Plain murder is what it is

September 28, 2010

Activist Johnny Mao reports on the struggle against police brutality in Seattle, following the killing of Native American John T. Williams by police in August.

ON SEPTEMBER 16, by 2 p.m., the gray sky over downtown Seattle had dominated yet another day in the Pacific Northwest. However, this day was different. It was a memorial march for John T. Williams, who had been stopped and killed by Officer Ian Birk just over two weeks earlier.

On August 30, while driving, Birk saw Williams, pulled over and shot him four times within a span of 60 seconds. Williams died moments later. He had been peacefully carving a block of cedar wood with a 3-inch carving knife (legal in Seattle) as he stood on the corner of Boren and Howell. Williams was a Seattle resident and a Ditidaht member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations of Canada's Vancouver Island.

At Williams' memorial march back at the busy intersection, the crowd spoke of John as if he had been alive. Indeed, he was alive in spirit, and in their hearts and minds.

"John T. was a man who was beautiful. When I first met him when I first moved here, he met me with a smile, and he was like--I've got a story to tell you... and about three hours later I walked away," said Northwest Coast artist Dallas Singhurst. He continued:

I see cameras pointed at me. Well, my people, keep pointing...Today, there are four new lenses. Four new ways of viewing the world, and they're the bullet holes in John T.'s back. Four. It's the truth. Told in all four directions. The four winds.

He was making a thing of beauty [that] the world has deemed as art--we have taken on this phrase--and he was a fabulous artist. He carved from his heart with the blood that coursed through his veins, of the multitude of carvers that preceded him--called his family. It is a thing that is customary to all Native Americans.

He went on to add:

Like this tree, the Western Red Cedar that they've almost stolen every one of...They've been fascinated with us the moment we were supposedly "discovered." If I walk into any good person's house, and "discover" their couch, the keys to their Cadillac and their home, and I kick them out, am I any different than Columbus?

People stand there, tell us to take these laws, and tell us we must abide by [them]. And the dust on our shoes is the dust of our ancestors, the same dust on that cop that put bullet holes in his back in less than 60 seconds!

SOON AFTER a prayer song led by Pat John, the crowd began a march to Seattle's West Precinct, with drummers and singers leading the way. Members from Suquamish, Tulalip, Squaxin Island, Lower Elwha, Ahousaht and Alaskan canoe families sang another prayer song at the West Precinct before the crowd marched to City Hall, through the blocked off streets.

Speakers at City Hall included Sweetwater Nannauck, Cecile Hansen (Duwamish Tribe chairwoman), Ramona Bennett, Rev. Harriet Walden (Mothers for Police Accountability), Antonio Flores (El Comite), Pat John and Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth.

Organizations that have endorsed the movement for justice for John T. Williams include the NAACP, American Friends Service Committee, Mothers for Police Accountability, El Comite, Going Coastal Productions, Jobs with Justice King County Organizing Committee, Lutheran Public Policy Office, Spinningwind Productions, Pride At Work, CLEW and APALA, May 1st Action Coalition, the Progressive Caucus, Native American Caucus with the Washington State Democrats, King County Democrats, Justice Works, Defender Association Racial Disparities Project, and the Washington State Democratic Disabilities Issues Caucus.

Organizer Sweetwater Nannauck, of the American Friends Service Committee, spoke before the crowd at City Hall after a blessing and moment of silence:

Deputy Chief Nick Metz mentioned that he has had the little access to the Native American community or any previous formal dialogue with the city's Native Americans. I would like to share some of our cultural beliefs and ways with you now.

Our people in this community have been involved in an undeclared war for many years...My grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you say and do, because people are watching you." Now, I know what she meant. Today, people are watching Seattle and looking to everyone here for leadership on how to work together to bring peace and not more fear or anger.

I would like to acknowledge recent changes made by the Chief Diaz: mandating further de-escalation training; racial profiling training; expanding the Taser program and training; the new emphasis on community relations and training techniques; [and] systematic assessment of [the police force's] disabilities practices in accordance with the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative...This is a great first step in a direction that must continue to be addressed.

But Nannauck and other activists believe the police must do more, including: "immediate hiring of a tribal liaison to be housed in the mayor's office to strengthen the way city government engages the Native American/Alaska Native community and provides services" and "cultural sensitivity training with all peoples of color and disabilities."

Nannauck also mentioned a mandatory call for backup prior to an officer-initiated stop, "'because [John Williams] was well-known by the cops. If they had called someone like the bike cops, they would have known he was harmless."

After the rally at City Hall, Nannauck and others directed their demands to Mayor Mike McGinn in a meeting behind closed doors.

"We talked to the mayor yesterday and he would not commit to hiring another tribal liaison, but it has been brought up by many organizations supporting much-needed policy change," said Nannauck.

When asked what the next step would be if the city of Seattle did not fulfill the demands, Nannauck replied:

We are working on a mass e-mail campaign to the City Council, mayor, and Chief Diaz...We would like to work with city of Seattle employees to develop a community advisory committee to represent the diverse racial and marginalized communities of Seattle, to implement strategies to implement the city of Seattle's "Race and Social Justice Initiative" and "Best Practices" criteria to increase the Seattle Police Department's police accountability and bring peace, unity and healing to our community.

THE DAY before the memorial, police Chief John Diaz announced a review of police training and declared efforts to improve police-community relations his top priority. Diaz agreed to submit the complete investigation of the shooting to police departments outside of the region for "peer review."

Later that same day, the City Council's Civil Rights Committee held an open meeting, chaired by Councilmember Bruce Harrell, to show solidarity with the City of Seattle Native American Employees (CANOES) and to listen to community voices about the shooting of John Williams. The packed audience at took aim at the Seattle City Council, wanting answers and, most of all, action.

"If you kill another man, this is plain murder is what it is," said a man identified as a descendant from Chief Sealth. "These Natives are restless. We need some answers."

"It is time for people all across America to take a stand against the unrestrained use of force by the law enforcement community," said Neal Lampie of Real Change News.

Activist Anwar Peace, to applause from the crowd, told the council: "This stuff must stop...I am demanding change, we are demanding change."

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