Shot down by Seattle cops

September 8, 2010

In what kind of world does a homeless man carrying a piece of wood and a small knife for carving deserve deadly force? Amy Smith reports on a police murder in Seattle.

A HOMELESS Native American man named John T. Williams became the latest victim of the brutal Seattle police when an officer shot him four times on August 30, killing him on the spot.

In what the Seattle Times called "an unusual cluster of recent incidents in which police in the region have shot suspects," Seattle-area residents had six violent encounters with police in a six-day period spanning the end of August and beginning of September--and five times, the incidents turned out deadly.

Seattle police officer Ian Birk says that when he saw John Williams holding a knife and piece of wood on the corner of Boren Avenue and Howell Street downtown, he stopped his car, switched on his emergency lights and stepped out to confront the man. After telling Williams to drop the knife three times, Birk fired four rounds at Williams from approximately 10 feet away, killing the homeless man. The entire reportedly incident lasted about a minute.

So far, no one has come forward with a video of the killing, but the officer's description of what happened isn't matching up with what witnesses describe.

A press conference called by the Chief Seattle Club to mourn the police killing of John T. Williams
A press conference called by the Chief Seattle Club to mourn the police killing of John T. Williams

On the day of the shooting, Seattle Police Department spokeswoman Renee Witt said, "The male stood up and made advances toward the officer. The officer yelled very loud commands for the gentleman to stop and to drop the knife, at which point he did not."

But witnesses tell it differently. "When I heard that story, I was really upset because it was just total counter to what I witnessed," one onlooker told King 5 News. According to this witness, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Thomas, Williams was actually walking away from Officer Birk.

Thomas reports that the bullets must have gone into Williams' side and back because he never turned around. Another witness, Gregory Reese, remembers seeing Williams turn, but said that he didn't move toward the officer or pose a threat.

FRIENDS, FAMILY and acquaintances of Williams have all come forward in the past week to say that Williams may not have even heard the officer's demands. "I wonder if the officer knew he was hard of hearing; he told me he could not hear out of one ear," said a local business owner acquainted with Williams. "If it was my guess, I would just say he was standing there and the officer was trying to get his attention and John didn't hear him."

In addition, Williams had a drinking problem, which often made him slow to respond or understand what was going on.

The weapon that allegedly posed such a threat to Officer Birk was a knife with a three-inch blade that Williams used to carve wood. Williams was a Ditidaht member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, a native group that forms a small community on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was a regular at the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit group that provides meals and services to Native American and First Nations people.

Williams was also a seventh-generation carver--that's why he was carrying the knife and the wood. He often carved miniature totem poles that he sold to buy food, and sometimes alcohol--but also to buy food and gifts for his friends. According to friends of Williams, the day he died, he was on his way to sell his art at Pike Place Market.

Immediately following the shooting, an unnamed homeless man approached Williams' body, clearly upset, angry and frightened. Other police officers on the scene ordered the man to show his hands, and when he didn't move fast enough, they wrestled him to the ground and arrested him.

The people of Seattle have responded to this terrible act committed by the police. On September 2, more than 200 community members turned out for a candlelight vigil to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of John Williams. In a news conference the next day, Native American and Canadian First Nations leaders called for a full investigation into the shooting, and also demanded that the department change the way it relates to Native American communities.

"This tragedy should never have happened," Jenine Grey, director of the Chief Seattle Club, said. "We are worried about our most vulnerable community members who suffer regular harassment and abuse on the streets of Seattle." Grey added that, in a city named for an Indian chief, it was incredible that a Native American man carving wood could be perceived as a threat.

"In what moral universe does a man carrying a piece of wood and a three-inch fishing knife find himself stopped by police and, without any apparent provocation, get shot dead on the spot?" asked Tim Harris, director of Seattle's homeless newspaper Real Change. "A universe in which the lives of the very poor have little to no value."

Harris concluded, "In Seattle today, to be poor, to have no social status, is to live in fear; to have one's own utter expendability pressed up against one's nose."

UNFORTUNATELY, THIS has been true for a long time, and the use of excessive force has become the norm for the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

In June, video was released of a Seattle police officer punching a 17-year-old African American woman in the face during a stop for jaywalking.

In April, Seattle police officer Shandy Cobane was filmed stomping on a Mexican American man and telling him that he was going to "beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?" while other officers watched. Shortly afterward, the officers realized that the man being detained wasn't connected to the assault that the police had allegedly stopped them for.

These incidents are just the most recent and notable incidents committed by a police force that is violent and racist to its core.

A look at who is arrested in Seattle exposes the SPD's targeting of racial minorities. According to a report by the Marijuana Policy Review Panel, African American men represented 57 percent of all marijuana suspects in a city that is only 8 percent Black. And an investigation by the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that African Americans in Seattle are arrested for "obstructing an officer" eight times as often as whites.

"At this time, our community seems to be in an abusive relationship with law enforcement," Seattle/King County NAACP President James Bible told the Seattle Medium. "We're living in a hostile environment for people of color, and a hostile environment for people in poverty."

Unnecessary violence committed by Seattle police is increasing--and affecting more people. The American Civil Liberties Union reports a clear trend in reports from the City of Seattle's Office of Professional Accountability:

It is distressing to see how many of the excessive force complaints begin with minor street confrontations: over jaywalking, possible impound of a car, or even, in one case, refusal to show an officer a "receptacle" for disposing of dog waste.

Citizens often do not show officers respect or attention when confronted over such minor offenses. When they verbally challenge or disregard orders given, it often leads officers to respond more harshly than warranted. I made comments about these underlying situations in 10 different cases. In four of them, the physical situation developed with witnesses, rather than or in addition to, suspects.

The police are trying to justify their crimes, especially the death of John Williams. "The police have dehumanized [Williams]," says Real Change's Harris. "They mention his criminal record, but don't mention his name. They paint the situation like we need to reserve judgment. What I see is self-justification and the closing of ranks."

But community members deserve to know the truth about Williams' death--and Williams deserves justice.

Chris Mobley and Leela Yellesetty contributed to this article.

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