Police Brutality Against Black and Brown People: We’re In This Together

A poster demanding justice for the August 2010 shooting of John T. Williams in Seattle.


A poster demanding justice for the August 2010 shooting of John T. Williams in Seattle.

 

Gyasi Ross, Indian Country Today, 8/22/14

 

Native people are the most loving people in the world. And it makes sense—so many of us have seen this movie before.

We got our own problems, right?  Still, ever since the Michael Brown tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, I’ve received hundreds of Facebook messages and emails—Native people understanding the connection between black folks’ interaction with law enforcement and Native folks’ interaction with law enforcement.  The Natives who’ve contacted me seem to know, “We’re not saying all police officers are bad.  Heck, most are ok.”  But those Natives know that when things do go haywire and a police officer does do something bad to someone, it’s usually someone brown. And when that brown-skinned person is killed or hurt badly, it’s usually for something small.  Insignificant.  Something that doesn’t deserve deadly force.  Like allegedly stealing cigars.

That’s rough.  But to quote Bill Murrary in Stripes, “That’s the fact, Jack!”

RELATED: The Shooting Death of John T. Williams

Those Natives told me—if I get a chance to write about this—to express that they understand the family’s profound sense of loss and grief.  They were very clear when telling me that they stand with the people of Ferguson.  They recognize this—this looks familiar.  Maybe that’s why so many Native people are standing with the frustrated and grieving folks of Ferguson.  Maybe that’s why so many are up in arms about this recent unnecessary death of yet another brown person.

Photo by Jack Storms
Photo by Jack Storms

 

Many of Natives have seen this movie before.  This looks a lot like John T. Williams—the beautiful and brilliant Native carver, shot while breaking no laws by Seattle Police Officer Ian Burke.  We recognize how the inquest tried to paint John T. as aggressive, as drunk—the same way that the Ferguson Police Department “leaked” information that Michael Brown may have had weed in his system.

So what?  Who doesn’t have weed in their system??  Weed doesn’t make you aggressive—it makes you hungry and lazy.  But the police department is attempting to make Brown look like a “thug”—which we all know is code for “ni**er.”  We recognize this doublespeak, the smokescreen.

Protesters marching the Seattle streets demanding justice for John T. Williams.
Protesters marching the Seattle streets demanding justice for John T. Williams.

 

But I digress.

This movie looks a lot like the recent Becky Sotherland incident, tasing over and over and over an unconscious Native man in Pine Ridge. Or AJ Longsolider, 18 years old and died in a jail cell, sick yet no one from the state would help him.

This looks like Black Wall Street—there are plenty of Natives in Tulsa; we remember how Blacks caught hell for doing well.  This looks like Oscar Grant—brutal.  Unnecessary.  Tragic.

The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. An armed white man watches over African American prisoners and a dead man. In one day, the thriving black neighborhood was destroyed.
The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. An armed white man watches over African American prisoners and a dead man. In one day, the thriving black neighborhood was destroyed.

 

Look, there are plenty of good police officers. I mean, I come from a “Don’t talk to the cops” family, but I also know that there are many who do their jobs every day respectfully and lovingly.  This is not a condemnation of law enforcement—not at all.  But it IS an observation about some law enforcement.  I KNOW there are amazing police officers who engage in good and healthy practices—heck, just the other day, a member of the Suquamish Tribal Police took time out of his day to give instruction to my nephew that literally might save his life.  That’s community policing. That’s beautiful. That’s the opposite of police brutality.

But when police brutality happens in this country, it happens to black and brown-skinned people entirely too much.  Now I’m not saying I want it to happen to white people more­—­all I’m saying is that there are a WHOLE bunch of white folks who were convicted of ugly, violent crimes, and they were around and healthy to stand trial.  And then there are a WHOLE bunch of black and brown people who weren’t alleged to have committed any crimes, or at worst a misdemeanor (like that pack of cigars), and those black and brown people aren’t alive anymore.

Seems inconsistent.

RIP John T. Williams.  RIP Michael Brown.  God bless all the victims of police brutality, of all colors.

#Ferguson #RIPMikeBrown

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Dad/Author/Attorney
www.cutbankcreekpress.com
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

 

 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/08/22/police-brutality-against-black-and-brown-people-were-together-156533

Get Ready to Cry: John T. Williams Documentary Calls for Healing, Not Anger

 

Frank Hopper, Indian Country Today

 

Deanna Sebring was the main witness to the murder. She crossed Howell Street at 4:12 p.m. on August 30, 2010, just as Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk opened fire on Ditidaht carver John T. Williams, who had been carving a board while walking. She stood behind Birk as he shot five bullets in about a second. The dash cam of his patrol car shows her recoiling from the sound. Deanna kept walking, then turned and saw John lying on the sidewalk, looking up at her. She continued walking. The horror took a moment to sink in. His eyes are what bothered her the most. Birk had just gunned down an unarmed man. Finally, after a block and a half, Deanna stopped and returned to report the crime.

I never expected to find a story like this in the documentary, titled “Honor Totem,” produced for the government access Seattle Channel and recently released on YouTube. As an Alaska Native who has also been homeless and incarcerated, I found it easy to seethe at the cops after the murder. But my outrage masked something else, something I had been hiding—something Deanna’s story brought out into the open.

Video of Community Stories: Honor Totem

 

Through her eyes I experienced John’s last moments of consciousness. I could see him in my imagination, pleading, then fading. The finality of his death gave me vertigo and I felt as if I might fly apart in a million pieces. Her story destroyed my shield of political outrage and made me see the raw horror of John’s death. And for some reason it haunted me.

Through interviews with family members, in particular John’s brother Rick, “Honor Totem” relates the story of John’s life and the causes of his downward spiral. After losing his father, who taught him to carve in the family style, and three brothers in just a few short years, John began drinking more. He sank into depression. By the time of his murder he was deaf in one ear and virtually blind. He was a broken man, displaced from his tribal homeland.

But to Seattle Police he was just another drunken Indian to be swept off the streets like confetti after a parade. If it hadn’t been for witnesses like Deanna Sebring, Officer Birk would have probably received a medal. Due in part to her testimony, the Firearms Review Board determined the shooting was unjustified and Officer Birk resigned.

Ian Devier, who wrote the documentary, at the foot of the John T. Williams Memorial Honor Totem that stands near the Space Needle at the Seattle Center.
Ian Devier, who wrote the documentary, at the foot of the John T. Williams Memorial Honor Totem that stands near the Space Needle at the Seattle Center.

 

Deanna relates in an interview during “Honor Totem” that she suffered nightmares after the shooting. She says she heard about John’s brother Rick and his plan to carve a memorial totem pole for John to promote healing. She and her son visited the carving site on Pier 57 several times. Rick even taught her son how to carve. As she spent time with the carvers, she absorbed the welcoming atmosphere and slowly began to heal.

Rick says in the documentary that the totem pole has healing energy. So the day after viewing “Honor Totem,” I take the light rail downtown and transfer to the monorail. I am nauseous and my head is spinning. I see the totem as we pull into the Seattle Center, standing at the end of a cool, moist lawn just east of the Space Needle. I stumble toward it. Vertigo makes every step a struggle. I reach the pole and close my eyes. I see John, his eyes pleading, then fading.

Then I realize they are not John’s eyes at all. They belong to my Aunt Judy, my mother’s twin sister, a full-blooded Tlingit. She looks at me from a bed in a nursing home, pleading, then fading. She took me in after I got out of prison years ago and I abandoned her at the end of her life. I let her die alone in a nursing home. I had so much anger inside. I don’t even know what it was about. I just hated.

Detail of the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole. An eagle stands on top, beneath that is a master carver, and beneath that is a Raven. (Ian Devier)
Detail of the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole. An eagle stands on top, beneath that is a master carver, and beneath that is a Raven. (Ian Devier)

 

I sit near the totem pole and my stomach starts to settle. My Aunt Judy passed away just two years before John’s murder. My political outrage about his assassination masked the guilt I felt about my aunt’s death. I feel just as guilty as Officer Birk, but until now I buried those feelings deep inside. John’s Honor Totem and the healing it represents help me face my guilt. I look at the master carver depicted in the middle of the pole. I shot you, John. It might as well have been me. I killed my Aunt Judy by abandoning her.

The wind makes the trees behind John’s Honor Totem rustle. The master carver listens. Kids play on the lawn and a breeze kisses my cheek. Part of healing is forgiveness. Part of healing is remembrance. My stomach settles and I suddenly feel hungry. Thank you, John. May we always remember what you taught us about acceptance, forgiveness and the healing power of our traditions.

 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/07/10/get-ready-cry-john-t-williams-documentary-calls-healing-not-anger-155741