Years After Police Shooting, Woodcarver's Brother Remembers The Man He Lost | KUOW News and Information

Years After Police Shooting, Woodcarver's Brother Remembers The Man He Lost

Oct 7, 2016
Originally published on October 7, 2016 8:27 am

On a late summer day in 2010, John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, was walking across the street carrying his carving knife and a small piece of wood when he was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer.

"He was carving an eagle at the moment," his brother Rick recalls, on a recent visit with StoryCorps. Rick tells his friend Jay Hollingsworth that his brother loved to carve — had been carving even at age 4, when he completed his first totem pole. He says John could walk and carve at the same time, and that was just what he was doing, carrying his knife openly.

"You see the dashcam video, and you see the officer — he's already got his weapon out" says Hollingsworth. "And he screams a couple of times, 'Put the knife down!' But John was deaf in one ear. He finally heard that somebody was walking up to him. So he had started to turn towards the sound he heard. And then shots rang out."

It all happened in 4.7 seconds, Rick says.

"This image I see every day in my sleep," he says. "It's been six years. I walk through depression, suicide thoughts, anger, rage. It's a side of me that I want to leave alone."

No criminal charges were filed against the officer, Ian Birk, who later resigned. In April 2011, the city of Seattle settled with Williams' family for $1.5 million.

Rick Williams says that in the years since the shooting people have told him he "should hate white people," that he "should hate cops." But, when he hears these words, he thinks of another phrase, in his grandfather's voice. It's a phrase from the language of the Nitinaht First Nation, of which both Rick and his brother are members.

Rick Williams says it means, "Can you be a warrior without violence?" And, he says, "I didn't get it until this happened to my brother John. It took me all my life to understand what it meant."

Still these days, Rick says he returns to the cemetery where his brother's buried, bringing a cup of coffee and some thoughts for his brother.

"I've asked many times, bring me this policeman, let me share a day with you, what it would've been like to carve with John," Rick says. "I want them to know him the way I did. He was one of the finest."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White with Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it is time for StoryCorps - today, a story about a police shooting. John T. Williams was a Native American woodcarver. In 2010, he was walking across the street carrying a carving knife, a small piece of wood, when he was shot and killed by a police officer.

His brother, Rick Williams, came to StoryCorps with a friend to remember him. Just a warning - this story contains audio from a police dash cam that some listeners could find disturbing.

RICK WILLIAMS: As a child, John was a happy person. And he loved to carve. He was 4 when he done his first totem pole.

JAY HOLLINGSWORTH: John was a native carver. And they can carve and walk at the same time. And that day, John was walking with an open pocket knife.

WILLIAMS: He was carving an eagle at the moment.

HOLLINGSWORTH: You see the dash-cam video. And you see the officer. He's already got his weapon out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IAN BIRK: (Shouting) Hey. Hey.

HOLLINGSWORTH: He screams, put the knife down...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIRK: Put the knife down.

HOLLINGSWORTH: ...A couple of times. But John was deaf in one ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING0

BIRK: Put the knife down.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

HOLLINGSWORTH: There wasn't any time for him to respond. It was...

WILLIAMS: 4.67 seconds. This image I see every day in my sleep. It's been six years. I walk through depression, suicide thoughts, anger, rage - it's a side of me that I want to leave alone. I've listened to people - you should hate white people. You should hate cops.

I find that sad because there's no way to say it in my language. I can hear my granddad's voice, (foreign language spoken), which means, can you be a warrior without violence? And I didn't get it until this happened to my brother, John.

On a weekly basis, I go sit at the cemetery and bring a cup of coffee and share a thought with my brother. How do I feel? I've asked many times, bring me this policeman. Let me share a day with you - what it would've been like to carve with John. I want them to know him the way I did. He was one of the finest.

GREENE: That's Rick Williams with his friend Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, remembering John T. Williams, who was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer in 2010. There were no criminal charges filed against that officer who resigned. The city of Seattle did settle with Williams' family for $1.5 million.

StoryCorps invited the police officer to record his story. He has not responded. Rick is now helping to carry on his brother's woodcarving traditions. This interview is archived at the American Folklife Center and at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.