ISSN 2327-3666

November 8, 2010

The Executioners' Professionalism:
A Case of Legal Murder

Radical Critique | via REVLEFT / COPWATCH | Osel, Joseph, D.

This article was first published as "An Open Letter to Concerned Citizensand then later by Copwatch. It explores the discourse of the media as it relates to the 2010 murder of John T. WIlliams, a native-american totem carver who was executed as he walked down the street by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk. 

Ian D. Birk of the Seattle Police Department.
Birk is a free man. 
SEATTLE, WA. - "I watched him kind of slowly, sort of gracefully and elegantly, fall to the ground," witness Amber Maurina said of a dying John T. Williams; "From what I saw, it did not look right."(1)

It’s been over two months since Native-American totem carver and pedestrian John T. Williams was murdered by Seattle Police Officer Ian D. Birk while walking down the street with a small piece of wood and a little boy's knife. Now media attention surrounding the incident is on the wane as the county conducts one if its inquest hearings—hearings that virtually always end with a finding in favor of police, no matter what evidence to the contrary (2).

While the media reflexively waits on the county’s inquest system to provide them with some new sanctioned information, we can too pause. But rather than idly waiting on some official word, we can use this time to reconsider the media’s unofficial role within the order of social power, in this case as it relates to the murder of John T. Williams, formerly one of Seattle’s most socially powerless members.

If you followed the news coverage closely you’ll recall that after the shooting the Seattle Police Department immediately moved to justify Williams’ murder, claiming that he had menacingly come at Officer Birk with his knife. But when multiple witness accounts exposed the department’s narrative as fictitious, police officials swiftly changed their story, saying they had "a lot more questions than answers." But you can see for yourself:

In the Cause of Professionalism
While media outlets did, in passing, note the change in narrative, they never actually questioned why Seattle Police manufactured a false narrative in the first place, as if the implications of such an act is not indicative of a larger organizational and cultural problem, as if Officer Birk, with the support of the police department, inventing nonsense to suit himself is somehow not newsworthy. When it comes to Williams’ street execution, the mainstream media’s vast influence really begins here, with its failure to hold powerful institutions to account, with its failure to question the questionable. More than this, the media's treatment of the incident is absolutely indicative of a larger trend, in which agencies that were (supposedly) established to serve, protect, and inform the people, now only operate to inform and protect themselves and their powerful allies.

A quick web search of the Seattle PI archives, for example, returns over a dozen staff articles addressing the incident, published since August 31st. A closer look at these articles reveals that nearly all of them quote police department and city officials extensively and throughout, while only a small fraction offer readers the verbatim commentary of witnesses, advocates for John T. Williams and other community members. The Seattle Times’ archives reveal a similar tendency. Of the twenty-five Times’ stories filed under “Local News,” most by Steve Miletich, only a small handful contain the views of those inclined to speak on Williams’ behalf. When advocates for Williams are given space their words are almost always paraphrased, few, and usually buried deep within the article, often at the very end.

Mural of John T. Williams in Seattle's Capital Hill neighborhood,
just a short distance from where he was gunned down.
As if the official perspective isn’t already covered ad nauseam, media outlets have supplemented their already unbalanced coverage with embedded reporter accounts of police training simulations and “shoot don’t shoot” scenarios—accounts that, of course, seek to give readers even more information which supports the perspective of police officers. As one might guess, there have been no reports of similar quality that offer the public an alternative view.

Like the police department, the media is more than happy to discuss and give weight to the perspective of those in power, they in-fact default to it, and, it appears they desperately want readers to know what it is like for officers to police, but have little interest in telling readers what it is like being policed, especially while poor, a minority, or otherwise a member of an “out group.”

Consider the reporting of the Seattle Times’ Steve Miletich, the leading contributor of news articles addressing the incident. Miletich writes that, "Birk shot Williams after he stopped his patrol car at a red light and saw Williams carrying a piece of wood and small knife that turned out to be used for carving."

At the outset, Williams’ small, legal knife can only be said to have “turned out to be used for carving” if one adopts an officer’s perspective, or any perspective that assumes guilt, from the outset and without question. If one looks at things from Williams’ perspective, or that of anyone who knew Williams, or even begins to question the official perspective in the slightest, it can be clearly seen that his small—legal—pocket knife didn’t “turn out to be used for carving,” but always was. Williams was a woodcarver. 

Miletich’s reporting, which informs the question of murder, develops badly when we consider that Officer Birk himself reported seeing Williams working on the board with the knife just BEFORE he stopped him. It is only for Miletich and Birk’s legal team that the knife “turned out to be.”

The second thing to note is that Miletich is surprisingly not quoting police department officials. Here he states the “facts” in his own telling words—words he’s used on at least six separate occasions and words that perfectly embody the spirit of repression.

When Miletich writes that the knife “turned out to be,” he, with the support of the Seattle Times, obscures a critical point by advancing the notion that Officer Birk had a legitimate reason to stop Williams in the first place. And at this juncture one can’t help but wonder if Officer Birk’s reasoning for stopping Williams was informed by the same prejudice of perspective that informs Miletich’s reporting.

Seattle Times’ Executive Editor David Boardman has called Miletich a “consummate professional” and there’s nothing here to suggest otherwise. Indeed Miletich’s professionalism is precisely the point. That is, in his professional best, he, like many of us, defaults to a stance that reinforces and grants legitimacy to the existing power structure, to the status quo, without even noticing it. Simply put, it is precisely Miletich's unwillingness to question the official perspective which provides him his "professional" status.

A Case of Legal Murder

We know that John T. Williams was not engaged in any illegal activity on the day of his death; no one disputes this, not even the police department. Officer Birk had no legitimate legal or objective reason for stopping Williams, only the authority and power to do so. Birk stopped Williams for a reason known only to himself and killed him for the same reason, shooting him four times in the back and side after giving him a 7 second warning (3) and commands to do something that was neither warranted nor necessary. Because of this, Birk's actions amount in the first place to harassment and in the second to Aggravated Murder.

Ian Birk and his attorneys would have you believe that his “response to the circumstances he faced was justified," but that’s neither here nor there because Officer Birk himself — without even the slightest provocation — purposefully created the circumstances for stopping Williams and shooting him.

Here the point is plain and fairly simple: If Ian Birk weren’t connected with the Seattle Police Department he would already be charged with Murder because what he did is what “Murder” is. But by virtue of his professional connection to the institution of power, Birk is not yet charged with Murder and if history is any indicator he will likely remain uncharged. If it were anyone else, especially someone like John T. Williams, they’d undoubtedly be in jail and charged with Murder and never would have been on “paid administrative leave”— any fool can see that. The critical exoneration of  Ian Birk and the police department by the media and the legal exoneration of Birk, as one of countless exonerates nationwide, represents a small move by the power structure that equals a move against the people at large. It assumes a power that is authoritative, preemptive, unquestioning, and inculpable.   

The death of John T Williams represents the end of a life and a speck in the tapestry of perversion called "safety" and "justice" that has been woven by the powers that be: because the crisis here is larger than just this incident we should correctly view it as the symptom of a larger systemic problem wherin the government and its powerful allies not only trample our rights, but are allowed to take our lives as we innocently walk down the sidewalk. Should we be surprised? No. We can observe this same trend at work as it concerns the government's ongoing wars, their stance and perspective on terrorism, their domestic and global economic polices, and their unparalleled investment in the domestic and global structures of institutional oppression. Of course, the authorized media are under no obligation to acknowledge any of this and engaging the Socratic imperative of self-examination is not exactly in their best interests either. Their allegiance, like the police department’s, and like the U.S. government's, is not with the people and it was never with the late John T. Williams. Their loyalty and their “justice” reside elsewhere. But where? You should be able to do the math on this one without even using your fingers.*


1. It is unclear whether or not the witness' voice heard in the video is Maurina -- at 1:15 telling Officer Birk "he didn't do anything" to which Birk responds "Ma'am, he had a knife and he wouldn't drop it." Since the publication of this article autopsy reports have concluded that Williams was shot four times in the side, evidence that Williams was not facing Officer Birk when Birk opened fire.
2. Since the publication of this article the King County Prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, has decided not to charge Officer Birk with any criminal offense. See:
3. The video from Ian D. Birk's patrol car posted here shows Birk making initial verbal contact with Williams at 1:14 and opening fire at 1:21.