The Seattle Police Shooting of Native Woodcarver John T. Williams, 10 Years Later

Photo by Chait Goli

A decade ago, Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, a well-known Ditidaht woodcarver in the community — because he carried a pocketknife. For Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner shares the story of John through the eyes of his older brother turned family spokesperson, Rick Williams.

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.

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