After the news broke Sunday morning, July 17, that three police officers had been killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in an apparent retaliation for recent police shootings, I realized I needed to talk to Rick Williams. The older brother of Ditidaht woodcarver John T. Williams, who was gunned down by Seattle Police in 2010, was at Seattle’s Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow gathering signatures for Washington State Initiative Measure No. 873.
Known as the John T. Williams Bill, the initiative would change the wording in current Washington State law, making it easier to charge police officers with crimes for the misuse of deadly force. Had this change been made previously, police officer Ian Birk could have been more easily charged with murder or manslaughter after shooting John in 2010. As it stands, Birk got off without having any charges filed against him.
I remembered the words Rick spoke back in February when a legislative version of the bill, HB 2907, was being considered by the House Public Service committee. I transcribed those words, planning to write an article about HB 2907. But the bill died in committee without even being voted on, passing into legislative limbo, killed by police supporters.
Courtesy Luis Saúl Moscoso
Rick Williams testifies in Olympia before the House Public Safety Committee on February 3 in support of HB 2907, the legislative version of Initiative Measure No. 873, which later died in committee. Behind Rick and to his right is Jay Hollingsworth, one of the founders of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee.
I read Rick’s testimony as I rode the light rail on my way to the pow wow and was struck by how prescient they seemed.
“I’m Rick Williams, John T. Williams’ older brother. I think you should pass this [bill] because I watched the whole thing from the beginning. I see it every day. And all I saw you get out of it is… you protected the badge instead of [prosecuting] the murderer of my brother. For five years all this talking and no action. It would have been easy to go the other way and fight back, but that’s not going to solve anything.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do here. I’m asking the same thing. Pass this, because to hold my family back, and my tribe to stay calm I said ‘peace.’ And that’s to do with something my grandfather taught us.
“So I think you should pass this. Why is this guy still walking free? You know, it’s not right. I’m out there all the time. I teach and talk to people. I’m always going to stand up for the people from now on. I can’t get my brother back, but I can help the people and stand up for them. Somebody has to because this is all wrong.”
When I got to the pow wow the dancers were entering the circle and their voices rang and their heads shook and the rhythm pumped like a great heart pounding. Across the circle I saw Rick standing, blinking at me.
As the dancers moved around the circle, people pressed closer to see them and in their eyes I could sense affection, kinship, and camaraderie that echoed from the past and into the future, a timeless feeling as if the dancing never stopped. By moving their feet and their bodies, by singing the songs, the dancers tuned into the dancing that never stopped.
I got lost watching it. Then I looked back at where Rick was standing. He was gone. I walked around to the other side of the circle and found him collecting signatures for Measure 873, along with one of the founders of the John T. Williams Organizing Committee, Jay Hollingsworth.
“Hey, bro,” Rick said. “Did I ever tell you about the time I gave the head of the Department of Justice a string of beads? He took it. I said, ‘I’m full-blooded. I just bought my people’s land back.’ He said, “You did what?’ ‘I just bought my land back. I got no wooden nickels, but I have beads.”
I burst out laughing.
“Fair is fair,” I said.
“Good to see you, man,” Rick said, smiling.
I asked if he’d heard of the shootings that morning in Baton Rouge.
“That’s terrible! I said at the beginning, I sent a letter to the President of the United States. I’m asking you to fix this before it gets out of hand. More police are going to get hurt, Dallas, Baton Rouge, three cops killed this morning. Sad! They’re not listening.”
I told him how I remembered he always advocated peace, holding his family and tribe back from retaliating against the police after John’s murder and how he said this dedication to peace came from his grandfather. Rick carefully explained.
“At first, you’re in pain, so you put your strongest hand on the ground. Close your eyes. And if not, walk up to a tree. Sounds crazy, but you hug the tree. There, between the land, the ocean and the tree, grandpa said peace, no matter what.”
Peace in a tree? It seemed impossible. But as he talked I saw. Peace is everywhere, and all we need to do is tune into it, just as the dancers tune into the dancing that never stops by moving and singing. The peace of our ancestors words, the peace of the Earth, sea and sky can feed and sustain us through even the most overwhelming pain.
“This is by far the biggest test I’ve ever had in my life,” Rick said, “to ask for peace when they took John. So I have to honor what I was taught and trained to do. I know how to fight in any style, but that’s not what it was about. It was about honoring who my brother was. There is peace.”
As I left the pow wow I saw families with little kids wearing regalia, and grandparents with canes and moms with babies on their hips and dads pushing strollers, all happy to be enjoying the beautiful summer day in Discovery Park. I knew the first step in healing the gulf that divides our country is to find peace. It surrounded me there at the pow wow and I saw the truth of Rick’s grandfather’s teaching: There is peace. May we all find it.