On August 30, 2010, at 4:15 in the afternoon, Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was killed by police at the corner of Boren and Howell for the crime of whittling while walking.
This was before videos of police killings became sickeningly familiar. Before Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and far too many others. Before the Ferguson uprising, and before #BlackLivesMatter.
The dashcam video of the shooting was brief, brutal, and almost impossible to comprehend.
Williams passes through the crosswalk in front of the car. He’s hunched over something in his hands that would later turn out to be a piece of wood and a 4-inch carving knife. Officer Ian Birk exits the car, gun drawn, and shouts, “Hey, Hey … Hey! Put the knife down. Put the knife down. Put the knife down!”
Within 5 seconds of the first “hey,” Birk opens fire. Williams was dead almost immediately. While the Firearms Review Board ruled the shooting unjustified, Birk was never prosecuted.
That killing would result in Seattle’s “consent decree,” a settlement with the Justice Department that was meant to bring reform and restore public confidence in the SPD.
Today, when the SPD hides their badge numbers with “mourning bands” while attacking people peacefully protesting police brutality — with more than 15,000 excessive force complaints now filed in a matter of days — we seem further from that goal than ever.
Ten years after John T. Williams, the killing continues unabated. After the tragic shooting of Charleena Lyles in Seattle, the appalling murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and now Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, there is little reason to believe policing can be reformed.
Police in the United States kill civilians at 70 times the rate of other industrialized nations. Let that sink in. These killings disproportionately target Blacks, Native Americans and other people of color.
Other forms of violence are less direct. BIPOC people are also disproportionately homeless, incarcerated and affected by COVID-19.
We need an end to the violence of white supremacist systems. We must prioritize community relationships and restorative justice over police power and arbitrary force. Budgets are expressions of values. We must change where the money is spent.
This city, this nation, has reached a breaking point, and a BIPOC-led movement is calling for the revolution of values that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described in 1967.
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing oriented’ society to a ‘person oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. … A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Real Change’s mission calls us to take action for economic, social and racial justice, and as a white-led organization that has our own work to do, we are following the BIPOC-led COVID-19 Mutual Aid Coalition’s leadership to restructure city priorities and decriminalize protest.
We urge our readers to read the statement of principles at decriminalizeseattle.com and take action to protect Black lives. Please support the following demands:
Defund the Seattle Police Department by at least 50 percent
Seattle’s Mayor and City Council must immediately defund Seattle Police Department (SPD). The city faces a $300 million budget shortfall due to COVID-19. Seattle City Council should propose and vote for a 50 percent cut from the $363 million already budgeted for SPD.
Reallocate those funds to community-led health and safety systems
Seattle’s Mayor and City Council must protect and expand investments to make our communities safe, prioritizing community-led health and safety strategies. Full access to affordable housing, community-based anti-violence programs, trauma services and treatment, universal childcare, and free public transit are just a few of the non-police solutions to social problems.
Release protesters arrested during this uprising without charges
The Seattle City Attorney must not prosecute protesters, including those arrested for violating curfew and those living in encampments. Protesters took to the streets to call for the end of the murders of Black people by police, and SPD unnecessarily escalated tensions and violence.
Additionally, Real Change supports all efforts to demilitarize the SPD. This includes legislation introduced in City Council to ban police chokeholds and the use of chemical weapons and other crowd control methods that are used to discourage and punish dissent.
Finally, we understand that this is not a vision for change that Mayor Durkan supports. We support Councilmembers Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda in calling for the Mayor’s resignation, and finding new leadership that can rebuild trust between city government and communities of color.
We believe that Black Lives Matter, and that the work of economic and racial justice is inseparable. This means leading with anti-racism, working to end white supremacy, and overcoming our own blind spots to be better allies in the movement for change.
Words are not enough. We need action, and we need it now.
Read more in the June 17-23, 2020 issue.