Photo by Dave Mesford
Updates made July 21, including new date for pole raising.
Two memorial totem poles are quickly taking shape on Seattle’s busy waterfront as master carvers and tourists alike work up to 14 hours a day to ensure the project is finished by Aug. 30, the one year anniversary of the shooting death of John T. Williams by former Seattle Police Department Officer Ian Birk.
Ditidaht carver and lifelong Seattle resident John T. Williams, 50, was gunned down on a busy downtown Seattle street just seconds after crossing through an intersection in front of Officer Ian Birk, age 27. Williams was focused on a board he was carrying in one arm, chipping at it with a legal three-inch blade folding knife as he crossed the street.
Officer Birk exited his patrol car, dash cam still running, and pursued Williams a short way down the street and out of view of the dash cam. Sound recordings reveal Birk shouted ‘hey’ and ‘drop the knife’ a few times before firing his gun five times.
Four shots hit Williams on the right side of his body, killing him instantly. Only seven seconds elapsed from the time Birk exited his cruiser to the time the first of the shots were fired.
It has since been determined that Williams may have had headphones on at the time of his death and his pocket knife was found folded on the sidewalk near his body after the shooting.
Public reaction was immediate as a SPD spokeswoman Renee Witt said later that day that Williams had been sitting on the curb, holding a knife. She said Birk found that ‘peculiar’ and made contact with the male at which point Williams made advances toward the officer. She went on to say Birk made loud, repeated commands to Williams to drop the knife but he would not and Birk used lethal force.
Birk’s police cruiser dash cam, however, told a different story.
In fact, a female bystander’s voice can be heard on the dash cam recording asking, “What happened? He didn’t do anything!” Birk responded, “Ma’am, he had a knife and he wouldn’t drop it.”
In the following months several investigations took place. A SPD Firearms Review Board determined the shooting was not justified.
A fact finding inquest into the shooting revealed that only one juror thought Williams was given enough time to put down the knife. Four jurors believed he didn’t have enough time to drop the knife and three said they didn’t know if he had enough time. Only one juror believed that Williams posed an imminent threat to Birk.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced Feb. 16, that no criminal charges would be filed against Officer Birk.
“The law provides that the officer may be prosecuted only if he acted with malice or bad faith. Making a series of tactical errors is not enough,” said Satterberg.
Later that month Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn proclaimed Feb. 27, what would have been the slain carver’s 51st birthday, as John T. Williams Day in Seattle. The proclamation says, in part, “John T. Williams was a member of the Ditidaht First Nation, a longtime Seattle resident and a master wood carver whose artistry was recognized locally and around the world…the City of Seattle supports the Williams family in the creation of a totem to honor John T. Williams…”
"This is the least we could do for the Williams family, to restore peace," said Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, who made the proclamation on behalf of Mayor Mike McGinn at the Chief Seattle Club.
In April 2011, the City of Seattle awarded $1.5 million to the estate of John T. Williams after a police review board found the shooting unjustified. Officer Birk had resigned from the police force by then.
Hope for justice for John T. Williams was revived when, in April 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that they would launch an investigation of the Seattle Police to determine whether they have a ‘pattern or practice’ of violating civil rights or discriminatory policing.
The announcement came after more instances of controversial Seattle police altercation footage went public, including one that shows an SPD officer shouting racial slurs as he stomped a prone Latino man who was mistakenly thought to be a robbery suspect and two other clips of African American men being kicked by SPD officers.
In a separate investigation, the Federal DOJ Civil Rights Division will look at whether Birk should be criminally charged with violating Williams’ civil rights while acting under the ‘color of the law’ as a police officer.
Federal prosecutors would have to show that Officer Birk, operating under the authority granted to him as a police officer, willfully and intentionally deprived Williams of his civil rights. Their investigation is ongoing.
Family, friends and supporters of John T. Williams are planning a pole raising ceremony in Seattle.
Pat John, former board member for the Memorial Totem Pole Project, says the two poles were being painted and were very near completion.
He said they originally planned to raise the poles Aug. 30 at 4:13 p.m., exactly a year after he was killed.
Connie Sue Martin, one of the Williams family attorneys, said plans have changed for many reasons. She said the first pole is being donated to the City of Seattle and they need time to deal with permits and such. But most importantly, the family preferred to raise the pole on Feb. 27, 2012, what would have been John's birthday.
"They struggled with whether they should raise the pole on such a dark day (the anniversary of his death) and they chose to do it on a happier occasion," said Martin.
Rick Williams hopes to find a buyer for the second pole.
A permanent home for the pole has yet to be determined, but some hope it will be raised at Steinbruek Park, adjacent to the historic Pike Place Market. Pat John said it is known locally as Indian Park and it’s where many street people and artists go to create art and sell their pieces to tourists. He said John T. Williams spent a lot of time there.
About the John T. Williams Memorial Poles
• Manke Lumber Company donated a red cedar tree from which four 32’ lengths were cut. Two were used to make memorial poles.
• They are selling buttons and T-shirts at the carving sites and a bank account has been set up at Boeing Employees Credit Union to take donations for the project.
• Rick Williams, brother of John T. Williams, has been working on both projects since March 2011.
• The City of Seattle provided space at Seattle Centre and at the water front where ongoing work on the poles has been a tourist attraction.
• Master carvers Dennis Underwood and Paul Williams have assisted Rick with the work. Tourists and passersby were invited to take part in the project and chisel out the designs. “People from all over the world are taking chips out of the pole,” said John.
• Rick has also been assisted by his four children, who pitch in as they remember their Uncle John.
• According to John, the two poles are the first in nearly 70 years to be carved and raised in Seattle, making it a truly historic occasion.
• The poles feature a mother and baby raven at the base supporting a kingfisher topped by an eagle.
• There is a Facebook page dedicated to the John T. Williams Memorial Pole Project that is open to the public. Donations to the project may be made on the Facebook page using Paypal.