Thursday, September 16, 2010


For John T. Williams

                A trilling sound sings through the air on a balmy September day. I’m at the park eating lunch when grey seagulls circle to my left. Two women are doing extreme yoga on the black top, a homeless man combs his beard at the table shouting to his friends who are illegally picking tomatoes from the P-patch behind me. On my way here, I saw the blue and red posters taped to the poles outside the park’s entrance. Oddly, there weren’t any people sleeping on the inside of the fence when you first walk in like there usually are. The poster reads “Our Brother and Native Artist is Lost to Us Forever.” I was ten floors high when he was killed two weeks ago. The gun shots that sunk into his back were inaudible. Nobody knew what had happened without sound. Coworkers gawked at the windows drawing me out of my cube.
                A body lay on the sidewalk, out of place, in the way of their taping like a wetland in the middle of prime real estate. Policemen traipsed around it, quick to redirect traffic. “What happened I asked?” The woman with the window office answered e-mails while relaying what she’d seen. Buildings like mine loom on all sides, with people behind tinted glass looking down. This street corner had become the center of the universe. The people in my office worry about how they’ll get home. One of them is parked in that lot. I don’t see any reporters. It just happened. I decide to e-mail the news stations to let them know. But, of course they already know. They want an eye witness. “Did you see what happened?” No, I say, just what my coworker saw. They call me anyway, tell me to wait on the line, then I’m on the radio, patched through to the sound of a helicopter where I hear my name followed by the words: eye witness. “What happened?”
                I tell them, “He was sitting against the wall of the lot. The cops showed up, there was a fight where the police rushed him, and then he was on the ground.” The reporter describes the scene, unable to verify this “wall” I mentioned. I want to say, “He was sitting on the sidewalk. The wall is only two feet high,” but they say Thank You and I’m back with someone in the newsroom verifying the spelling of my name.
                Cop cars flash, parked sideways at the ends of the two crossing streets to keep traffic out. The body still hasn’t been moved. An ambulance hasn’t arrived. Spectators have gathered on the opposite corner with cameras as the frenzy to find out what happened plugs the air waves. Online, madly typed reports splash across the screen, every five minutes a new one is rewritten and posted with ever-inflating evidence based on further and further speculation. There was one shot, there were five, the man attacked the cop, he was crossing the street, he was sitting down, he had a knife. Like ripped bank notes, pieces fly through the air as we try to tape them back together with nothing but our tongues. I see a man on the ground. He’s given a wide berth.
                This park I frequent is hidden from my workplace, in an urban neighborhood where I know none of my coworkers will come. The homeless happily populate a section of the park as if they’re under a contract to stay in that area. The police are a rarity, letting them be. The rest of the park is utilized by children in the playground. People play Frisbee in the large central grassy ring during their lunch, sometimes soccer, sometimes yoga. People bring their dogs, others lay out and nap or read books or study. I sit at a table by the playground with my lunch, unable to eat. It’s early yet. The lunch crowd hasn’t begun to filter in. I wanted to take the flier off the telephone pole and keep it with me, because I can’t forget the face that looks back at me from the brightly colored flier, the background blue and red, his photo done up in black and white. There’s a laundry list of organizations rallying this Thursday to march from that corner to City Hall just around the corner to urge for accountability. By now the reports have stabilized with the information that the man was a local Native wood carver, often drunk, primarily homeless, deaf in one ear, shot to death by an officer who told him to put his knife away. Wood carving knives are legal on the streets of Seattle one article is quick to note. His name was John T. Williams. He sold small wooden totems to stores like Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront.
                Through a small v-shaped opening in the foliage to my left I can see a man, curly tendrils of white hair sticking out from a grubby black baseball cap and worn black jeans, skin red and blanched like seaweed, standing with a crutch. The seagulls have continued to circle past my head, but they’re not eyeballing my food. They’re swarming the pieces of bread he has in his plastic bag. He watches them circle, commenting to his friend who I cannot see that these seagulls aren’t very fat. He dumps the bag out, giving it a good shake, smiling as he watches the seagulls swoop to the ground. He smiles as they dive to the ground; puts his crutch under his arm and moves off as they squabble for over the biggest pieces. I leave, my lunch still in its bag.
                When Thursday comes, I block out my calendar between two and four. From the window, I can see people have already gathered. I leave the print job I’m doing and walk out. In my pocket, I feel the lighter and the little tea light inside the votive holder. The sky is gray and threatening more rain. Drums have started. Candles are lit and more flowers have been piled atop the cracking white painted cement of the wall where he’d been sitting. People have left apples. One, a slice of apple pie. I move to the center of the parking lot, the one the police circled with red tape. The smoke of sage fills the air. People show up empty handed and are given white Shabbat candles. I light my green tea light and a man in a grey sweatshirt, short dark hair that hangs in his face like a surfer, asks me where the candles came from. I tell him I don’t know. He asks if I knew John. I shake my head No. He says he did. A young couple overhears us, she has curly red hair billowing from under a loosely crocheted hat and he’s wearing a khaki rain hat. I tell the man I only knew him when he died. “I work in that building,” I point to the silver and black columns behind us. They all nod. The man says, “The police shouldn’t be called cops, they should just be called federallis.”
                In the center is a circle where a man is talking, raising a carved wooden staff, the talking stick. He’s speaking about John and the kind of person he was. People have filled the entire lot and spill out to the sidewalks as well. Overhead, a news helicopter flutters like a droning bee. John’s cousin speaks next, tears in her eyes and anger over their loss. “He was NOT homeless!” she states. “He lived with us.” The man who had just spoken chimes in, “That’s how they keep us down.” More people talk about John, about police brutality, accountability, white skin, native skin. Film cameras covered in dark green tarps shove in to get a better look. The last person to speak finishes with what we want today: An answer from the police commissioner. He points to all the cameras, pointing out that, like these camera lenses, there are many different views of the world. For John there were four, he says. The four bullet holes that went through his back. The drummers and singers, from as far as Canada and Alaska, perform a song not unlike the sound of a heart beating, drowned by the kind of soulful wailing only the pain of injustice can tap. The rain starts to drip down from the sky as we move into the street, escorted by a motorcycle cop and police truck. The drummers and singers lead us down Boren Avenue, turning left on Virginia. People carry signs, “House the Homeless, Don’t Shoot Them” – “We want you to keep your oath” – “Caution: Police in Area” – “Refuse and Resist.” Traffic has stopped, unprepared for us, the sound of cars idling, exhaust puffs into the air as we pass under stoplights that continue to turn red and green.
                My candle has burned to its nub, my hands hot when it goes out. I put it back inside my coat as we continue to walk. The other side of Virginia is empty, an unheard of sight. The streets look wider without anything on them. We begin to form a stretching net across the street as some move faster than others. It was requested that the makeup of the march should be that of elders and drummers and singers at the front, then Natives, then everyone else. In the crowd, people break off into their own smaller discussions. A few women together as we approach the police precinct shout, “This is OUR country! Go home Yankees! Yankee colonials, go home!” Two teenagers behind me are joking, “Where are the tans?” The march is made up largely of Natives, multinational, multicultural people. Then, some white people. I feel sticks of shame poking into me, as if I shouldn’t be here, I don’t understand, I didn’t know him, I’m not one of them. Like a person who suddenly touts a dead rock star they never bothered to listen to or see in real life as their savior. I only saw him in death. I see his picture online. I walk by that corner daily. I see the flowers. I see the notes, the messages to him. I see him in my mind when I’m at home, when I’m going to sleep at night. I cry for someone I never knew.
                The precinct is dark. Across the street people stand in the windows. Children from the Spruce School are lined along the sidewalk with their teachers as we walked by. People on the Number 70 bus, stopped in the middle of the street like a boat that’s run aground, look out at us. A black man rests his chin on the backs of hands, resting on the top of the seat as he leans forward. The top level of the precinct is transparent but no one is there, as if they were told to go into hiding. Another song is sung, and the drums are beaten. I see a policeman enter that top level and take a quick look before disappearing again. The song continues, the drums have their rhythm and we know they can hear us inside. They know we’re here. A sapling rises out of the sidewalk in front of me, the singers on the left, the drummers the right. All chatter has stopped, letting the songs carry their weight through the air. A flash of copper catches my eye. A moth flickers into the arms of the tree.

1 comment:

D. V. Klenak said...

I still smell of sage. The posters of the rally on the telephone poles turned to blue watercolor.