28 April 2010

Peter Watts is free

Peter Watts is free.

Peter Watts is a Canadian marine biologist and writer who, as some of you may have heard, was arrested in December by the American border patrol after failing to immediately comply with an order during a search of his car. He was choked, maced and then physically assaulted, held overnight and then released into a blizzard without any warm weather gear to walk back over the border into Canada. Despite film footage that proved the contrary, he was further charged with assaulting a border guard. His subsequent trial by jury dismissed all charges of assault, but found him guilty of non-compliance with an order by a law-enforcement office, and he faced up to two years jail time despite clearly being attacked with unnecessary force by the guard in question.

Although the jury expressed solidarity with Mr Watts, with individual members going as far as to write to newspapers after the trail defending his actions, they carried out their duty according to the letter of the law; he was clearly told to get back in his car by a law enforcement agent, he did not immediately comply, therefore he had broken the law, and they had no choice but to find him guilty.

While I do not take issue with the actions of the jury, they carried out their duty as directed by the judge, it is the law itself that I have grave concerns over, based as it is on the notion of an absolute submission to the authority of a law enforcement officer. The officer in question was clearly acting in an inappropriate fashion, and yet because of his position he is automatically assumed to be in the right in the eyes of the law. The Stanford Prison Experiment clearly showed that even people with the best will in the world are capable of great brutality when placed in roles of authority, that the act itself of bestowing a mantel of authority on them encourages a sense of superiority and a justification in their mind for acts of brutality, so what effect does bestowing unconditional authority have upon those who are lacking a good will to begin with?

I have long questioned the motivation of those who pursue a career in law enforcement. While there may be some nobility in the concept of protecting one's fellow citizens from harm, the reality of modern policework is less about community building and more about statistics-based enforcement of conservative notions of an ordered society. I often wonder how much of an individual's desire to join the police is based upon media portrayals of police life as exciting and glamorous, how much of the behaviour of an individual officer in a given situation is shaped by their consumption of cinematic and television portrayals of police, and do they immediately act in an agressive fashion because they have been conditioned by the media to believe that is how they are supposed to act, because every encounter is a confrontation that could lead to their own demise? But can irrational fear and media conditioning alone explain the assault on an unarmed writer by a group of armed border guards, or is their some deeper, truer observation to be made about the psyche of an individual attracted to such a career, that some people just like having power over others?

In an environment where the constabulary were genuinely defending the interests of the citizenry, this might be an aceptable flaw, a trade that a given society is willing to make to protect itself. The Law is a set of rules by which a society chooses to govern itself, it lays out acceptable behavior and the penalties for transgressions, and a constabulary is one method by which a society enforces those rules. If it takes a person with a certain mentality to enforce those rules, then so be it, or so the rationalisation might go. However the suspicion is always there that the constabulary is used to enforce the rules not of society at large, but of a wealthy and powerful minority.

In the UK ASBOs, or Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, have fast become the preferred method for dealing with people or acts that mainstream society finds offensive. An ASBO is an individualized proscription, wherein a person is prohibited from a specific act, or banned from a specific location. If they break this prohibition twice, they can be sent to prison. It is important to note that this prohibition is not against something that is illegal, typical examples often given of proscribed behaviour include associating with certain other individuals, being in a particular location, making noise after a certain time, etc. ASBOs create specific laws tailored for specific individuals that carry full legal penalties.

According to Anna Minton in her book 'Ground Control', by 2009 in the UK over 10,000 ASBOs had been given, and in Manchester alone over 90% had been breached, resulting in jail sentences. Many of these ASBOs have been issued at the request of property management companies that own the private streets and retail areas that have replaced town squares and other common land as the centre of many UK towns. Increasingly ASBOs have been issued for activities that the property management companies feel deter consumers from shopping, such as groups of teenagers hanging out, anti-war demonstrations, political groups leafleting high-streets, street-corner preaching and other such activities.

In this situation the civil constabulary, the police, are engaged in the enforcement of individualised laws not enacted by society at large, but at the behest of private corporate entities. For example while the majority of UK citizens have been against the Iraq war, and thus those protesting the war were expressing the sentiment and will of society at large, the actions of protestors though legal have been judged to be to the economic detriment of private corporations, and the police have been directed to intervene, not to maintain public order but to preserve the economic order. Furthermore the death of bystander Ian Tomlinson at the hands of London police during last year's G20 protests shows that when enforcing economic order the actions of the constabulary are often indiscriminate and without restraint.

My own personal interactions with the police have ranged from the farcically indifferent to the painfully extreme, so admittedly I have a negative bias against the reality of law enforcement organisations, as opposed to the idealised concept, but as a rule I question anything that demands explicit surrender to their authority, especially given their increasing deployment to protect the interests of corporate, rather than civil society.

I'm not sure whether any of this was in the mind of the Judge who sentenced Peter Watts on Monday; during his summation he outlined his own childhood wherein he was taught to obey the police without question, yet he said to Watts that he wished they were just able to sit down over beers and "hash this stuff out". Clearly there seemed to be some distance in the mind of the Judge between the letter and the spirit of the law, and in the end he sentenced according to the spirit. Watts was fined and released without jail time, which was not the expected outcome, and is now safely back across the border in Canada as a free man.

Which is good.

Peter Watts' account of the original incident
The Trial
His reaction to Monday's result

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