Dr. Peter Watts is a marine biologist by education, a Canadian citizen, and a friend of mine. He's also a rapidly rising star as the author of several brilliant sci-fi novels like his Rifter's Series and the latest Blindsight (One of the best sci-fi novels I've ever read). But Peter had a terrifying experience at the hands of US border guards last week while he and a friend were returning to Canada. He describes being "punched, pepper sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half naked" into a holding cell:
[F]or 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 ... 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 had a chance to ask Peter about it. Understandably, his lawyer has advised him not to get into a blow-by-blow description beyond what is posted and linked above. But Peter was able to answer a few questions for Daily Kos.
DarkSyde: You were flagged down/pulled over returning to Canada from the US, what was the reason given?
Peter Watts: I asked. They wouldn't tell me.
DS: Not that it would excuse being brutalized, but people will ask: did you mouth of, say anything smart-ass or flippant?
PW: I got out of the car. I said repeatedly that I just wanted to see what was going on. A number of commentators have opined that that was, in and of itself, a smart-ass and even aggressive act.
DS: How did you get out of jail?
PW: I was granted release on bail around 1pm. I was released sometime after seven. In between, I was told by one of the prison staff that even though I'd made bail, border guards would be waiting to rearrest me the moment I stepped outside, on some other grounds that weren't entirely clear to me. This did not in fact happen; or rather, while I was met and cuffed by border guards, they only drove me across the border and dropped me at Canada Customs. They kept my rental car and the stuff inside it (including my coat, which was a bit problematic given the whole mid-December-in-Ontario thing).
DS: Have you ever heard of anything similar happening to other Canadians?
PW: Especially in the wake of this incident, I've heard no end to the first-hand accounts of contemptuous and belligerent treatment at the border. Nobody likes it. Most folks just bite their tongues and keep their eyes down.
More importantly, though, is that the only reason you heard about anything happening to this Canadian is because I had friends I didn't know I had. If folks hadn't mobilized so massively and unexpectedly, I suspect I might still be in jail (I'm told ICE has all sorts of leeway in detaining aliens). I'm not an especially prominent guy, but it turns out I have allies with a lot of clout in the online community; when Cory Doctorow raises his voice, half the web pricks up its ears. But what about all the other poor bastards who go through what I did, or worse, and don't have such folks in their corner? What about my passenger, who was also handcuffed and detained for hours (although not pepper-sprayed or physically struck, thankfully), then spat out into Canada a few hundred kilometers from home?
DS: How has this affected your view of the US, or of US-Canada relations?
PW: It hasn't, much. The US border isn't known for its hospitality, and I've been told that Port Huron has an especially bad rep. (The only reason we even took that route is because we were trying to get home ahead of an approaching snowstorm.)
It's ironic, though, that the same day I was arrested one Mary Callahan, chief privacy officer for Homeland Security, was up here in Canada reassuring us that the border isn't so bad a place after all, and the US doesn't just arbitrarily grab people's personal data willy-nilly. Almost as ironic as the fact that I still haven't got my laptop computer, flash drive, or notebook back.