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Peter Watts assaulted by border guards, and some epistomology - Input Junkie
December 12th, 2009
11:44 am

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Peter Watts assaulted by border guards, and some epistomology
Peter Watts, a Canadian science fiction author, was beaten, thrown out into the cold without transportation or coat, and charged with felony assault.

What he did was to get out of his car and ask (twice!) why his car was being searched-- he was on his way back into Canada, and he was dealing with American border guards.

Contributions to his legal defense fund can be sent here.

papersky explains that living in a free country means not being afraid of arbitrary attack from the police.

pecuniam on why letting governments get away with torture is a disaster.

comodorified on the emotional meaning of throwing someone out, unprotected, into deadly cold. And an update on why Watts survived this-- he was dropped off on the Canadian side, not far from Canadian Customs.

Digby on why having police that you need to treat like thugs is a bad thing.

In the comments to the various posts about what happened, there are some who say "I've crossed the border any number of times and nothing went wrong, so I'm not believing that this was an arbitrary abuse of authority." I've recently read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb-- the premise is that people wildly underestimate how often unusual events with large consequences happen.

It isn't nonsense to assume that your experience has something to do with how things usually are, but it needs to be tempered with information from other people, and a check for asymetries. Does it make sense that only the low status people behave badly?

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From:fengi
Date:December 12th, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)
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"I've crossed the border any number of times and nothing went wrong, so I'm not believing that this was an arbitrary abuse of authority." When I read things like that, one of the subtexts I see is "Being white, the daily experience of people at the other border - and in my own country - is essentially invisible to me."
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 12th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
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This may be unfair of me, but be careful of smugness. A lot of work has been done lately on getting the word out about racism, but who knows what most of us still aren't noticing? And it won't necessarily be about prejudice-- we're probably leaving out whole major categories.
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From:fengi
Date:December 12th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
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What's smug about pointing the racial dynamic in what people believe about the cops? I'm not saying it's the only one, but it's a big one.

If someone doubts arbitrary abuse of authority is possible, despite ample evidence to the contrary, it may be because the evidence of the problem involves minorities. That Americans border guards can be randomly capricious is something Muslims have said for years and it's no surprise that abuse, left unchecked, expands to include anyone.

I'm not sure what you mean by "but who knows what most of us still aren't noticing?" If by "most of us" one means "whites" I'd say including people of color in "us" and paying attention to what they point out greatly expands what one notices.
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From:holzman
Date:December 12th, 2009 06:21 pm (UTC)
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I'm not seeing the smugness -- cops treat any number of oppressed people, including People of Color exactly the way Watts got treated and worse every single day with nary a comment. If we don't note that the biggest reason the Watts case isn't getting ignored is that he has a number of privileges -- race, class, and fame among them -- working for him, we perpetuate that structure.

Likewise, the statement fengi quotes and comments on is an incredibly privileged statement and deserves to be identified as such.

Edited at 2009-12-12 06:22 pm (UTC)
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From:agrumer
Date:December 12th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
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It's more likely "being well-off" than "being white". One thing that's turned up in discussion is that Watts was driving a rented car, and border goons apparently hassle drivers of rental cars a lot. If you can afford to own your own car, you'll get less trouble at the border.
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From:madfilkentist
Date:December 12th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
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From Peter Watts' picture, he appears to be white.

This is in no way a racial issue. It's one of the state vs. the individual. There are people who will side with the state because it makes them feel safer, or because they think that authority must always be right, or for any number of reasons. Some do so because they haven't looked beyond their personal experiences. This means they can't learn from the experience of others.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 12th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
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I'm pretty sure fengi's point was that if you find it hard to believe that border guards or police can believe badly without provocation, then you've only been listening to white people.
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From:atomicat
Date:December 14th, 2009 08:52 pm (UTC)
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Sample bias. There's a flavor of smug "I know this isn't the truth, but I'll say it anyways" to more than a few comments there.

My dad: "Well all the police I've dealt with have been very polite." Yes well, you've reported one burglary, nice sample.
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From:asakiyume
Date:December 12th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
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I'd like to take a look at The Black Swan one day.

Thanks for collecting all these in one place. It's a mind-boggling thing. It's scary how easily it happens.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 12th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC)
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The Black Swan is a good fast read, though quite scary. If people know so much less than think they do, it explains a lot.

I've heard that Fooled by Randomness is better, but I haven't read it yet.
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From:lysystratae
Date:December 12th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
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From what I can gather, he violated the unspoken rules that keep most of us from being beaten by our local cops - don't get out of the car unless the cop tells you, stay polite, do not show annoyance, do what the nice officer says - and if it looks like you're going to get injured anyway, scream your damn fool head off in the hopes someone's got their camcorder out.

And yes, I realize that these shouldn't have to exist, but as long as half of the people who apply for jobs as security and police want them because it makes them feel powerful, they will.
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From:holzman
Date:December 12th, 2009 06:28 pm (UTC)
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If you don't find this "violation" somehow exculpatory of the border guards' treatment of him, I don't understand your point.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 12th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
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As far as I can tell, American police/border guards have been getting more violent. It's conceivable that they're just starting to see if they can get away with treating white people the way they've been treating everyone else, but that's still behaving worse on the average.

The thing is, the level of irrational violence from the police isn't a law of nature. It can be changed, and I hope it will.

And speaking of unspoken rules, it's standard in the UK for people to get out of their cars when stopped by the police so that the car can't be used as a weapon.

Edited at 2009-12-12 06:51 pm (UTC)
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From:noveldevice
Date:December 12th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
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I travel on a US passport and live in Canada. I cross the border on a regular basis, and nothing bad ever happens to me.

I have no illusions about why that is. It is because I am (visibly at least) white, female, attractive, charming, and I know how to behave like a seasoned traveller--that is to say, in such a way as to trigger the least resentment at my "defiance" while also making it clear that I am not going to put up with people's shit.
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From:landley
Date:December 16th, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC)
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You also aren't driving a rental car, it seems like. At a guess, that triggers one of their profiling regexes and makes you a Suspect(tm), and once they've been triggered into that mode they stop being rational and start going according to a bureaucrat-automaton script, which includes intimidating the Suspect(tm) to achieve Compliance(tm), and never backing down because that would be losing control of the situation.

Racism is just _one_ form of profiling.
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