Photo by Frank Hopper
Twilight illuminates the corner of Boren Avenue and Howell Street near downtown Seattle where a memorial crosswalk for the late Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarver John T. Williams will be built. Groundbreaking ceremonies will take place on September 11. Boren and Howell is where Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk shot Williams on August 30, 2010.

Memorial Crosswalk Planned at John T. Williams Shooting Location

Frank Hopper

On September 11, a coalition of Seattle Native and non-Native agencies will break ground on a memorial crosswalk in honor of the late Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarver John T. Williams to be located at the site of his 2010 death, which occurred six years ago today. The “White Deer Crossing,” will be created by a partnership of the Seattle American Indian/Alaska Native Police Advisory Commission, the Seattle Indian Health Board, the Native American Advisory Council, the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and the John T. Williams Organizing Committee. It will replace the current crosswalk at the corner of Boren Avenue and Howell Street, which was where Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk shot Williams six years ago.

The white stripes of the old crosswalk will be pulled up and in their place will be a repeating design of a “White Deer Person.” The design will go across Boren Avenue on the north side of Howell Street, the same crosswalk Williams used just seconds before Birk jumped out of his police car and shot him four times.

The killing sent a shockwave through the community. Native groups staged several protests, especially after King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced he wasn’t going to file criminal charges against Birk due to a loophole in state law.

But a surprising amount of good also came from the tragedy. The incident triggered a Department of Justice investigation of the Seattle Police Department. The 2011 DOJ report slammed the SPD, saying they used excessive force and were biased against minorities. They ordered the department to carry out extensive reforms.

Healing also came as Williams’s older brother Rick rallied Seattle’s Native community behind the creation of an “honor totem” dedicated to John. The totem pole was carved on Seattle’s waterfront with the help of volunteers. After months of work it was carried in a procession that included hundreds of supporters to the Seattle Center where it currently stands as a symbol of peace near the foot of the Space Needle.

John T. Williams, center, with brother Eric to his right and brother Rick to his left, pose for a photo at Victor Steinbrueck Park, also known as Native Park, in downtown Seattle on August 30, 2010. Just a few hours after this picture was taken, John was be gunned down in an unjustified shooting by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk. (Photo courtesy Jay Hollingsworth/John T. Williams Organizing Committee)

In keeping with this message of peace, the crosswalk design is inspired by the Nuu-chah-nulth story of the White Deer people. In it, a man blacks out and awakens in the land of the White Deer people who initiate him and give him the power of the White Deer, the power of the Peacemaker. The following is just a brief quote:

“We can see the Peacemaker every time the sun rises, every time the sun sets. Then you see the Peacemaker’s soul. This is teaching us how to cleanse our soul, to wash our soul with peace, to wash our soul with the light of the setting sun and the rising sun. For the White Deer powers are the children of the sun that live on the Earth.”

The story in its entirety was transcribed by Bill Côte (Chal.Si.Nam.Men) from an oral transmission by elder Johnny Moses (Whis.Stem.Men.Knee). It will be written on the traffic light control box located on the northwest corner of Boren and Howell, just feet from where Williams’s body had lain. A plaque dedicating the crosswalk to Williams will be attached to a column outside the Hilton Garden Inn now standing on that corner.

The “White Deer Crossing” in honor of John T. Williams will feature repeating images similar to the ones on the left to form a crosswalk on the north side of Howell Street. This is the same crosswalk Williams used seconds before he was shot by Officer Ian Birk. (Photo on left courtesy White Deer Crossing Project/Photo on right by Frank Hopper)

One positive effect of the tragedy that often goes unnoticed is how Williams’s death inspired people. John was so vulnerable, so hurt and broken, that his death transformed many ordinary people into activists. People reconnected with their heritage and culture after participating in protests. The personal healing that’s taken place can never be measured.

The last line of the story of the White Deer people, as told by Johnny Moses, clearly explains why John is like the man in the story, the Peacemaker.

“You know when a Peacemaker dies, because it brings all the shattered people together that otherwise never come together.”

And as a once shattered person myself who reconnected with his heritage after the shock of John’s death, I can say this is true.

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