John Williams, a native carver who used to sit on the third floor of Carnegie Centre and carve, about 20 years ago, has been drawn into the highly political case of the shooting of black teenager, Trayvon Martin. The shooting of the unarmed Martin by a hispanic Neighborhood Watch captain in Florida, has re-stimulated a discussion of racial profiling in the U.S.
Christina Lopez, a Seattle activist, has compared the shooting death of Martin with the shooting death of Williams by a Seattle police officer in Aug. 2011. Listening to her mention Williams' name on the radio, reminded me of him sitting on the third floor of Carnegie Centre carving, wearing a pale yellow t-shirt and jeans. He was 50 years old when he was shot. The last time I saw him in the Downtown Eastside, he was 29 years old. It was a sweltering August night when I dropped by to visit him at his room by Pigeon Park.
The lead up to the Williams shooting was caught on the police car video and the multiple shots pumped into Williams can be heard off camera. It was clear from the video of Williams crossing the street that he posed no threat. It was clear also that years of drinking had taken its toll. The last time I talked to him on that August night, he told me he had started drinking again, after having quit for a long time. He didn't know many people in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and I wonder if isolation contributed to his return to drinking.
After Williams was shot, he was identified by native people, who knew him from seeing him carving at the Chief Seattle Club, as a Seattle resident originally from Vancouver Island. His time as a Downtown Eastsider is probably remembered only by a small circle of people who had contact with him. I met him in the winter or spring at Carnegie Centre and knew him through the summer, casually, bumping into him once in a while. He told me that he had been living in Seattle and planned to head back there. He said he could make a good living there as a carver, unlike in Vancouver. I got the impression that he had been up here visiting Vancouver Island.
Carving seemed to be his calling. He carved constantly. In fact, he was holding a carving knife when he was shot, a knife for which he had a permit.
When I visited Williams at his room by Pigeon Park, he showed me a mini totem pole he was carving, and he said he was from a family of carvers on Vancouver Island. His family were well known as carvers, he said. Not knowing much about art, I had a picture in my mind of totem poles being more colorful, and I remember asking him if he was going to paint it. He said he might put a little paint on it, but he didn't seem to interested in that angle.
When I heard on the radio that John Williams had been shot, I was thinking of how calm and grounded he used to be, and I wasn't surprised to read that someone who knew him at the Chief Seattle Club also remembered him as calm.