Photo: Rick Williams at the intersection of Boren Avenue and Howell Street.
The brother’s wordS Come to him at Night. They come clear and strong, no matter what sounds roil off six-lane Aurora Avenue and through the motel room window. They come to him in the morning, on the bus as it hammers south into the city. And as he sits on the patch of grass in the shadow of the Space Needle, where he carves nearly every day. Wherever Rick Williams is, whatever he’s doing, if anger or rage or even revenge fills his mind, the words of his late brother John put out the storm.
He first heard them more than 50 years ago, when he was 14. John was nine. “I want you to say ‘peace,’” the younger brother said, “and I want you to learn peace.” Unusual thing for a child to say, enough that the words stuck with Rick through the decades.
They came to him again on the afternoon of August 30, 2010, when a cop told him another officer had shot his brother to death. “Say peace.” “Learn peace.” Hard concepts to juggle in the moment. Even harder once the details came to light.
As the city learned of his brother’s final moments, so did Rick. How Seattle police officer Ian Birk—unprovoked, gun already drawn—rushed up to 50-year-old John T. Williams, who was hearing impaired in one ear, losing his eyesight, and held only a pocketknife and a piece of cedar, the tools of his trade. How Birk commanded Williams to drop the knife and, seven seconds into their encounter, fired five bullets, four striking and killing the woodcarver. How when other officers arrived they could see that the knife on the ground was closed.
Protests began almost immediately, Seattle’s streets a preview of the scenes a decade later, of Black Lives Matter and the long hunt for justice for those murdered by police. During the inquest, Officer Birk told jurors a story that contradicted that of eyewitnesses. Williams was menacing, Birk said, in attack mode, seconds from lunging with the knife.
The inquest left no one satisfied. At least one witness would remain traumatized for years, by both what she saw in the moments of the shooting and the lack of justice afterward. On the question of whether Officer Birk should be charged with a crime, the decision lay in the hands of the King County prosecutor. The choice he made haunted him in subsequent reelection bids, made his stomach burn whenever he talked about it. Most significantly the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the SPD’s discriminatory policing and overall use of force.
Through it all, Rick Williams, the older brother turned family spokesman, clenched his jaw in every hearing, through every bad thing he heard about John, every time he saw a cop on the street and was expected to act like there was no bad blood. He held back his rage as much as he could, held it back even as he watched, like everyone else in the city, again and again, the video.
Strange artifact, that dashcam footage, recorded in the moments leading up to and after the shooting. The video’s as unique for what it shows—and doesn’t show—as for the vantage point it offers. We’re sitting in officer Ian Birk’s patrol car as it rolls south on Boren Avenue, 4:11pm, August 30. We have, essentially, Birk’s view of the city. Boren scrolls past—a billboard touts a financial planner’s management of $693 billion in client assets; the cars look ancient to 2020 eyes. We go for two long city blocks, under a perfectly blue, cloudless sky, before the patrol car stops at Howell Street and a red light. Pedestrians stride through the crosswalk in front of us—harried workers knocking off a tad early on a Friday, a bit disheveled after a week in the grind, backpacks and purses askew, shirts indelicately untucked as they trudge to their bus stop or their Subarus in time to beat rush hour.
At exactly 13 seconds after 4:12pm, John T. Williams saunters into the frame. He wears light colored pants, light colored jacket, tan baseball cap. He’s got a slight limp as he passes over the crosswalk. All his attention’s on the rectangular piece of wood in his left hand; at about midframe, he slows his gait to make what looks like a mark on the wood with the small object in his right hand. Then he disappears into the right side of the frame.
A few seconds pass and Officer Birk exits the car. We can see his pistol’s already drawn—in the right hand and resting on his hip. He raises a finger in the air that signals “come here,” and swaggers across the screen, following Williams into that off-camera realm. “Hey! Hey! Hey!,” the officer shouts. “Put the knife down!” He repeats the order two more times rapidly before we hear the burst of five gunshots.
We can’t see what happens immediately before or after the pistol fired. We’re stuck in the car, where talk radio blares. The on-air hosts chirp about the U.S. Amateur golf tournament underway at Chambers Bay. They’re jawing on about sand traps so loudly we can’t quite make out the muffled woman’s voice outside the car. But we hear Birk’s response: “Ma’am, he had a knife and he wouldn’t drop it.”
Another SPD cruiser speeds toward us on Boren and stops in front of Birk’s vehicle, followed by two officers on bikes. More cop cars arrive. Officers put up yellow tape, containing the scene. By now the talk radio hosts are opining on the upcoming Seahawks season. Off camera, a fellow officer comforts Birk.
“I’m alright,” Birk says. “He had it open”—meaning the knife— “I asked him to drop it multiple times. He was carving up that board with it. He kind of turned toward me.”
“You did the right thing,” says the other officer.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Rick Williams sat on a patch of grass at the Seattle Center, carving into a piece of yellow cedar. Around him were arrayed six small totem poles and three carved walking sticks. Behind rose the 34-foot-tall John T. Williams Memorial Totem, carved by Rick, his family, and other artisans, and erected on what would’ve been John’s 52nd birthday, in February 2012. Rick’s here nearly every day, whittling, offering his work for sale, keeping the family legacy alive.
He’s carved at the Seattle Center since childhood. His family once stationed themselves all over the city, especially in the ’70s. “I was here at the Center,” the 65-year-old says. “My dad was at the Kingdome, Sam”—another brother—“was on the waterfront, and John was at Capitol Hill.” The Williams family was nationally known, decedents of Samuel Williams, who arrived in Seattle at the turn of the century and began selling totems on the waterfront at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in 1909.
Samuel was a member of the Ditidaht tribe, from the west coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. He taught his son, Raymond, how to carve, and Raymond taught his kids, 11 in all. Among the most talented was John, born in 1960. From age seven on, John was always with Raymond, learning how to draw out faces from wood. Animal spirits. Figures from Native myth.
Raymond’s death from a heart attack in 1988 exacerbated John’s alcohol abuse, a problem since childhood. John also struggled with mental illness, for which he was hospitalized. His brothers wouldn’t hear from him for years at a time. By the 2000s things deteriorated to the point that John had frequent encounters with the police, usually alcohol related. Even through the haze, he remained generous, kind—a person friends and family regarded as gentle.
In late August 2010, John reunited with Rick and another brother, Eric, in Victor Steinbrueck Park, a spot where the family had gathered and carved for decades. He was embarrassed by his dwindling eyesight, coupled with his hearing loss. To get John to recognize him, Rick had to stand a foot in front of him. But it was a happy reunion. For three days John carved in the park with his brothers and nephews. On August 30, in midafternoon, he left to round up some of his things from a shelter. He told the family he’d return in about two hours. They never saw him alive again.
In the years since Birk shot John T. Williams, similar murders have held the nation’s attention. Michael Brown in Ferguson. Eric Garner in Long Island. Breonna Taylor in Louisville. And, of course, George Floyd in Minneapolis.
When Rick watched footage of the cop press his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, choking the life out of him, he left the motel room on Aurora where he’s lived for most of the past 10 years, and headed north for more than a hundred blocks. Thinking of the injustice. Thinking of John. “I had to walk.” He pushed on until he was so exhausted he had to stop. “That’s how angry I was. Because it just threw it in my face, how the law gets away with this.” He let his mind travel to that August afternoon, a decade ago.
He was sitting on a bench in Victor Steinbrueck Park with his sons and Eric. They were all waiting for John. Around 4:30pm, a cop Rick knew pulled a police cruiser up to the curb. “Rick, I have some bad news for you.” The cop explained what had happened some 13 blocks away. Rick felt anger. He felt rage. Then he remembered his brother’s words. “Say peace.” “Learn peace.”
He held onto them all through the inquiry. Through the repeated views of Birk’s dashcam footage, Birk himself sitting just feet away. When people would shout out his brother’s name it felt exploitative, wrong. Rick wanted to shout back. To get up in their face, teach them some manners. But the words. “Learn peace.” He learned that a few days after the shooting, a cop, presumably loyal to Officer Birk, allegedly threatened one of Rick’s sons—he has six sons and three daughters—who was carving in public just like his dad and his uncle, the cop daring the kid: Go ahead, press me.
People wanted to hear from Rick. He spoke at press conferences. He did a TEDx talk. “I never in my life was a public speaker,” he says, “until they got John.” He began work on the totem pole in honor of his brother, a massive undertaking, mostly at Seattle’s Pier 57 in front of throngs of tourists.
Along the way he made connections in the community with people he might not have otherwise met, including with those directly connected to the shooting. At a "carve-in" rally at Victor Steinbrueck Park in the winter of 2011, a woman approached. Deanna Sebring had been at the corner of Boren and Howell, standing just feet away, when the cop killed Rick’s brother. She may be the last person John T. Williams ever saw. The rally organizers gave her a microphone. “The only thing I had to fear that day,” Sebring told the crowd, “was the police officer.”
A management systems analyst for the city of Seattle, Sebring had just left her office and was walking to her bus stop to go home at about a quarter after 4pm. She took Boren Avenue, heading south on the sidewalk on the east side of the street. As she neared Howell, where she planned to hang a left at the crosswalk, an SPD patrol car, also pointed south, came to a stop, red and blue lights disco balling. The officer jumped out, his Glock drawn. Whatever was about to happen, Sebring wanted no part of it. To avoid the intersection she jaywalked across Boren. She went behind the patrol car and had just stepped onto the sidewalk and headed into a parking lot when she heard the officer yell, “Hey, hey, hey!” She darted into the lot and made it as far as the end of an empty parking space before the shots rang out. John Williams teetered on the Howell Street sidewalk, his right shoulder facing the officer, head turned toward Sebring. She and Williams were essentially a car length apart. She saw blood on his shirt. The far-off look in his eyes.
Williams fell to the ground and Sebring immediately speed-walked west, through and out of the parking lot. “I don’t know why he’s shooting,” she thought, “but I could be next.” She reached Terry Avenue before a pounding in her head made her turn around and go back. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she knew she needed to do something. A uniformed officer just gunned down an innocent man.
In the time it took Sebring to reach Terry Avenue and walk back, more officers arrived on the scene. She spotted a female officer, helping set up police tape around the shooting site. She yelled over to the officer, asked if they could talk for a minute. Then she told her everything she saw.
Months later, Sebring testified during the inquest. She saw Rick Williams and his family. The officer who killed the innocent man sat with his wife. When the attorneys questioned Sebring and other witnesses they only allowed “yes” or “no” answers. That bothered Sebring. She wanted the whole room to know that the cop’s story was a lie.
No witness had a better view of Birk’s deadly action than Sebring, but the other witnesses—fellow pedestrians, people sitting in their cars stopped at the intersection—were unanimous: Williams was not a threat.
When the eight jurors were polled after hearing testimonies and reviewing evidence, including the dashcam and other footage, all but one said they believed that Williams posed no imminent danger when Birk fired those five shots. Just one juror believed that Williams had enough time to drop the knife before Birk pulled the trigger. Four said he did not have sufficient time; three remained undecided.
The decision was left to Dan Satterberg, the King County prosecutor, whether to charge Ian Birk with a crime. Citing state law, which required proof of evil intent on the part of the officer, Satterberg announced in mid-February 2011 that his office would not file charges against Birk. On the same day, the police department’s own Firearms Review Board announced that it had determined, unanimously, that the officer’s use of force was “unjustified.” Birk resigned that afternoon, but faced no penalties.
Reaction was immediate. To many, a cop had gotten away with murder. Protestors filled the streets. Their ranks included the region’s Native community and hundreds of Seattleites alarmed by what they saw as a miscarriage of justice. They beat drums. They chanted. “Hey, hey, SPD. Why do killer cops go free?”
Ten years on, no one sounds more incensed by Officer Birk’s actions than the person who declined to charge the officer with a crime. Dan Satterberg remains troubled by what’s revealed in the dashcam footage. “It’s still very haunting and shocking to see. This very peaceful part of town, pedestrians walking across the street. Nobody’s concerned about Mr. Williams. No one’s called in any complaints or anything at all,” the King County prosecutor recently told me. “And all of a sudden, the officer created all of the violence. He brought all of the risk to a situation that didn’t require any intervention at all.”
And yet, Satterberg insists, his hands were tied. “The criminal liability standard...was set in 1986 by the state legislature. They chose a word that made Washington state an outlier among the states and the nation.” That word: malice. And unless a prosecutor could prove that an officer felt it toward the victim of lethal force, that officer couldn’t be criminally liable. No evidence surfaced that Birk ever encountered Williams before. Their sole interaction lasted a few seconds. Hardly enough time for the cop to harbor deep resentment or anything bordering on evil intent.
“So it was hard to explain to the public what that means and why that is. I still have lots of people who are mad at me, including I’m sure Mr. [Rick] Williams.” The last time Satterberg ran for office, in 2018, people at public events shouted their anger at the incumbent. He says he understood, viscerally. “It gives me a stomachache to think about it too much, because I think it was not a just outcome…. A state agent took the life of another person who had done nothing wrong. And yet we were unable to use the criminal law to hold that person accountable.”
Since then the law has changed. Initiative 940 proposed, among other police reforms related to deadly force, removing proof of malice as prerequisite in prosecutions. The measure passed with 62 percent of the vote in 2018, ironically on the same ballot where voters chose to give Satterberg a fourth term.
The new law has yet to be tested at trial. But in August 2020, the prosecutor’s office charged an Auburn police officer for the shooting death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey; Satterberg has said that changes reflected in I-940 allowed for the murder charge. For now, people of color are no safer than before. Natives least of all.
According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, “The racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans, followed by African Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Asian Americans.” Native Americans are 0.8 percent of the U.S. population, but are victims of 1.9 percent of police killings, per data collected by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in fact, was involved in two shootings against Native Americans before he killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Such atrocities are the product of the centuries-long “myth of savage criminality” in North America, says Thomas Michael Swensen, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah and a native of the Tangirnaq tribe, on Kodiak Island off the Alaska coast. Officer Birk failed to see a woodcarving blade—to Williams a tool for his art—as anything more than a deadly weapon. “This small pocketknife serves as a window into a legacy of even greater cultural brutality, one that acts as a fulcrum for marginalizing Native lives and culture, rendering them rightless and dispossessed of social value,” Swensen writes in “Forever Crossing Over: At the Intersection of John T. Williams’s Life and Memorial,” a 2015 article in American Indian Culture and Research Journal.
It’s remarkable to Swensen how little Officer Birk even knew about Native woodcarving on the streets of Seattle, a constant presence for well over a century. “How can someone serve and protect a community if they don’t understand who the residents of the community are?” Swensen recently posited to me.
“The Williams family had been in the Seattle region, or in the [Little] Crossing Over Place”—the name of the erstwhile village the city now sits on—“since before all of these skyscrapers. When you’re watching that [dashcam] video of John Williams walking across the street, you realize his family had been walking across the street for generations.”
Walk across it now. Follow John T. Williams’s steps. Go west on Howell, until you reach Boren. Where 10 years ago on that August day everything was bright, the colors and contours practically bleached out by the sun, now a canyon of shiny new skyscrapers casts long shadows—testaments to the speed at which this city erases its past.
On one side, before you reach the crosswalk, towers an apartment complex. Next to it, an Amazon office. On the other side of Boren, the side upon which the woodcarver took his last breath, stands a Hilton. Below your feet the old crosswalk is gone. In its place are painted three white deer. A small plaque affixed to the new hotel, feet away from where he died, reads “This crosswalk dedicated as: The White Deer Crossing…to honor John T. Williams, Native Carver.”
His life and death reverberate in other, less visible ways. The shooting triggered a Department of Justice investigation, resulting in the consent decree that placed SPD under federal monitoring. And in June 2020, when a police standoff with protestors for Black lives resulted in a 23-day occupation known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, leaders invited Rick Williams to participate. He carved there with one of his sons—and told protestors he was proud of them and that they should remain peaceful.
Nikkita Oliver, the civil rights attorney, poet, and 2017 mayoral candidate, has emerged as a leader in the protests for Black lives. She sees continuity between August 2010 and protests on Seattle streets today. “I don’t think you can talk about police accountability in our region without also talking about the murder of John T. Williams,” she told me.
In the aftermath of the shooting the Native community engaged in consistent organizing work that made visible the racial bias in SPD’s use of force. “As an organizer, I have always seen the work that I do as needing to have relationships in and with Native communities, because their sovereignty and our liberation are very inextricably connected to dismantling and ending white supremacy,” Oliver said. “The murder of John T. Williams is absolutely foundational.”
In her backpack, the one she takes to work every day, Deanna Sebring keeps a pocketknife. She can’t explain why. She’s just kept it there ever since she saw the woodcarver gunned down. She keeps something else in there too. During one of their meetings, Rick gifted her one of John’s totems. It stands at about six inches tall. On top is an anthropomorphic bird with a long beak, a figure known in myth as Mother Raven; it’s with Sebring as she travels the sidewalks of Seattle.
She once nearly got into a fight at a grocery store because, as she walked through, minding her own business, someone behind her yelled, a la Ian Birk, “Hey, Hey, Hey!” She didn’t realize until that point this was a trigger. The shooting is now a part of her, one she doesn’t know she’ll ever be able to fix. But she got to know Rick and his family. “They’re really good people,” she says.
She joined in as much as she could when they were carving the memorial totem—and was there when some one hundred hands carried its almost-two-ton mass for nearly a mile and a half and erected it at Seattle Center.
Rick sits there now. He’s likely there as you read these words, the memorial totem behind him, a constant carving companion. He takes a knife—one not unlike his brother’s—and he chips away at a small piece of cedar, etches away until the faces come through, carving just as his family has for generations. Just as they did on New Year’s Eve 1969.
That’s the night he first heard John speak the words that would trail him for the rest of his life. They were children then, sitting on the Seattle waterfront with their father, talking about the future, when the younger brother’s face broke out in a smile. What? Rick thought.
“I want you to say ‘peace,’ and I want you to learn peace,” the brother said. “I want your word because I know you, bro. Once you give your word, you’ll keep it.”