signals that deserve boosting

Dr Peter Watts, Canadian science fiction writer, beaten and arrested at US border.

Watts’ own account of the incident.

Here’s the thing. In the various comment threads on the many posts advertising this incident, you will find people popping up to make the inevitable argument that Watts probably brought this on himself, not by actually assaulting anyone (the charge), but by not being sufficiently respectful to the border guards.

And that attitude is, quite simply, part of the problem. Because it says we have to knuckle under, not ask why we’re being detained, not question authority, not demand the basic right of knowing what’s happening to us. Last time I checked, though, that is not actually how our laws work. Even if Watts was disrespectful, that isn’t a crime. Cops even get training in how to cope with people getting up in their faces, without resorting to violence, because punching and kicking and pepper-spraying someone is not an acceptable response to being shouted at, or called an asshole. But rent-a-cops don’t always, and given the growing tendency to outsource these jobs in America, I won’t be surprised at all if these guards turn out to be contractors — who seem to be statistically more likely to get drunk on their own authority.

Authority which goes only a certain distance, and no further. So telling us we should bow down when it pushes pasts its bounds, and it’s our own fault if we get punished for being mouthy, only reinforces their bad behavior.

Even if you can’t agree with that, then agree with this: that turning a guy out, at night, into a winter storm, without even his coat, isn’t an acceptable response to anything.

If you’d like to donate to his legal defense, details are at the first link. Either way, the more noise gets made about this, the more likely it will be picked up by news outlets, which means we’re more likely to get proper investigation into the matter and maybe steps taken to make things right. We can hope, anyway.

0 Responses to “signals that deserve boosting”

  1. stormsdotter

    Shit like this makes me ashamed to be an American. I donated ten dollars. If I get the job I applied to last week –ironically, to a Canadian planning company– I’ll send him some more. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. rj_anderson

    Well said. I’m all for being respectful to authority, but I’ve also been intimidated and treated rudely by US border guards even when on my best behavior — so many of them seem to think it’s their duty to scare you and make you feel small and helpless. So sadly, I am not surprised by this story at all.

    • Marie Brennan

      so many of them seem to think it’s their duty to scare you and make you feel small and helpless.

      Their duty, and possibly their privilege.

      I’ve been interrogated at great length by El-Al security (the Israeli airline), and I know it’s part of their tactics to try to make you uncomfortable. Because if you get twitchy, then if you have something you’re hiding, you’re more likely to give it away. But you know what? They were polite about it the whole time. Even the time they held me for about an hour and a half while they went through my luggage and tested my electronics and frisked me. No rudeness, just a very, very thorough approach.

      • rj_anderson

        I had the same impression of El-Al security — very thorough, very polite, very intimidating just by sheer virtue of being so thorough and persistent. But no barking, no threats, not even a raised voice. If anything it was MORE effective than the curt rudeness I’ve received from the US customs officers when crossing the border at Port Huron.

  3. malsperanza

    When cops of any kind abuse or mistreat someone, it’s standard procedure for them to charge the victim with assaulting an officer, mainly so that later they can get any brutality charges against themselves dropped in a trade; secondarily, so that when their actions are reviewed by bosses they have paperwork to cover their asses and give their union something to use to protect them; and thirdly because it looks good on their arrest stats.

    I doubt they’re rent-a-cops. The US Customs officers on the Canadian border have always been appalling pigs. I’m a US citizen and I’ve been insulted and harrassed by them at the Detroit crossing, at Toronto airport, and at the Maine crossing. They’re bored, undertrained, and not rocket scientists to begin with.

    • Marie Brennan

      On the tactics: yep. And I don’t know a good way to reduce the frequency of the charge, except maybe to bring enough scrutiny to bear on it that higher-ups decide it isn’t worth the bad press.

      We should also bear in mind that these tactics are used a LOT more frequently against minorities. Watts is getting a nice big stink because he’s reasonably well-known by some people with really loud internet microphones (like, say, Cory Doctorow), and because it’s easy to get people to believe a middle-aged white science fiction writer probably wasn’t starting fistfights; and I’m happy to see people leverage that to bring attention to the problem. But the problem is a lot worse for people without Watts’ advantages.

      As for them being rent-a-cops, I don’t know. I’ve heard plenty of bad things about border guards at various crossings (lots of stories coming out of the woodwork today), so yeah, it might be a departmental thing rather than a contractor one.

      • malsperanza

        Nothing will change the behavior unless members of the privileged class make a stink, and repeat the stink. There’s a huge class issue, of course–customs officers don’t come from the intellectual elite, just as cops and firefighters don’t. But unlike cops and firefighters, they’ve always operated outside the norms of constitutional behavior, with very little accountability. Since 9/11 they’ve gotten completely out of hand.

        I think the episode that infuriated me the most was when I was returning from Toronto in the 1990s, having attended a conference of the African Studies Association. I was traveling with three professors, all of them US citizens of Nigerian birth. (One had been in jail in Nigeria for criticizing the government and had nearly been killed.) Some pimple-faced 20-year-old with a badge asked me, with no provocation, if “black was my favorite color.” I told him no, and took out a pen to write down his name and badge number, whereupon I was escorted to an interview room and searched at length, long enough to make me miss my flight. Fortunately, my companions were allowed to go without me. And I didn’t get the guy’s badge number, because he covered it with his hand. So much for oversight.

        Then there was the time I was asked my bra size.

        And the time I was treated with kid gloves (“Welcome home, Mal,” first name, very cute) while a Hispanic family next to me in line had their belongings pulled apart, thrown on the ground, suitcase zippers broken, etc. An apple was confiscated with great ceremony and they were generally made to feel very afraid, although they had legal residency in Canada and the correct visa for the US. Their toddler was crying in terror. And all the while the customs agents were telling me jokes about baseball, to make me complicit. Ugh ugh ugh.

        This is formal (if sub rosa) policy. The theory seems to be that making people feel miserable about coming in and out of America will make America safer, and will make American citizens feel privileged. Watching dignified business people and enthusiastic tourists get fingerprinted, insulted, and shoved like cattle at JFK makes me wonder why anyone still comes here. It can’t be good for business or international relations. In a city like New York that depends on tourist dollars, it’s suicidally stupid.


        • Marie Brennan

          rantyrantyranty indeed. I hate the trend we’ve been following for the last eight years. It wasn’t necessarily brilliant beforehand, but it’s gotten a hell of a lot worse since.

      • mindstalk

        I don’t know a good way to reduce the frequency of the charge, except maybe to bring enough scrutiny to bear on it that higher-ups decide it isn’t worth the bad press.

        Filming all interactions seems like a start.

        • Marie Brennan

          A good point. But probably the only way to bring that about, from the citizen end, is to make enough noise that the bad press forces somebody into requiring there be documentation.

          I know at least in some cases there is video footage. Apparently, however, sometimes that footage is “lost” or “corrupted” or some other terribly inconvenient adjective that means it can’t be viewed. >_<

  4. realthog

    And that attitude is, quite simply, part of the problem.

    Exactly. Any border guard who’s not mentally equipped to let verbal abuse roll off his/her back is not fit to do the job, and should be retrained or, if necessary, fired.

    • Marie Brennan

      The problem is, if you put someone in a uniform and give him (or her) a bit of authority, there seems to be an automatic belief that nobody should be allowed to disrespect him. I’m convinced that’s more or less hard-wired into our brains, and training is at best a leash upon the impulse.

      • realthog

        Actually, I’m not sure it is hardwired. I’ve seen (competent) uniformed cops brush off even very unpleasant verbal abuse with a cheery grin and a “Come on, now, we don’t want to get ourselves arrested, do we?”

        (The technique seems to work, too. In one instance I recall, a pretty nasty gang of teenage drunks, who’d been intent on finding damage to do and someone to beat up, were persuaded within less than a minute that it might be a better idea to go home and sleep it off.)

        • Marie Brennan

          I was thinking of it as hardwired on the level of “underneath all that civilization we’re still a bunch of apes who like to lord it over our lesser apes.” Dominance, chest-beating, the whole primate dance. You’re right that good people and/or with good training don’t act like that, but I do fear the structure of the situation creates a subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressure towards “yay I’m the ape with the biggest stick!”

          When a person really knows how to use techniques for defusing fights, though, the results look little short of miraculous.

  5. newsboyhat

    That is vile and disgusting. I’ve had my own issues with US immigration, never the guards on border patrol but some really unpleasant treatment at airports, especially when I asked–politely–the nature of their questioning (I am Canadian as well, though I’ve been living in the US for almost eight years). Treating people like crap don’t make others ‘feel safe.’

  6. la_marquise_de_

    It is a sad fact that if, like me, you’re not American, the US can be very scary. All the Americans I know well are lovely people. I’ve always been treated okay (not always politely, but okay) at US borders. But there’s always the anxiety there. (And yes, I know the UK border people can be difficult.) And a kind of blindness as to what being not-American means. I.E. we don;t always have US currency on us at all times. Our driving licenses might not have photos. We might call our country something other than what the US calls it. We might not have the local accent.
    I’ve donated, but bitter experience tells me not to write to the embassy.

    • Marie Brennan

      And a kind of blindness as to what being not-American means.

      Because being American means you don’t have to care what anybody else thinks or expects.

      That’s the theory, anyway, that’s held by way too many people. I profoundly don’t buy into the notion of American exceptionalism, and the fact that many of my fellow citizens think it’s their right to live with those kinds of blinders on bothers me a great deal.

      • la_marquise_de_

        You’re a lovely human being!
        This kind of attitude — ‘my country right or wrong’ — turns up in people of all nationalities, sadly, and it’s a big problem the world over.More education helps, but there are no easy fixes.

  7. strangerian

    Am ashamed to be U.S.ian, and can’t do anything about it except maybe write my congresswomen (both senators and my district House members are women; that’s something). I’ve seen suggestions to take it to the White House via phone or website. Mainly, yes, Watts has literate, web-connected friends, but he can’t be the only person this happens to, merely the one we hear about.

    You are entirely right that it’s outrageous, and responses blaming the victim are even more outrageous.

  8. chrisondra

    The really sickening thing is that this sort of thing happens a lot. We just hear about it when it happens to someone who has prestige in one way or another. Dr. Watts is very lucky to have that prestige, and so was Dr. Gates when he was arrested, but there are, sadly, a lot of unlucky people out there who don’t have the prestige to back them up. As you mentioned, it does happen more to minorities than anyone else, mostly because they’re the ones whose voices are heard least. The Border Patrol idiots had no idea who he was, probably thought he was a nobody, and so did things they didn’t think had any way of causing a stir. In fact, it’s probably something they’ve done before. It wouldn’t surprise me.

    Another sad thing is that it doesn’t just hold to the border patrol. This kind of thing happens with the police too, and it’s just as sickening. We’ll never know how common it is, either, because a lot of poor people never report it figuring that they’re never ever going to get anywhere with it. Sadly, they’re right. They likely never ever will. They have (for the most part) shitty public defenders who make little money, no money themselves, while the cops, well they’re the *police,* have each other (for the most part) to back each other up, and often get off with a slap on the wrist. Sometimes there’s never even really a slap. I know it’s from a long long time ago, but the cops who got it for the Rodney King incident? They said it was a “normal” day out on the streets. The only difference is that it got filmed and got out.

    It’s scary, and you are absolutely right. There is no law, nor should there be, that says we have to be polite to the police. Fuck that noise. I’ll respect people who deserve it, and just cause you’re in a uniform does *not* mean you deserve it. We have every right to be angry at the police and say what we want to them. And this whole “Well, he was disrepectful… his fault!” thing just enables all the cops/border patrol everywhere.

    It’s dumb, and it irritates me. Police are people. They don’t even have close to the most dangerous job in the US. People can be as rude as they want to lumber cutters and no one cares. Talk about a dangerous job! And we (in general) just enable the bad behavior of police with our hero worship of them and the idea that they can’t do any wrong. Even if we recognize they do do wrong, we’re still very much like “Well… he’s a cop and risks his life everyday for us, so… well, it’s okay,” and it’s wrong.

    I could rant on this for a long time. If they’re still taking donations for it after Christmas, I’ll try and remember to donate something.

  9. d_c_m

    And that attitude is, quite simply, part of the problem.
    Yup, yup, and amen.

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