Obey or Else

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Here’s what is known for sure: during a routine stop at the Blue Water Bridge, waiting to cross into the U.S., American border patrol agents detained Canadian science fiction writer Peter Watts after he stepped out of his car. From that point, accounts vary more than a bit.

The patrol claimed that Watts was combative and threatening, and that once he had been (they claim) lawfully placed under arrest, he resisted to the point of choking one of the guards who was attempting to subdue him. Watts unsurprisingly tells a different tale: he stepped out of his car to ask why he was being held up. When told to get back into his car, Watts by his own admission did not comply immediately — at which point he was beaten, maced, arm locked, and ground face-first into the concrete.

In the end, Watts was charged not with assault but with felony “resistance” — an extraordinarily broad charge that includes everything from full-on physical battering to “failure to comply with a lawful order.” In court, the presiding officer against testified that Watts attempted to choke him; fortunately, Watts had a passenger with him who was able to dispute that charge — doubly fortunate, since the video of the incident was, as with so many documentations of such incidents, mysteriously lost somewhere on the way to the courtroom. That left only the charge of “obstruction,” of which Watts was by his own testimony guilty.

Jury nullification was made for exactly such cases as this, but statements from the jurors indicated they were loath to apply it. One noted that Watts “was not violent, he was not intimidating, he was not stopping them from searching his car. He did, however, refuse to follow the commands by his noncompliance.” We’ve reached a point where, as Cory Doctorow noted, “if you don’t comply fast enough with a customs officer, he can beat you, gas you, jail you, and then imprison you for two years.” That was the sentence Watts could have gotten, though in the end he was let off with a fine — that’s right, he had to pay for the privilege of being beaten by U.S. officers, and had to act grateful they weren’t going to lock him up at the end of it.

And the financial cost doesn’t end there — as a science- fiction writer, a significant portion of his income came from book signings and convention appearances, but as a convicted felon, the American market is now closed off to him. Nor can he visit his sick brother in New York. If there is any remedy, it will come from a civil lawsuit against the Border Patrol agents who, again in the words of one juror, “escalated the situation with sarcasm and miscommunication . . . in my opinion, they committed offenses against Mr. Watts.” Until then, he can only brood on the cost of asking “Why?” to power.

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