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Seattle, Stop Protesting Your Police Department!

March 15, 2011
by

 

No criminal charges.

That was the decision handed down a few weeks ago by King County Prosecutor Dan Sattaberg in the police-shooting death of John T. Williams last August.

By now it’s a horrific story we’re all too familiar with. Officer Ian Birk crossed paths with Williams that fateful summer afternoon, just after the accomplished wood carver slowly moved across a downtown Seattle street.

Seconds later, Williams lay dying, shot four times by the young, callow officer.

Local mainstream media’s initial reaction was to sleepwalk through their coverage of another police-shooting of another man of color. They assumed Williams was in the wrong. They allowed the police department to spoon-feed them Birk’s account of being lunged at by a man with an open knife. They wanted everyone to know the Native man was a drunk; the word “inebriate” became Williams’ surname.

Neither the police department, the Mayor’s office or the media were prepared for what came next: witnesses to the shooting. A family in mourning and yet more than capable of defending the honor of the man they loved so much. A larger Native community galvanized by sorrow and outrage.

We watched as Mayor McGinn struggled to strike the balance between compassion for the Williams family -and indeed the entire greater-Seattle Native community- and a police department with a balky, status quo Chief and an intractable police union president.

Since then, the Department’s Fire Arms Review Panel determined the shooting was unjustified. An inquest panel handed down mixed yet nonetheless damning opinions about Birk’s actions.

All the while a city debated about the facts of the case and what should be done next. So many, myself included, wanted justice.

But what is justice? I’m not sure I know the answer. For some, it’s an eye for an eye. For others, a lengthy prison sentence, or a wrongful death finding by a civil jury.

The very frustrating thing about justice; it often comes only after injustice. Justice can’t bring brother Williams back to his family. It cannot undo the horrors of that fateful day, or alleviate the antipathy so many feel towards the police.

I’ll give Prosecutor Satteburg the benefit of the doubt (or not); he didn’t arrive at his decision easily. He weighed the evidence carefully.

Deliberative methods aside, the rub is persistent, isn’t it?

Satteburg said the law allows for a police office to make a mistake. Killing Williams was an “oops,” but only because Birk was a cop. The law that could have brought justice instead provided a safety net, protecting Birk from any chance of ever going to prison.

We can expect wrongful death lawsuits in the near future. The city’s insurance company will probably settle out of court. Ian Birk, who resigned last week, will never again work as a police officer.

Do any of those things amount to justice?

Maybe the idea of justice is nothing more than a poetic one.  Maybe in this case, it’s time to accept there will be no justice.

But what about change?  There have been probably half a dozen protests since the Prosecutor announced his decision.  Some peaceful, others violent and destructive. All of the protesters say they want justice for John T. Williams.

So why aren’t they in Olympia?

The King County prosecutor chose not to charge Ian Birk, because, as he put it, state law allows for police officers to make deadly mistakes in good faith.  If folks were really serious about changing that, they wouldn’t be breaking store windows in downtown Seattle. They’d be in Olympia talking to their lawmakers.

If the hundreds of people who have taken to the streets in the name of justice, organized a legislative day demanding the law change, they would at least be talking to the people who could make it happen.

Olympia is loath to make drastic changes to any laws all at once, but I think the change needed isn’t so drastic.

It’s fine for police officers to be protecting from prosecution for making good faith mistakes.  But it’s not reasonable to protect someone from facing criminal charges because they carry a badge.  The standard must be higher.  The Seattle Police Departments own Fire Arms Review Panel ruled the shooting was unjustified by their standards.  In incidents where the officers own department finds he or she did not behave reasonably by their standards, and therefore not in good faith, the law should allow criminal charges.

But as long as the law stays the same, any future Ian Birks in our state will get away with murder. No amount of protests will change that. No amount of protests will convince the prosecutor to change his mind. Stop making noise in the streets of Seattle. Take it to Olympia. It might make a difference.

 

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 1:11 am

    Sable,

    You mention how the media initially made assumptions, that were wrong. But then you go on to make assumptions, also: “Satterberg […] didn’t arrive at his decision easily. He weighed the evidence carefully.” Really, did he? Why does he get that major ‘benefit of the doubt’? Isn’t it a journalist’s job to look at the facts?

    Tim Ford, attorney for the family of John Williams, responded to Satterberg’s decision at the time, calling it “wrong about the facts, wrong about the law and wrong as a matter of public policy.” Doesn’t Williams’ voice (via Ford) still deserve to be heard, just as it did when he was being trashed by the media, before the witnesses made that inconvenient? Or are you only interested in the official party line, without even questioning it?

    The truth is, the law is not as Satterberg has represented it. Not even close. And there are very serious conflict of interest issues involved with Satterberg making the decision in the first place.

    If you’re interested in learning the truth, please read this entire page, and understand it…

    http://www.birkaction.com/satterberg.html

    … and then ask yourself if you still would have written this piece as you did, and whether it needs a follow-up. In fact, if you have the time, please read the whole site. There are also links there to Ford’s written statements and objections.

    Thanks for listening.

  2. March 16, 2011 6:42 am

    Thanks for you thoughtful comments. This has nothing to do with Ford (who I’ve previously interviewed). I have written at least half a dozen blog posts and newspaper articles, not to mention radio commentary calling for Birk (and the entire SPD) to be held accountable for the murder of John Williams. I can demand accountability and still objectively say the protests won’t bring about an ounce of change- which is true. Damn if we aren’t a nation built of faulty reasoning and false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other, it’s both at the same time.

  3. Black in Seattle permalink
    March 16, 2011 6:52 am

    Sable,

    Thank you so much for writing this post. There was just a protest (if you can call it that) yesterday in Seattle over SPD.

    I’m as upset as the next at the conduct of the department’s officers and in this case, the cold blooded murder of Williams.

    But I am sick of the protesters and their above-the-law, above policy, above procedure, change-it-because-we-said-so elitist mentality.

    You’re right, the change to the law happens in Olympia. If people were serious about never wanting to see a killer cop get off in the future, they’d be in Olympia handling their business.

    Instead they’re in Seattle making noise, breaking windows, holding up traffic and scaring the shit out of people on the street (those protesters are very confrontational to ANYONE who walks by- a co worker on capitol hill was surrounded and screamed at walking home from the grocery store the last time there was a protest).

    I’ve read I think all of your commentaries about this situation and I think it’s a pity others can’t be as objective as you. I think it’s pretty fair to say the Prosecutor weighed the evidence carefully. Then he looked at that law and used that as an excuse to not make the right decision, the one we all wanted to see. It’s not as if you agreed with his decision, so I’m not sure why anyone would jump on your back about this (see comment #1).

    Keep up the good work. Thank you so much for your thought provoking commentaries on the Urban League. James Kelly has wrong our community for countless years. I’m heartened and encouraged by your fearlessness.

  4. March 16, 2011 7:19 am

    Sable, you wrote: “Damn if we aren’t a nation built of faulty reasoning and false dichotomy.” Agreed, but with all due respect I see more of it here. Granted, I hadn’t seen any of your prior pieces, but my remarks still stand. You still don’t address in your reply here that you’re naming the law as the culprit, not Satterberg, and then condemning people for rightfully expressing their rights to object to his dictatorial decision, telling them they should be in Olympia instead. Actually, they understand better than you where the primary fault lies. Violent protest we don’t need, but thoughtful protest calling attention to what the media refuses to, just as the media has attempted to smear John Williams? Of that, we can’t have enough. Did you even look at the page I linked for one second?

  5. March 16, 2011 7:37 am

    Your comments show there is nothing I can say that will please you. If you want to debate, fine, let’s debate: you say in one breath “granted I hadn’t seen any of your prior pieces” and then in another say you see more false dichotomy here on the SV. Where? That’s a rhetorical question. That said, you want me to read your entire website? Really? But you only came over to the SV site when you saw something that ticked you off, and, admittedly, you haven’t bothered to read anything else. You seem to think that if I read your entire website I’d change my mind. That’s not the case. I don’t need to go to your website today because you told me to. I’ve been on the site previously.

    I’m the last person to say folks shouldn’t express how they feel about something. But laying this at the feet of those responsible? That’s not what’s happening here. You talk about Satterberg as if he’s a lone man randomly making decision. No. He is the top lawyer for King County. He rests on his interpretation of the law. That being the case, as the law was his excuse, the law should be amended. It is troubling to me that you are basically saying, whether directly or indirectly, there is no point in going to Olympia. Fine. If the protesters feel that stomping around Seattle yelling at the top of their lungs is what they need to feel better about this situation, then by all means, stomp away. But it won’t change a damn thing.

    I don’t have to agree with you to prove that I’m rational, that I’m down for the cause, or that I truly “get it”. I’ve had a family member murdered by an SPD officer in the last dozen years. I get it. I shouldn’t have to put that out there or throw myself on the sword to prove my loyalty to the cause and my understanding of how out of control SPD officers are. All of that in account, I’m speaking for myself. Protesters cannot take to the streets to demand a change to the law that let Birk off with no criminal charges and think for a single second they’re going to get it. If they want that, they need to go to Olympia. If they want to stomp around, they’re free to do so- and I’m free to say doing so doesn’t necessarily make the change they claim they want to see. Further, they are not calling attention to “what the media refuses to,” unless there’s some mass, independent media source making sure that’s what comes from coverage of the protests. Do you watch the coverage of the protests? I have no doubt the intention of those who organize and march is not translated to the general public by the media. Instead, the media goes for the ratings shot and labels all protesters “anarchists.” The only way to get even slightly sympathetic media coverage on the John Williams front is to either be a family member of his, or participate in a “carve in”. The media casts those as non-violent and “understandable”- everyone else they cast as angry, irrational and a threat to safety every time they take to the streets.

  6. Team SV permalink
    March 16, 2011 7:45 am

    Wait, so Sable is the uninformed enemy because she may or may not have read your website? You told her to read the entire thing, and then come back with basically saying “I’m going to criticize everything you’ve written on Birk, even though I haven’t read anything else except for this one post that got my blood boiling.”

    WTF? Yo that’s not how it works. And I can tell you there are plenty of people in Seattle who are sick of the protests. They are pointless. Seattle at large doesn’t give a fuck, first of all. The County Prosecutor, the Mayor, and Diaz’s bitch ass all sleep soundly in their beds each night while people, many who aren’t even from Seattle, throw tempertantrums in the streets. It’s stupid.

    And Sable is right, the mainstream media has a field day with it every time it happens. The protest yesterday, all I heard on the news was anarchists coming into seattle, anarchists this, anarchists that, outsiders, outsiders, bla bla bla…oh and they don’t like the Seattle Police Department. That’s the cause? Oh. Ok.

  7. March 16, 2011 5:00 pm

    Sable, you wrote:

    “Your comments show there is nothing I can say that will please you.”

    Not at all, and starting out that way doesn’t encourage a healthy, constructive discussion. I’m not your enemy, and I’m willing to discuss. But it’s not about pleasing me, it’s just about truth.

    “… you say in one breath “granted I hadn’t seen any of your prior pieces” and then in another say you see more false dichotomy here on the SV. Where? That’s a rhetorical question.“

    You can ask the question rhetorically if you like, but my statement was much more than rhetorical so I feel the need to explain: that you say protesters should protest the law in Olympia rather than the SPD or leaders in Seattle is clearly a false dichotomy – there’s no reason anyone should have to choose one or the other. None.

    “That said, you want me to read your entire website? Really? “

    Be fair… I asked you to read ONE page. I only suggested, and ”if you have the time”, to read more. There’s really not that much there in total, it’s hardly a huge site.

    “But you only came over to the SV site when you saw something that ticked you off, and, admittedly, you haven’t bothered to read anything else.”

    I came over when something ticked me off? No. I try to read most new articles on the subject — from whatever angle — though around mid-February I wasn’t able to keep up with the flood. But now that I search your site for ‘Ian Birk’, I see only two other articles on the subject. And the last one, from Feb. 22nd, I now see constitutes the first two-thirds of your present article, verbatim, so I’m not sure I missed much anyway. Regardless, what I took issue with is from your present piece, and reading the other two now doesn’t change my specific objections.

    “I’m the last person to say folks shouldn’t express how they feel about something.“

    Except that you did. “Stop making noise in the streets of Seattle. Take it to Olympia.”, you summed up. What you call “noise” is them expressing how THEY feel – that may not be how you feel, but that’s the beauty of the First Amendment. Why do you have to claim your own voice through trying to squelch others? It’s another false dichotomy. It’s no better than if I simply told you to “Stop making noise on the internet (or radio). Take it to Olympia”. The violence is something else – I don’t support that. We’re talking speech here. Yes, you have a right to ask others to shut up, but as a commentator yourself, it seems like you miss the irony in that.

    “You talk about Satterberg as if he’s a lone man randomly making a decision.“

    That’s exactly what he is, but the decision wasn’t so random… it appears very calculated.

    “He is the top lawyer for King County. He rests on his interpretation of the law. That being the case, as the law was his excuse, the law should be amended.”

    You make it sound so simple. Simply since he offered it as his “excuse”, we should all follow blindly lockstep and agree that the law is the issue? The law is not the issue, at least not in this case. That’s the crux of the problem here. You’re simply taking that at face value from a politician, without offering up any critical thinking or analysis to suggest why we should believe that, at least not here where you’re drawing your conclusions… if it exists somewhere, please point me to it. Otherwise, that’s a scary proposition, if we should believe any claim any politician tells us, as long as they claim the law supports them – even when it objectively doesn’t.

    “It is troubling to me that you are basically saying, whether directly or indirectly, there is no point in going to Olympia.”

    No, that’s a gross oversimplification, and one I’d already addressed on the site. This current issue with this case isn’t about Olympia. But to make the law so crystal clear that it would be impossible in the future to even attempt an “interpretation” like Satterberg’s, it should probably be changed. The immediate issue, however, is his misinterpretation of the law, which is obvious with even a cursory reading of it.

    “Fine. If the protesters feel that stomping around Seattle yelling at the top of their lungs is what they need to feel better about this situation, then by all means, stomp away. “

    Now that’s the spirit. Not everybody has the built-in pulpit you do, but everyone has a right to express themselves as they see fit. I don’t agree with violence at all, and as far as the rest, I think they could be more focused and aware of how they’re coming across. But they’re better than complete silence, and it’s not my place to tell them what to say or whether to say it. People objected to civil rights protests decades ago, too: should they have just been told to “go to Olympia (or D.C.)”, where it “matters”?

    “I’ve had a family member murdered by an SPD officer in the last dozen years. I get it.“

    I never questioned that – I questioned your attribution of where the real problem lies in this case, as far as Birk not being prosecuted – please don’t build my objection into something it wasn’t.

    “Protesters cannot take to the streets to demand a change to the law that let Birk off with no criminal charges and think for a single second they’re going to get it. “

    Let’s be real. Protesters take to the streets for many reasons. A very few have been violent, which as I’ve said I don’t support. What about the rest? I’ve seen few if any signs or chants mentioning the law. I have seen and heard calls for Satterberg, Diaz and McGinn to resign or be recalled, though. Of the rest, many are young and passionate and simply need an outlet for that. Many want to raise awareness here, which you don’t accomplish by lobbying legislators in Olympia – but that awareness very well may have a ripple effect.

    “If they want that, they need to go to Olympia.”

    Again, a false dichotomy… you have no basis to assume many aren’t both protesting and appealing to legislators also. And other valid options are working toward a recall of Satterberg, or working to spread awareness of just why he was wrong. Since the law wasn’t the core issue in this case, going to Olympia is not the cure-all you seem to make it out to be. All are equally valid in a democracy, whether the protesters annoy you or not.

    “Further, they are not calling attention to “what the media refuses to,” unless there’s some mass, independent media source making sure that’s what comes from coverage of the protests. Do you watch the coverage of the protests? I have no doubt the intention of those who organize and march is not translated to the general public by the media. Instead, the media goes for the ratings shot and labels all protesters “anarchists.” “

    You seem to contradict yourself – you suggest it would take a media conspiracy, but then blame the media for their skewed filter. I think we’re actually on the same page here, but you’re objecting anyway for some reason. The filter exists, ratings are part of it as you say, but also politics and interests of an increasingly corporatized media, and no doubt their desire to maintain cozy police source contacts at all costs.

    “The only way to get even slightly sympathetic media coverage on the John Williams front is to either be a family member of his, or participate in a “carve in”. The media casts those as non-violent and “understandable”- everyone else they cast as angry, irrational and a threat to safety every time they take to the streets. “

    True, but there’s no reason to buy into how they want to cast it. We know better. Just ignore what the media would like everyone to believe, and counter it.

    All in all, I don’t think we disagree in general anywhere near as much as you suspect. But from what you’ve written about his supposed “careful consideration”, “not arriving at it easily”, etc., it seems you put a staggering amount of blind confidence in a politician who works every day with police to develop evidence for his cases, and so has a clear conflict of interest. And as in the Christopher Harris case, there’s a conflict in him deciding on criminal charges but then having his office defend the civil case. And then there’s the mis-statement and misinterpretation of the law. It’s just nowhere near as simple as you make it out to be, the ‘his excuse is the law, so that’s what we need to change’. There’s just sooo much more to it, and I hope you’ll investigate that further, whether on birkaction.com or elsewhere. These issues are too important to ignore. Thanks for listening.

    P.S. I’m not even sure where ‘Team SV’ was coming from… “enemy”?! “I’m going to criticize everything you’ve written on Birk”?! So baseless I don’t even know where to start… so I won’t.

  8. March 16, 2011 5:36 pm

    You keep changing your position to be “right”. This discussion is completely fruitless. You’re debating/arguing/shaking a finger at me over nothing. Nothing I said in the commentary was wrong or otherwise incorrect. You are not in any position to define what I see, what faith I have, whether I am blind to this, that, or the other. That’s your interpretation, which is far, far, far away from my reality.

  9. What the Fudge permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:46 pm

    This is the longest most pointless back and forth game of he-said-she-said-you-said-I-said I have ever seen. As a reader, I don’t need other readers telling me what Sable said or what Sable meant. her words are right there in the article and she takes it a step further to offer clarifying remarks to clear any confusion by responding to comments. Every time she does so, you, BirkAction.com Editor, try and use her words against her. And for what? What is the point of this really? I’m disgusted by this exchange, absolutely disgusted. You seem so hell bent on picking her words apart, you won’t even admit where she’s right.

    Given how you conduct yourself on other people’s websites, I’ll never go to BirkAction. Stop railing against other people for their opinion. Your comments are total overkill. No pun intended.

    I agree- stop protesting for the sake of protesting and calling those protests demands for justice or change or accountability. You’ll never get what you want that way. Never.

    Sable, people may not like what you say, but damn girl, you tell that truth so well!

  10. March 16, 2011 5:50 pm

    It’s alright WTF,

    I get it all the time, if not on the site, mostDEF in my email. I think I’ve been clear and concise enough on this one. I don’t feel the need to debate a single word I wrote. So I won’t. *wink*

  11. March 16, 2011 6:04 pm

    Yeah, that’s about what I expected. Sad really. I haven’t changed my position one inch. Still a fact that the law isn’t the issue here. But you, of course, are entitled to believe otherwise.

  12. Liz Clayton permalink
    April 5, 2011 7:16 pm

    Seattle’s DA sounds like ours, using the exact same language:

    “My hands are tied, the law gave me no choice.”

    http://darrylhunt.journalnow.com/

    That excuse was wrong in Winston-Salem then, and it is wrong in Seattle now. The DA was our elected official, but the REAL leaders in our city were the ones who would never accept that answer, never gave up on each other, and fought together until justice was done. And it’s still flowing down like a river:

    http://www.darrylhuntproject.org/

    I was not one of those heroes. Just an insulated white college kid through most of those years, blind in my own racism, who stumbled into the presence of greatness one day.

    http://www.wsfoundation.org/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=527)

    The story of The Trials of Darryl Hunt, and of The Defense Team’s work on his behalf, should be required reading for any white person who considers her/himself a legal advocate against the New Jim Crow. The old Jim may have been Southern, but the new one lives everywhere.

    Respectfully,

    Liz Clayton

  13. April 5, 2011 7:24 pm

    I like that last line Liz, and I’ll probably use it!

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