A crowd gathered near the Space Needle in the early afternoon of Aug. 30, precisely when John T. Williams, an Indigenous woodcarver, was killed by a Seattle police officer 10 years ago. There stands a totem pole erected in Williams’ honor by his family amid the years that followed the shooting.
On the afternoon of his death, Williams was walking near the intersection of Boren and Howell streets, carrying a pocketknife. Officer Ian Birk drove up and demanded that Williams drop the knife.
Moments later, Birk shot Williams five times.
What followed was a tortured route to a pale approximation of justice. Although a review panel ruled that the shooting was unjustified, there were no legal repercussions for Birk, who resigned from the force.
The officer’s dashcam was pointed in the wrong direction at the time of the shooting, meaning no images of that event were captured.
An inquest into Williams’ death yielded little result — these were the years before King County Executive Dow Constantine attempted to reform the inquest system to allow a greater voice for family members as well as legal representation through the Department of Public Defense. Even that has stalled after several cities sued to prevent the reforms from taking effect.
Ultimately, the city of Seattle agreed to a $1.5 million settlement with Williams’ mother, Ida Edwards, closing out claims of wrongful death and civil rights violations, Real Change reported at the time.
The 10th anniversary of Williams’ death at the hands of a Seattle police officer falls at a critical time for Seattle and the rest of the United States. The city and country are gripped in a moment of reckoning for police violence that has taken the lives of so many unarmed Black people.
George Floyd’s gruesome death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer sparked an uprising that demanded accountability and investment in Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. In the months since Floyd’s death, the police violence against Black people including Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude and Jacob Blake, have only cemented calls by advocates for more than reform of police departments, which many view as unsalvageable.
Outcry after Williams’ death helped bring the Department of Justice (DOJ) down on the city of Seattle. The DOJ investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional practices within the department and a judge has been overseeing the required reforms.
Despite that, Williams was not the last to be shot and killed by SPD officers. And so, while the family grieves his loss, Seattleites continue to march and demand change.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 9-15, 2020 issue.