Dr. Peter Watts, a Canadian writer and scientist, has been convicted of a felony in a Michigan court for not hitting the ground fast enough after being punched in the face by a US border guard. He’s facing up to two years in prison.
The press has frequently characterized the charge against me as “assaulting a federal officer”. The alleged (and discredited) “choking” episode has been repeated ad nauseum. Here at the Sarnia Best Western I don’t have the actual statute in front of me but it includes a lengthy grab-bag of actions, things like “assault”, “resist”, “impede”, “threaten”, “obstruct” — hell, “contradict” might be in there for all I know. And under “obstruct” is “failure to comply with a lawful order”, and it’s explicitly stated that violence on the part of the perp is not necessary for a conviction. Basically, everything from asking “Why?” right up to chain-saw attack falls under the same charge. And it’s all a felony.
What constitutes “failure to comply with a lawful command” is open to interpretation. The Prosecution cited several moments within the melee which she claimed constituted “resisting”, but by her own admission I wasn’t charged with any of those things. I was charged only with resisting Beaudry, the guard I’d “choked”. My passenger of that day put the lie to that claim in short order, and the Prosecution wasn’t able to shake that. The Defense pointed out that I wasn’t charged with anything regarding anyone else, and the Prosecution had to concede that too. So what it came down to, ultimately, was those moments after I was repeatedly struck in the face by Beaudry (an event not in dispute, incidentally). After Beaudry had finished whaling on me in the car, and stepped outside, and ordered me out of the vehicle; after I’d complied with that, and was standing motionless beside the car, and Beaudry told me to get on the ground — I just stood there, saying “What is the problem?”, just before Beaudry maced me.
And that, said the Prosecutor in her final remarks — that, right there, was failure to comply. That was enough to convict.
Both the Port Huron Times-Herald and the Globe & Mail are careful to repeat border guards’ claims that Watts was aggressive and tried to choke an officer. I don’t have access to court records, but Watts (who has vigorously, consistently, and categorically denied the allegations) says above that those claims were shown in court to be lies. And we know from experience that men in uniform will lie, instantly and repeatedly, in order to protect themselves from the consequences of their misconduct.
Watts is lucky: because of who he is, his case has received a little bit of public attention, and the science fiction community donated several thousand dollars to his legal defence. Of course, none of that saved him from being punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, and convicted of a felony for not cringing enough for some bully in a uniform. Now imagine the border experiences of all those impoverished migrants from places like Mexico (or, for that matter, confused and exhausted immigrants from Poland), who lack even Watts’ meager cultural capital and have to deal with racist anti-immigrant hysteria on top of a state apparatus that already feels entitled to treat them like dirt.
Most importantly, think about what it means that this is normal for the society we live in. Watts’ story has made a few headlines, but no one is taking to the streets over this sort of thing (well, almost no one). So, in the end, it’s business as usual. Our borders are policed by petty thugs who, on the least provocation, will feel free to violently attack you, pepper-spray you, throw you in jail, confiscate your stuff, dump you out into the middle of a Canadian winter without your jacket — and then lie about it afterwards, as a matter of routine and with the full cooperation of their superiors. And the so-called justice system will back them up on this. That’s the world we live in.