Border Incident

December 15, 2009 | By | 10 Replies More

You may have heard about this by now.  Biologist and science fiction writer Peter Watts was stopped on his way back into Canada by border guards.  He’d been helping a friend in the United States move and he was returning.  He was flagged to the side and the guards fell on his vehicle.  He stepped out to ask what was going on, was told to get back in his vehicle, and when he asked again for the reason for the search, he was pepper sprayed, beaten, thrown in a lock-up overnight, and the next day sent into a winter storm on foot in shirtsleeves, all his personal property confiscated pending arraignment on charges of assaulting a federal officer.

In his own words:

Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.). Nor was I finally dumped across the border in shirtsleeves: computer seized, flash drive confiscated, even my fucking paper notepad withheld until they could find someone among their number literate enough to distinguish between handwritten notes on story ideas and, I suppose, nefarious terrorist plots. I was not left without my jacket in the face of Ontario’s first winter storm, after all buses and intercity shuttles had shut down for the night.

In some other universe I am warm and content and not looking at spending two years in jail for the crime of having been punched in the face.

Here is a post on his behalf.

A legal defense fund is being built by the writing community as you read this.

The first thing, I admit, that occurred to me when I heard about it was a kind of reflexive “well, he must’ve said something,” the kind of self apology for representatives of my government that springs automatically to mind.  Because none of us want to believe that thugs and bullies work for us.

I dismissed that idea.  Watts is the least likely individual to provoke such a response.  I have no doubt he just asked for their justification and they responded from the mindset of the untouchable authority.  It’s not like this hasn’t happened A LOT in this country.  Local police to federal officers, in a country that embraced rendition as a defensible tactic and has used torture in interrogation, no one ought to be surprised at something like this.  But even further back, the clear posture of many law enforcement workers is that they may not be questioned in the pursuit of their duties.  Nor may they be challenged on grounds of authority, nor will they ever apologize when they get it wrong.

The next thing I thought was that the only reason this is making what news it is making is because it happened on the Canadian border and the victim is white.  I’m sure this happens regularly on the Mexican border and it just never makes the news.

What is a bit baffling, even if one is inclined to make excuses for these “officers”, is what were they after?  I mean, you could almost understand it if Watts was entering the country—Homeland Security and all that—but he was leaving.  Make no mistake, these were American border guards.

Police are harried in their daily jobs, no question, and no doubt their nerves are stretched to the breaking point occasionally.  I have personally witnessed police officers enduring insult and abuse far beyond where my tolerance would have ended—but they still restrained themselves.  They are supposedly trained to do so.

Watts is to be arraigned on the charges.  This could become enormously expensive for him and he could lose a lot.  Even if he doesn’t, the likelihood of his receiving anything resembling an apology from these people is remote, something I believe officers of the law ought to be required to give when they are wrong.  There are many reasons for police to make mistakes, not all of them (probably not even most of them) their fault.  But they almost never apologize to the wronged citizen.  I would like to see that changed, rather than seeing citizens forced to sue to get some kind of accommodation when their lives have been thoroughly disrupted.

And I would like to see bullies removed from duty.

P.Z. Meyers on his Pharyngula blog has some pointed observations about this, so it is not a one-off event (although it may be extreme).

Here is another article.  And another.  And one more just for good measure.

When I was a boy, in the late Sixties, St. Louis had a rising crime rate (and what major U.S. city did not back then?) and a shortage of uniformed police.  Standards were lowered and officers appeared on the street with the minimum of training and a clear glee for being allowed to smack perps with eight-cell flashlights and rough up anyone they didn’t like—blacks, gays, hippies.  It led to a situation where public outcry forced changes in policy.

I point this out to make it clear that this is not, as I said, an isolated problem.  Law enforcement draws certain personalities, some of them ideal for good public service under extremely difficult conditions.  But others…it’s just giving the schoolyard bully license to be an asshole.

What would be good here would be for Peter Watts to be make whole over this.  Acquitted, property restored…an apology.  But then further to see higher standards enacted to cull out the intolerant, the trigger-happy, the bullies from the ranks of those who are supposed to be working for us.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, Law, law and order, Media, Noteworthy, Social justice

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (10)

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  1. Jeremy says:

    I would have shared this article on Facebook, but used one of the linked articles instead. The description that comes up refers more to your blog than to the specific article.

  2. A follow-up from Peter Watts:

    I’m at the point now where I can’t talk a whole lot about ongoing proceedings. I am seeing a few common misrepresentations making the rounds, though, that I’d like to set straight:

    * Some are concluding that, when I was “dumped across the border in shirtsleeves”, I had to walk across the Blue Water Bridge in a snowstorm without my coat. No. The bridge is on the US side of the border, which they had to drive me across to dump me on the other side of; and Canadian Customs was on that other side. This was no Starlight Cruise; I was not exposed to the weather unprotected for an inordinately long time. Still. It’s winter. And they have my coat.

    * Others have warned me to delete my previous post, lest the bad guys seize upon it and twist it to their own dark purposes. Having had erroneous quotes attributed to me in the past, I know this is good advice (which is why I won’t be commenting in too much detail upon some of the arcane blow-by-blows of the case in question). But my lawyer vetted that post before I put it up; I stand behind it.

    * Thanks to whoever posted the link to the Times-Herald story. I have three comments about the allegations therein. Firstly, the story claims that I was entering the US, not leaving it: this is empirically false. Secondly, I find it interesting that these guys characterise “pulling away” as “aggressive” behavior; I myself would regard it as a retreat. And thirdly, I did not “choke” anyone. I state this categorically. And having been told that cameras were in fact on site, I look forward to seeing the footage they provide.

    That’s it for the technical items. I have only two more things to say. Firstly, I am absolutely flabbergasted by the online reaction to this story, and by the support (both moral and financial) that’s inundated me over the past few hours. I don’t have a hope in hell of answering even a fraction of the incoming traffic at this point, so for the moment let me just say I’m humbled and a little bit scared. I did not start this campaign; it actually started when I was still in jail, and had absolutely no idea what was going on. But to the catalytic folks who orchestrated it, know that I am looking into having my vasectomy reversed so that I can sire a firstborn son and sacrifice him to you.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    I regard is as a symptom of the creeping militarization of the police and border agents.

    At first, I thought this was an update of a story earlier this year about a pastor that had much the same experience.

    Of course, why should we expect to have any rights near the borders, given that it's been openly classified as a "constitution-free" zone for years?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Gun-wielding state employees who act like ogres have made me rethink the Second Amendment.

    They've also made me rethink my position regarding public surveillance. Maybe we've be safer from these guys who don't deserve to wear uniforms if there were MORE cameras around to record their inhumane conduct.

    I'm glad this incident is getting lots of attention. As you suggest, Mark, I'd bet that for every incident that gets coverage there are 100 that don't. It's just that most of the victims don't have huge networks of media-connected acquaintances ready to make lots of noise on their behalf.

  5. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, about g-damn time, dude!

    If the folks who had fought against British oppression and founded this country did not have free access to and the right to keep and bear arms, the United States of America would never have be founded.

    It was just in the last year that the ninnies on the USSCt got around to recognizing the right to keep and bear arms under the 2nd Amendment was a personal right.

    I guess that whoever's in charge might like to think they can just ride up like in "The Patriot" and burn down the house after shooting one of our children. At the end of the movie, I remember vividly the image of the friends saying farewell and of Ben Martin (Mel Gibson) riding off with his weapon in hand, to go back to being left alone as a citizen farmer.

    I just want to be left alone as a citizen lawyer and completely agree that a central right to citizenship and freedom from tyranny is the right to keep and bear arms.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tim: I haven't been anti-Second Amendment. It's just that I'm finding myself getting more concerned that the federal government is getting more bloated and invasive, despite some positive rhetoric during the past year.

  6. Just a note, Erich, that the way you phrase that is almost identical to the Far Right/Libertarian stance on federal government.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I was aware of that as I wrote it. Some of my views would overlap with those of libertarians. I've never pretended to be other than a traditional (pre-Reagan) conservative with regard to economic matters. My views on social issues tend to be progressive. I am inspired by the non-violence teachings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, most recently, Thich Nhat Hanh. I don't know how to categorize myself politically, but it gave me a shudder to see my views coinciding with the "far right" in any way. But your observation is undeniably correct.

      Then again, it doesn't really surprise me that I've grown increasingly suspicious of the federal government, given my writings, especially over the past year. It seems, more and more, that what purports to be "our" government is fundamentally detached from the electorate. "Our government" seems almost entirely geared to please those currently holding significant financial and political, who keep The People in line by feeding the fires of xenophobia and purportedly unavoidable conflict, themes that are willingly parroted by much of the media. Most recently, I've grown dismayed at what I see as Obama's reluctance to bite the hands of the financially powerful, to fight a vigorous fight to aright this ship of state instead of simply giving eloquent speeches. It seems that instead of seeking meaningful financially sound CHANGE, he's decided to start running for election in 2012 by passing ill-thought-out bills with nice names.

      Yes, I'm generally dismayed at what's going on in our country. When I see little guys like Peter Watts getting abused by gun-toting thugs wearing the uniform of my country, it makes things all the worse for me. It makes me viscerally understand the feeling of alienation often expressed by Second Amendment advocates.

  7. Tim Hoga says:

    I reecently saw a definition of "patriotism" that works better than others I have seen;

    "Support your country always, and the government when it deserves it!"

    Right now, I would not vote for Barack Obama for President. I feel that the Wall Streeters run America, that the same things that led to the worldwide collapse of the financial makets is happening still and at an even larger pace, and when the whole thing falls again there will be the uber-rich and the rest of us as serfs forever.

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