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.
When Joseph E. Standley opened Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the Seattle waterfront that same year, he stoked the errant notion of the totem pole as the region’s cultural symbol, encouraging tourists to take home “grotesque carved Idols from Alaska and B.C.,” as a 1907 brochure advertised. At the 1909 Alaska-Yukon—Pacific Exposition, totem poles and native carvings were everywhere, and Standley soon needed a steady supply of tourist-sized totems. In Sam Williams he found a skilled and adaptable carver, and a symbiotic partnership began. Standley would cut pictures from anthropology books and ask Williams to recreate them. Williams gave Standley the kinds of poles tourists wanted, while developing his own style. His animals had bold, exaggerated features—large teeth, bulging eyes, flared nostrils—that were easy to carve quickly while still adhering to the traditional stories and mythical characters of his ancestors.
For larger totems, Sam would haul logs out of the Duwamish and work beside the river. He taught his four sons to carve, and in time began selling to other shops. In her book 1001 Curious Things, about the history of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, art historian Kate Duncan says Sam Williams created a name and identity for himself and his sons as Seattle’s most creative and prolific totem carvers. At the time of Ripley’s visit to Seattle, Sam had begun mentoring his youngest son, Ray, who never attended school and grew up illiterate but would become the unlikely family prodigy.
In 1950, at age 17, Ray met a talented knitter, Ida Edwards, from Vancouver Island’s Cowichan tribe. They discovered a mutual interest in native art, and in drink. In 1954, Ray and Ida were arrested after drunkenly holding up the Golden West Tavern on Second Avenue, according to a Seattle Times story. That was the beginning of Ray’s frequent run-ins with police, his rotation in and out of jail. That didn’t stop him and Ida from launching a large family. John was born in 1960, seventh of an eventual 11 kids. Quieter than his siblings, John clung to his oldest sister, Rita, who was six when John was born. She became his caretaker and protector. He called her “mom.”
Ill prepared for parenthood, Ray and Ida drank and argued and fought, sometimes lashing out at their children. Rita, who now lives eight hours east of Vancouver, where she takes care of her grandchildren, speaks matter-of-factly about the rootless and abusive childhood. She told me by phone that she was running the household by age seven, feeding the others because her mother never learned to cook. She remembers sitting in the living room or a motel room at night, watching her father carve and her mother knit, both of them drinking until their anger boiled over and one of them started swinging. When her parents became violent, Rita would hide John in a closet or cabinet.
“I never knew what they were angry about,” said Rita, whose nickname, Buttons, is tattooed on her arm. “Life itself, I guess.”
Through the 1970s, the family moved from motel to motel, from Seattle to Victoria to Vancouver and back, separating and reuniting, sometimes living on the streets. (The four youngest kids, born in the mid-’60s, were raised in foster homes in Canada.) The Williams children were exposed to alcohol and abuse from an early age. Bottles were always around, and the adults didn’t seem to notice or care when five-year-old John began to drink, the start of a lifelong habit.
Yet it seems that while Ray Williams lacked discipline and parenting skills, he compensated with artistic brilliance. Ray diligently mentored his children, teaching them from an early age how to sharpen and care for knives, and how to tell a story on a piece of wood. In 1965 The Seattle Times devoted a full-page story to John’s oldest brother, Harvey, “Victoria’s Boy Totem-Carver.” One photograph shows five-year-old John, four other siblings, and their parents, all looking on proudly as Harvey crafts one of his totems, telling the reporter it “just comes naturally.” In John, Ray found an especially eager student who wanted to know the traditional stories behind the numerous totem designs. It eventually became clear to the others that John was the most talented of them all.
But among the Williams kids, talent and trouble seemed to go hand in hand. In a pattern set by his older brothers and sisters, John left home around age 12. His parents had split and most of the family had moved to Victoria. The siblings had learned to work in teams, so John paired up with brother Rick, who was five years older. They hitchhiked north to stay with Harvey in Alert Bay, Alaska, where John briefly worked on a road crew. John eventually moved back to Seattle, to track down brothers Sam and Dave, and to learn more from his father.
Rita Williams told me that under Ray’s tutelage John developed an encyclopedic memory of 250 totem designs, and from an early age he worked hard at his craft. “He was good and he was fast,” she said. Harvey, who now lives in British Columbia and still carves regularly, remembers watching John carve a walking stick with a snake encircling part of the shaft. John worked the tip of his small pocketknife deep beneath the snake’s belly to make it appear that the snake was hovering around the shaft.
“Some of his carvings made me feel like an amateur,” Harvey told me when I met with him in Vancouver. “When he wanted to be, he was very focused.”
Unlike his father and siblings, who mostly sketched their designs on a piece of wood in pencil, John would just start carving. He could see the design without needing help from pencil lines. Sometimes he’d ask a customer to tell him a story, and he’d reinterpret that story in a totem pole, which he called a “story pole.”
“He would look at the wood, see what was in the wood, and take everything else away,” a cousin, Dennis Underwood, told me one day at Steinbrueck Park.
Through the 1980s, John, now in his 20s, seemed to enjoy the lifestyle of the street, drinking and carving and roving with three older brothers, Rick, Sam, and Dave, who called themselves “the Wrecking Crew” or “the Four Horsemen.” John grew especially close with Sam and Dave, both happy-go-lucky nomads. There was a salmonlike quality to the brothers’ wanderings and reunions. One member of the crew would disappear, on a bender or an attempt at sobriety, only to rejoin the crew months later. Sometimes John or his brothers would give British Columbia another try. When Eric, the youngest brother, was old enough, he left home and joined John and the others. Eric, whose nickname is Chief, told me about walking down a street in Victoria and seeing another ponytailed Indian walking toward him. Eric clenched his fists and prepared himself for a fight, as did the other man, until he and John recognized each other. They fell asleep on the ferry back to Vancouver.
Somehow, the siblings always seemed to find each other, the separations and reunions overlapping. The constants in their lives were hunks of wood and the streets of Seattle, where each adopted a preferred spot: Pike Place Market, Seattle Center, the waterfront, Pioneer Square. The other constant was alcohol. Although, in John’s case, whether drunk or sober, beneath an I-5 bridge or in an Aurora Avenue motel, carving totems sustained him, and the quality of his work rarely wavered. Not until the Wrecking Crew began to wreck itself.
While attending Officer Birk’s inquest hearings, I briefly met Dan Martin, whose wife, Connie Sue, was part of the legal team representing the Williams family. Dan later told me the story of meeting John in Pioneer Square on a late-1980s Sunday morning before a Sea-hawks game. Dan bought a six-inch totem from John for $10 and soon began hanging around. Dan later met Ray—“a genius”—and John’s siblings, sitting with them at Pioneer Square or on a waterfront pier to watch them carve. Eventually they offered to teach Dan to carve and in time called him “brother.”
The family style, Dan learned, was to use a single, short-bladed pocketknife. Anything else was considered cheating. As he learned about the Williamses’ gritty past, and watched them all wrestle with poverty and addiction and homelessness, Dan came to appreciate their resilience and their ability to make and sell art, “regardless of what life handed them.”
At the inquest, Dan sat with the Williams family, most of them wearing black headbands and buttons with John’s face. Scores of spectators attended the weeklong inquest—John’s street friends, Native American advocates, police brutality activists concerned about a pattern of excessive force by Seattle police.
On a rainy January afternoon, after the final witness testified and jury deliberations began, I walked down to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Alaskan Way to see some of John’s work for myself. I walked past shrunken heads, a mummy named Sylvester, and the corpse of an eight-legged, two-faced pig in a jar, to the rear of the dusty, tourist-friendly shop where shelves and display cases are filled with dozens of colorful and intricate Williams-carved totems, masks, and plaques. Joseph Standley’s great-grandson, Andy James, has been buying carvings from the Williams family for decades, and he estimates that half the totem poles he’s sold over the years came from the Williams clan.
Sales of Native American artwork slowed during the downturn, though, and James hadn’t purchased a totem from John Williams for years. But I was shocked to learn that some of John’s larger pieces at one time sold for as much as $5,000, and the smallest would fetch $90. Peg Boettcher, one of the shop’s managers and its unofficial historian, showed me the difference between John’s hand-carved work—deep, complex cuts in the wood—compared to the shallow cuts and sloppy paint jobs of mass-produced totems. “He was not some derelict whittler, he was a real artist,” she told me. “This is real art, not just souvenirs.”
Williams’s siblings have told me that their family’s work has been on display at the Smithsonian, in the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, and once, in a display of native art at the White House, claims that are hard to verify since native carvers rarely signed their work. The Williamses now sign their totems (Ray had to be taught how to carve his name), but they’ve always inhabited the unheralded ranks of the tourist trade.
Robin Wright, curator of Native American art at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, told me that though street artists have never ranked among the high-end native carvers, there’s a distinct Williams family style recognized and admired by experts. “They’re totally undervalued,” she said. “They’re not the lowest end of the low end. They’re good carvers.” John Williams’s specialty was foot-high “model totem poles,” as they’re called. As long as he could earn beer and food money, he was happy just carving for tourists. And for a while he really had been a happy guy.
John was always a joker, the one who’d entertain customers and friends, his arms flailing, with wild and exaggerated stories that would have his brothers laughing until they cried. Eric, a lean and intense man, five years John’s junior, told me that John once playfully borrowed a Seattle police officer’s billy club and carved an Indian figure on it.
Andy James also remembers John as easygoing, just like his father. John would come into the shop with some totems to sell and he’d start telling stories. One favorite was about the time he refused to sell a totem to Ronald Reagan. Playing along, Andy would ask why, even though Reagan never visited the shop. “Because I’m a Democrat,” John would say.
John had been “full of life,” Andy told me, up until a few years ago, when he noticed a sharp decline in the quality of John’s workmanship. “He had a lot of talent, but in the end it sort of went to waste,” he said.
John’s decline began around the same time as the funerals.
After decades living on Seattle’s streets, Ray Williams died in Pioneer Square in the fall of 1988.
Three years later, Dave Williams froze to death on a bus bench in Vancouver.
Six years after that, Sam Williams, unwilling to spend for his heart medication, died of a heart attack in a Vancouver hotel room.
A year later, Nathan Williams—John’s younger brother, though not much of a carver—died after falling off a wall near Pike Place Market.
Before losing his father and three brothers in succession, John had seemed to accept his life on the streets. After that, however, John pulled back, avoided his siblings, spent more time alone, started drinking more destructively. Losing Sam and Dave had been especially hard on him.
By this time, John’s mother had entered her own corner of hell. In 1984, while living in Victoria, Ida was trying to get into her apartment through a second-floor window when she fell and broke her neck. A quadriplegic, she now lives in the George Pearson Center, an assisted living facility in Vancouver.
I visited with Ida in late February to look through family photos and to talk about John. She lives in Ward 6, at the end of a maze of hallways that she navigates in a motorized wheelchair. Her room is decorated with family photos, greeting cards, stuffed animals, and a few carvings, including a mask by John. Ida speaks in a halting and shaky voice, the result of her accident. She told me she had only seen John a few times over the past 20 years, usually at funerals. After Sam’s funeral, John told his mother she’d probably never see him again. “He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t think I’ll ever cross that border again,’ ” Ida told me, seemingly near tears. “And he never did.”
Harvey and his wife and their two young daughters had joined me that day in Ida’s room, and Harvey told me about the last time he had seen John, in the early 1990s. In an effort to get sober, John had visited Harvey in Vancouver and stayed six months. But Harvey could tell: “He was thirsty.” One day John ran off, bought a bottle of cheap Chinese wine and downed it in one long chug, then immediately passed out. Soon after, John moved back to Seattle and began rotating in and out of detox facilities and homeless shelters.
Around 1990, John met Susanne Chambers, a single mom and Episcopal nun who lived in subsidized housing at Yesler Terrace with her two young sons. Chambers often helped the homeless people in her neighborhood and one snowy night invited John and a friend to stay with her. John ended up living with her for five months, all of them sober. She found him to be a gentle soul—“a very special person”—who seemed happiest when he could sit carving late into the night and awake with a lapful of wood shavings. John played with her sons and traveled on a family cruise with her parents. Then he started drinking again, and began having seizures and heart problems. He already walked with a limp, after getting hit by a car in a Safeway parking lot. But now his eyesight and hearing were getting worse, and he sometimes suffered episodes of paranoia.
“It was killing him,” Susanne told me. She said John sometimes sought alcohol treatment, but he’d always end up back on the streets. She would look for him and bring food and clean clothes, which he usually gave away. “Everything he had he would share with whoever he was with at the time,” she said.
For a while he stayed at the Morrison homeless shelter, in a small room with just a mattress on the floor. When his buddies needed beer money, he’d carve a totem pole in an hour and sell it for $20. Sometimes people would buy a totem with a bottle of booze.
Chambers saw John a few months before he died, and was shocked at his poor health—hunched and feeble, he seemed to have shrunk six inches.
Among the city’s homeless Native Americans, John was known as a selfless mentor, a survival coach. In the mid-1990s he had befriended a woman named Feanette Black Bear, who left her Lakota reservation in South Dakota and, unable to find a job, lived on the streets. John looked after her, giving her money or food and encouraging her, “Don’t give up, sister.” Feanette told me her story as we shared a bench during a lunch break at the inquest. She described John buying her fruit or chicken from Safeway. “He was a very compassionate, humble man,” she said. “He was always willing to share what little he had.”
By the late 2000s, John’s behavior had grown more destructive. He had come to believe that all his family members were dead and he spent time at Western State Hospital, Washington’s psychiatric hospital. His arrests mounted, including an incident at Dick’s Drive-In on Capitol Hill, where police found John wandering without pants and covered in his own filth. While living at 1811 Eastlake, the city-run apartment building for alcoholics, he was arrested for exposing himself to a staff member.
By 2010, Seattle police had become familiar with John and his increasingly frequent outbursts, his jaywalking and public drunkenness.
During the inquest I had watched the video of Williams walking in front of Birk’s car, watched Birk get out and strut toward Williams, heard the gunshots, over and over. I watched the Williams family, sitting just feet from Birk, endure numerous viewings of John’s final moments. During breaks, the family would meet with Pat John, a spiritual advisor who soothed their spirits by performing a “brushing off” ritual, using sage or cedar boughs to brush away their gloom.
After two days of deliberations, jurors voted on a series of questions about the case, and generally rejected Birk’s claim that Williams posed an imminent threat due to his “confrontational posture.” Most jurors agreed that Williams (who was hard of hearing) didn’t have enough time to put down his knife, and was not facing Birk when he was shot.
Weeks later, Police Chief John Diaz announced that the department also concluded that Williams “did not pose a threat of serious harm.” That same day, however, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said his office had decided not to bring criminal charges against Birk, who quit that afternoon.
For the Williams family, those announcements hardly ended their ordeal. Their attorneys have been trying to convene a grand jury to review the case. If that fails, the next likely step will be a civil suit. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department in late March announced a criminal inquiry into whether Birk violated Williams’s civil rights. The department has also launched a full investigation into an apparent pattern of unnecessary force by Seattle police, especially against minorities.
Though disappointed that Birk hasn’t been charged, Rick Williams told me he just wants to start carving again. A round-faced coffee drinker, who keeps an eagle feather dangling from his black headband, Rick hadn’t been able to carve during the months before and the weeks after the inquest. When he invited me to sit with him at Seattle Center as he got back to work, I gained a sense of the nomadic and improvised workday of a street carver. Twice we were scheduled to meet at Seattle Center, but he’d changed his plans and ended up elsewhere. Once, while driving through downtown Seattle, I spotted Rick carving at the corner of Howell and Boren—the spot where his brother died. I parked and bought two coffees, but by the time I got there he was gone.
Rick and Eric have both grown goatees just like John’s. One Sunday in February I sat while they and Rick’s son, Thunderheart, carved beside the Center House. Strangers approached to offer condolences. “Sorry for your loss,” said one. “Don’t hate us,” said another. When Rick needed more wood and planned to take a bus to Dunn Lumber on Aurora, I offered to drive. Dunn’s manager greeted Rick, Thunderheart, and two cousins like old friends, and I watched them wander aisles of lumber like kids in a candy store. “Right on,” Rick said while studying a cedar post. Back at Seattle Center, Rick told me, “We’re really proud people as carvers. It’s who I am. I’m in my element when I’m carving.” Another time, while watching him work, he looked up at me and said, “I’m not whittling here. I’m telling stories without talking.”
Then he told me the story of the day John died.
After spending the summer in Concrete, Washington, selling totems along Highway 2, Rick and three of his sons had just returned to Seattle. Rick soon learned that Eric had left Vancouver and had just arrived in Seattle, too. On August 28, Rick and Eric reunited with John at Steinbrueck Park. John told them it felt good to have the Wrecking Crew back together. For the next two days, they carved together—the three brothers and Rick’s sons, all sitting on a bench, drinking coffee and shaping their scraps of wood, with John offering his nephews some artistic pointers. On the morning of the third day, August 30, John asked Rick about his nine years of sobriety.
“Can you show me how to do that?” he asked, and Rick said he’d try.
Rick offered to let John share his motel room, and the three brothers talked about trying to live together and rejuvenating the family business.
“You know what I’m gonna do?” John said, suddenly excited. “I’m gonna go get my stuff and come back and work with you guys, stay with you guys.”
John walked up Lenora Street, stopping at a small market on First Avenue to buy beer. He then shuffled east toward his room at 1811 Eastlake. No one knows for sure how John spent the next few hours, though one 1811 Eastlake resident told me he and John drank more than a few beers together. At around 4, John left 1811 and started back toward his brothers, ambling slowly west along Howell. As he walked, he etched a few more cuts into the wood on which his eagle was taking shape.
Two blocks and a minute later, he was dead.
“The next time I saw him, he was in a box,” Rick told me.
In late February, I attended yet another rally held in John’s name, this one attracting hundreds at Steinbrueck Park on a chilly Saturday for chants, drumming, prayers, and speeches. I found it amazing that a man who’d spent his final years so alone had brought together so many Seattleites. In death, John seemed to be uniting his family, too.
At the afternoon rally, I bought coffee for Rick Williams and his daughter, Adair, who sat sharpening Rick’s knife—he’s been teaching her to carve. Rick had been angry for months after John’s death, grateful for the prayer vigils and rallies but wondering why people couldn’t have rallied when John needed it most. Now, the anger has begun melting away, especially after launching an ambitious new project—to carve two 30-foot memorial poles in John’s honor. In March a lumber mill donated a century-old red cedar and the city offered space at Seattle Center, where Rick and his family and a crew of volunteers began stripping the bark and shaping two totems that will later be displayed in downtown Seattle. Rick works daily on the project, in rain or shine, sometimes 12 hours at a stretch. In late April the project is scheduled to relocate to Pier 57, where Rick and John and their father once carved. At Seattle Center, Rick enthusiastically enlists tourists to help, giving impromptu lessons and even offering hugs to curious police officers who visit. He hopes the months-long project will help his family heal, and help Seattle remember his brother as an artist, not a drunk. “This is all for the love of my brother,” he said one afternoon.
Other family members are trying to keep alive their own memories of John. One day I met with Williams’s youngest sister, Barbara, at a downtown Vancouver Starbucks, and listened to her describe the brother she hadn’t seen for 10 long years. The day before John died, Barbara happened to stop in a Vancouver antique shop, where she recognized three totems for sale—one had been carved by John, one by Ray, and one by Rita. She could always tell John’s work by its painstaking intricacy: “I was really intimidated by his art.” The next night, she learned about John’s death from a nephew—on Facebook. When she went back to the antique shop the next day, the totems were gone.
When the video from Birk’s car was posted online, Barbara found herself watching it over and over, to be able to see her brother once more. But she doesn’t want that to be her final vision of John, nor anyone else’s. She wants him to be remembered for his art, not his run-in with a trigger-happy police officer. She’s been encouraged to see her sons and other family members start carving again, and she hopes that John’s death will inspire the next generation of family carvers. “It’s a part of us,” she said. “It’s a part of the Williams family.
“That’s who we are—carvers and artists. That’s what we do.”