The shaky video, recorded by a Seattle police officer’s dashboard camera, and later played over and over in a King County courtroom, tells the end of the story. It goes like this…
A police cruiser rolls to a stop on a cloudless summer afternoon as cars and pedestrians crisscross a downtown intersection. A long-haired man limps through the crosswalk, hunched over something in his hands, then disappears offscreen. The police cruiser lurches forward, stops again. A young officer named Ian Birk gets out, his pistol already in hand, and strides toward the limping man.
“Hey,” Birk yells. “Hey… Hey!”
The video notes the day and time: August 30, 4:12:30pm. “Put the knife down,” shouts Birk, now moving out of the video camera’s view and onto the sidewalk. “Put the knife down. Put the knife down!” Suddenly, at 4:12:35, less than five seconds after the first “Hey”: POW-POW-POW-POW-POW! A pedestrian flinches.
Birk had been listening to sports radio, whose announcers suddenly start laughing, almost as if on cue. The cruiser’s police radio intrudes: “Shots fired, Boren and Howell.”
Witnesses would later describe what the video failed to capture: the strangely graceful pirouette of the victim, four hollow-point bullets in his body, falling slowly backwards; the two items in his hands clattering to the sidewalk beside his bleeding body. To his left, a scrap of wood. To his right, a single-blade pocketknife.
The wood and the knife. They’d been John T. Williams’s constant companions and among his only possessions for most of his 50 years. Throughout an abusive and violent boyhood and an equally difficult adulthood on the streets of Seattle, the pocketknife had become an extension of himself, its blade shaping two-by-two and four-by-four lengths of yellow cedar and sugar pine into the caricatured faces of bears, wolves, beavers, and ravens, works of art that sold for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. The wood Williams clutched in his calloused hand that August afternoon contained the preliminary etchings of an eagle, similar to the bald eagle spreading its wings upon his tattered cap, which read “Native Pride.”
Anyone who’s visited downtown Seattle has seen Williams or others like him, his street brothers and sisters, his real brothers and sisters. Though native peoples have been a downtown fixture since the city was named for one of their own, a conspiracy of factors—from limited formal education to discrimination to addiction woes—has condemned many to a hardscrabble lifestyle. Some gather daily beneath the totems in Pioneer Square or beside the fountains at Westlake Center. Some beg for change, clutching empty Starbucks cups, or peddle copies of Real Change newspapers outside storefronts. And some, like Williams, sit on the benches of “Indian Park,” as some Native Americans call Victor Steinbrueck Park, near Pike Place Market, where they carve totem poles and wooden masks and plaques for tourists.
“What did you do?” shouts a passerby. “Did you shoot that man?”
Birk, frozen and apparently in shock, keeps his black Glock aimed at the prone and dying Indian.
“Ma’am, he had a knife and he wouldn’t drop it,” Birk says.
More officers arrive, and Birk begins to explain, “Yeah, he had the knife open.” Another officer tells Birk he did a “good job.”
But then police and witnesses notice: The knife’s three-inch blade is closed.
Meanwhile, two of Williams’s brothers sit waiting for him at Indian Park. John hadn’t seen older brother Rick and younger brother Eric in months, but they’d all reunited two days earlier and they’d been carving together that morning, side by side on a park bench, just as they had since childhood. John started working on his eagle, then left around midday to get some beer. He had been shuffling along Howell Street that afternoon, back toward Rick and Eric, who continued to wait, still carving on the park bench, while a dozen blocks away police handcuffed their now dead brother.
If you have read about Williams’s death, about the police department’s admission that the shooting was unjustified, about Birk’s resignation and the King County prosecutor’s decision not to press charges against him, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the sad, inevitable end to the hard life of a homeless Indian. But you’d be missing the rest of the story.
The story of John T. Williams is as tragic as you’d expect. Less expected is the story of a close-knit and loving family of talented artists whose history is entwined with Seattle’s.
I began investigating the life and death of John Williams after discovering his link to a book I had been writing about Robert L. Ripley, the eccentric, world-traveling creator of the Believe It or Not cartoon series. Ripley visited Seattle in the winter of 1936–37, and the obsessive collector of art and curios spent $1,000 on an assortment of items from Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, including a 40-foot totem pole and a life-size wooden statue known as the Potlatch Man. Both had been carved by John Williams’s grand-father, Sam.
Earlier this year, I started reaching out to Williams family members, hoping to learn more about John and his history as a gifted yet haunted woodcarver. I sat through testimony at the fact-finding inquest hearings that sought to determine whether Officer Birk’s actions were potentially criminal. I attended rallies, prayer vigils, protests, and drum circles. I eventually began spending time with John’s siblings and street friends, and quickly realized that the story of what happened at the corner of Boren and Howell that August day begins with Sam.
Sam Williams was born in 1884 beside a salmon-stuffed lake on Vancouver Island’s inhospitable west coast. He belonged to the Ditidaht nation, one of 14 so-called First Nations within British Columbia’s Nuu-chah-nulth tribe. Ditidahts fished for salmon and halibut, hunted and trapped, and carved dugout canoes and sculptures from soft red cedar. When Sam was six, his village became an allocated Indian reservation, one of 17 that Canada’s Joint Indian Reserve Commission portioned from Ditidaht tribal lands. Today less than half the Ditidaht population of 350 lives on the lone reserve, hours north of Victoria, where children attend school and study Ditidaht language and culture—and hatch plans to leave for better lives in Victoria, Vancouver, or Seattle.
That had been the case in Sam Williams’s day, too. He moved to Seattle around 1900, settling south of town along the Duwamish River mud flats, in an encampment known by some as Indian Village. As a traditional woodcarver, Sam’s timing was perfect. He’d arrived at the precise moment of Seattle’s new infatuation with native art, particularly totem poles. In 1899 a group of businessmen touring southeast Alaska had come across an elaborately carved pole in a seemingly abandoned Tlingit Indian village. They chopped it down, took it home, and poked it into a triangular park in Pioneer Square, where it became known as the Seattle Totem Pole, the upstart city’s adopted icon.