City Hall

Protesters March to City Hall for Williams

By Tiffany Vu September 17, 2010

Yesterday about 300 people gathered at a parking lot off Boren and Howell to sing, dance, grieve, and then march to City Hall—all to demand justice for the fatal police shooting of John T. Williams. Council member Bruce Harrell and Mayor Mike McGinn met the crowd at City Hall to listen to the protesters' demands before McGinn met with the organizing committee.

Williams, a Ditidaht tribe wood carver, was whittling a block of wood at the corner of Boren and Howell on August 30 when Officer Ian Birk, a second-year SPD officer, ordered him to drop his three-inch knife. When Williams failed to do so, Birk shot him four times.

The SPD later found out that Williams was partially deaf.

A drum circle at the front of the lot led 250 protesters (the number grew as the march went on) through several traditional songs. Demonstrators danced in the circle before several of Williams's friends and family members delivered speeches. Some were tearful, all were angry.

"You killed him for no reason," said Eddie Young, who claims to have witnessed the shooting. "I'm gonna tell you something—they don't like Indians in this town. We're all son-of-a-bitches to them ... they don't like minorities. If you're not white, you're not right!" Several near the circle seconded with shouts of agreement.

The general sentiment in the front of the crowd was one of outrage, fear, and deep distrust of both the police and the government, although at least one man pleaded for dialogue with the police.

The march to City Hall began at about 2:45. There were several pauses along the 14-block  route to pray inside the drum circle, notably in front of the SPD's West Precinct headquarters on Virginia Street, five blocks from the site of the shooting.

Some in the crowd were encouraged by recent gestures on the part of city officials, such as Harrell's efforts to increase police oversight and police chief John Diaz's announced reshuffling of the SPD hierarchy.

"The SPD made some interesting moves yesterday," said Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, one of the protest's organizers. "They're good first steps, but we'll be watching, we'll be listening, we'll be pressing ... to keep the changes moving forward. I know their hearts are in the right place, but whether they can make real change remains to be seen."

Others were less than optimistic. "No!" Neil Lampey said when asked if he had any faith that the city or the SPD would keep their promises. "None whatsoever! No faith in the SPD, no faith in Chief Diaz, no faith in the mayor ... we need civilian oversight today."

The current system for police accountability involves the in-house (i.e., inside the SPD shop)  Office of Professional Accountability, whose recommendations must go through the chief. There's also the council-appointed citizens' Office of Professional Accountability Review Board, which reviews the OPB's reports, but has no authority to mandate changes.

The crowd ultimately marched into City Hall—drummers first, then elders, then everyone else, filling the atrium both with their bodies and the din of their drums and chants. Several people in the crowd demanded that McGinn or Diaz come forth, but Harrell, who has emerged as a strong supporter of the protesters, was the only city official on the scene. (Harrell, the only non-white member the city council and the chairman of the city's Civil Rights Committee, led a council hearing about the shooting on Wednesday.)

"It's the same everywhere that there's a police union, the mayor is powerless, the city councils are afraid of their own police, the police chief can't do anything about the force," said Ramona Bennett, former chairwoman of the Puyallup Tribal Council, addressing to the crowd at City Hall. "Most of the police are decent, they're there to protect all of us. It's those bad apples that get through the screening and get through the training ... they're the other gang in blue. What we need is for the police who are decent people to put their union in check and quit exonerating killers."

After several more speeches and a roll call of victims of violence, including all the Washington State police officers killed on duty in the last year such as the Lakewood officers, the protest organizers formally welcomed Harrell with gifts of cedar, tobacco, a song, and a written list of demands to pass on to the mayor. Among those demands: making backup calls mandatory for SPD officers; the immediate hiring of a tribal liaison; increased cultural sensitivity training for police recruits; and external reviews of all police shootings that result in injury or death.

"Not only are the questions and suggestions [in the letter] reasonable, but to not respond meaningfully and significantly would not do the honor of our city's namesake, Chief Sealth," Harrell said in a speech. "I'm going to ask that we try to look at this event ... through the eyes and the lens of Officer Birk. And I will tell you why— because if we can do that, we can then say with a heightened sense of strength and courage and conviction that you must see this incident through the eyes of John T. Williams. From any perspective other than your own ... this is the challenge of fighting institutional racism."

Harrell renewed his pledge to introduce the use of body-mounted cameras in the SPD, following the example of several police departments in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Minutes later, McGinn himself emerged at the front of the crowd to receive the letter and meet with committee members.

"We all know what happened was tragic," McGinn told the protesters. [PubliColaTV video here.] "There has been historical injustice, and that has to change. ... You will judge us ultimately not by my words here today ... but by our future actions, and you will hold us accountable."

We have a call in to McGinn's office and protest leaders to find out what went on at that meeting.
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