping him sell beautiful, handmade, painted totem poles. As chilly autumn breezes polished the trees and pushed around leaves, Rick described how he recently hugged a Seattle Police officer.
“I thought that was an appropriate place to make peace with the cops, there at the White Deer Crossing.”
The White Deer Crossing is at the corner of Boren and Howell, the location where Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk shot John T. Williams in 2010 and where on September 11 organizers of a planned memorial crosswalk in John’s honor held ground-breaking ceremonies.
Seattle mayor Ed Murray attended, as did Seattle Police Capt. John F. Hayes Jr. and representatives from Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, the Seattle Indian Health Board and the John T. Williams Organizing Committee.
As Williams described the event, his eyes filled with sadness. He spoke of how he and his family endured years of harsh treatment from Seattle police. He spoke of family members being roughed-up and intimidated simply for looking Native. He said he decided to make a gesture of peace with the Seattle police at the ground-breaking ceremony to create a more healing relationship with them and to stop them from harassing his family, friends and the entire Native community.
“I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’”
He showed me how he motioned for a nearby female police officer to join the healing circle. The officer, Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin, responded by kissing Williams’s hand, according to a Seattle Times account.
“I grabbed her and I hugged her and I said, ‘Welcome to the circle,’” he told me.
I first met Rick two years ago. I had just written an article about him and wanted to get his reaction. I found him at Victor Steinbrueck Park, unofficially known as Native Park because of the Native carvers who regularly work there.
Rick didn’t know who I was at the time and suspected I might be an undercover police officer. He was brisk and toyed with me for a while, rebuking me for using the word “Indian” even though I’m Tlingit. I left, feeling rejected and a little hurt.
But I remembered what I’d read about how people often saw him standing all by himself at the corner of Boren and Howell, lost in thought. I remembered how he had attended every court hearing and press conference regarding the shooting. I remembered how he held his family back from retaliating against the police. I remembered how he transformed tragedy into triumph by overseeing the creation of a totem pole for his brother, an honor totem, which hundreds of supporters helped raise near the foot of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.
Now, as I sat with him at the Seattle Center, I understood the depth of his mourning was far greater than anything I would ever know. Over the years I had learned John was Rick’s kid brother. John was the most talented and artistic carver in his family and Rick had watched out for him since they were children. In fact, John was on his way to meet Rick the day Birk shot him. He walked down Howell toward Olive Way, which would have then taken him right to Victor Steinbrueck Park where Rick and their brother Eric waited to take him home.
As John crossed Boren Avenue, he walked right in front of Birk’s patrol car. He was carving a board with a small, folding pocket knife. Birk jumped out of his car and unholstered his weapon as he stepped on he curb. Birk called to John by simply saying, “Hey!” John, who was deaf in one ear and about 10 feet away, hit the ground four seconds later, dead with four bullet wounds in his side.
The same crosswalk John took in front of Birk’s patrol car in 2010 is now decorated with the repeating image of a white deer, the symbol of the peacemaker in a traditional Nuu-Chah-Nulth story. When the White Deer Crossing is completed, a plaque will be displayed nearby that dedicates it to John and a transcription of the story of the White Deer will be applied to the traffic light control box on that corner.
Rick’s work isn’t over, however. For several months he’s been gathering signatures for a petition to change Washington State law, eliminating a loophole that makes it difficult to charge police officers who misuse deadly force. But as I sat with him and his son at the Seattle Center, he seemed at peace.
“I’m enjoying life. I mean I miss my brother, but I can’t allow this to take me down anymore. It’s taken way too much from my family. It’s taken my life, my mother, my sister, my marriage. I’m not hating, I’m not blaming anybody. I came here to do something for the people, to stand up for them. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m like, ‘What are you going to do, shoot me? If you do, don’t miss!’”
The cycle of tragedy beginning with John’s death came full circle with the creation of the White Deer Crossing when the location of the shooting was cleansed with sage, prayers, community support and a hug from Detective Cookie.