Seattle is on edge following the police shooting death of John T. Williams. Mr. Williams, a talented carver from the Ditidaht First Nation of British Colombia, was well known on the streets of Pioneer Square. Investigations are underway, but many Seattleites question whether it was necessary to fire 4 shots at a 50-year-old man with a disability, carrying a small legal carving knife. Unfortunately Williams’ death follows a series of other police incidents involving allegations of excessive force and racial bias.
I attended a public meeting between the Seattle Police Department and the Native American community, on September 8 at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.
The Seattle Times counted 100 meeting participants, but I would estimate twice that number. Among the many citizens who spoke up, tones varied widely, but it was impossible to miss the overall level of pain and anger in the room. It left me with a lot to think about, including the power of the word ‘peace.’
Early in the meeting, Police Chief John Diaz expressed his hope for building peace. Peace in Seattle neighborhoods, peace between ethnic communities, and peace between the police and the public. Peace became one of the recurring themes of the evening. Several of the citizen speakers affirmed Diaz’s wishes. But many more challenged Diaz by stating that true peace requires justice. Here are some extracts of their powerful comments:
“Peace is not just a word to throw around.”
“No justice, no peace.”
“Peace. That’s what everybody really wants . . . but it’s hard for me to hear that. It hurts me to hear that, because we didn’t breach the peace. It was breached for us.”
“You say you want peace, but when you throw an axe and it hits the wall, it creates vibrations that are not peaceful in that moment. There is no peace here.”
“You say you want peace … so what kind of tangible things do you have to support that?”
“Is there peace? Yes, we all want and yearn for peace, but you must respect our civil rights. If you want respect, you must give respect.”
“There is no peace until you deal with people in a humane way.”
“I honestly believe that peace should have kept the bullets in the chamber.”
“Some officers are doing peace in the communities . . . but many are not respecting the people.”
“You say peace? I am more afraid of the police than I am of the criminals.”
“Peace. We’ve got a long way to go . . . but I think we’ll make it.”
My intent here is not to point the finger at Chief Diaz. His wish for peace appears sincere, and it reflects the hopes of many other well-meaning people in positions of power. Diaz later acknowledged that people cannot build peace in times of fear and crisis, and that peace is not happening right now.
Instead, my intent is to re-focus this question towards people like myself. Middle class people whose family and friends usually die of old age, not of gunshots. People who enjoy enough social privilege to live without fear of the police. Perhaps even people who, like me, are passionate about addressing social problems. The biblical Old Testament includes a blunt warning to some prophets who took peace lightly.
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace…
So they will fall among the fallen.
(Jeremiah 6:14 & excerpt 15, TNIV translation)
What about me? What kind of ‘peace’ do I promote? Is it peace built upon a foundation of justice? Or, is it cheap peace, a quick fix? If I speak of cheap peace, whose heart will be hurt by my well-meaning words? I hope that my reflection on these questions will help to honor Mr. Williams. And I hope that he will be remembered.