This is a love story.
It might sound strange to read the assault on and subsequent arrest, trial, and felony conviction of Peter Watts described as such. As I wrote in my letter to the governor:
On March 19, 2010, a jury of Port Huron residents convicted Canadian marine biologist and writer Peter Watts, Ph. D. for felony non-compliance when dealing with border guards at the Port Huron crossing. While leaving the United States on December 8, 2009, he was subject to an exit search. As a Canadian, he was unfamiliar with this process, and exited his vehicle to inquire about it. When he failed to re-enter the vehicle quickly enough, he was beaten, maced and arrested. But despite all that, despite the bruises (his face was purple) and the new roughness of his voice (the mace went down his nasal passages, scoring them like fresh meat) and the long wait for the jury to deliberate (“We’re running out of clean underwear,” Peter and Caitlin told me), the words “I love you,” have persisted on our lips and in our emails for the past five months. They were the only words that could possibly make the situation feel right.
You can get the facts of yesterday’s sentencing from David Nickle, who showed up at my apartment yesterday to drive us from Toronto to Port Huron. He came armed with a Supernatural-themed mix CD: CCR, Jefferson Airplane, Zeppelin, and yes, REO Speedwagon. We spent the three-hour drive whistling past the graveyard, singing off-key and trying not to take the raptors circling over the roadkill as omens. As Dave later explained, the music of Supernatural is the flashlight shone in the dark, the talisman clutched in moments of fear and doubt. I agree with his interpretation; I’m just not sure he was speaking solely about the Winchesters.
As an immigrant, I’m already a little phobic about border crossings. Knowing that we would be crossing the very spot where our friend was beaten to the ground only unsettled me further. In fact, when I told my mother that I would be making this trip, she gasped and begged me to be calm, be nice, keep my mouth shut. “Don’t give them any more information than you have to,” my husband told me. His mother grew up in Sarnia, the Canadian town across the river from Port Huron. His grandfather helped paint the Blue Water Bridge, the one we would be crossing. He’s made the crossing any number of times. Crossing the border is a lot like crossing the street: people do it every day, and most of the time it’s perfectly safe. But sometimes, someone gets hurt. This time, though, we were safe. The guard asked us where we were going and how we knew each other, and how I came to live in Canada. American border guards always ask me this. They seem so surprised that anyone would ever leave. They want to know the whole story. So I told it, and she waved us through.
Port Huron is a lot like a town in Supernatural. It’s very small, very quaint, with cute shopfronts and blossoming trees and a cutting wind coming up off the river. At night the trolls come out, and they comment on Peter’s blog, and they tell him they hope he gets raped. We phoned Peter and Caitlin, and they met us at the courthouse. I took the above photograph just before Caitlin’s parents, who made the crossing each time with them for Peter’s court dates, joined us. We were met at court by more of Peter’s friends, including one juror from the trial who had written a letter to the judge telling him she believed that he had been through enough, and that he did not deserve jail time for his failure to comply. There were about a dozen of us in all. We sat at the back. We held hands. We listened to the other sentencing hearings on the docket before Peter’s name was called, because the circuit court was a little bit behind.
It’s a little ironic that my first real experience of the American justice system came after I had already moved to another country. I thought so, at least, as I watched a troupe of men in their late teens to early thirties, some of them fathers or about to become fathers, talk to the judge about their attempts to regain control over their lives. A lot of them were on drugs. A lot of them needed public defenders. Many of those public defenders droned on and on and punctuated every sentence with Uh and Um. Between the time spent out of work and the fees they’ll pay to the court, most of these men will still be in poverty when they leave prison. It’s one thing to achieve an academic understanding of systemic poverty and its role in keeping the jails full, but it’s another thing to see men shuffling forward to face the court in baggy orange jumpsuits because they couldn’t make bail and no one they knew could scrape it up for them. These guys didn’t have a crowd of supporters waiting for them in the back. They didn’t have university or even high school educations. They had learning disabilities, we were told. The ones that Judge Adair granted lighter sentences to were the ones who had jobs.
Judge James Adair, who presided over the case and who would be granting the sentence, is sort of like your favourite teacher. He hated school, fell in love with the girl across the street, tried to be a prosecutor but didn’t much care for it, and now drives a little red Corvette around his tiny town, dodging questions at lunch counters from the very people whose lives he holds in his hands. He told us these things before he pronounced sentence, claiming that he couldn’t do his job without looking Peter in the eye one more time. He spoke very frankly, saying that he found Peter “puzzling,” and that he constantly had to ask himself, “Who is Peter Watts?”
At this point, I had to stifle a very Hermione Granger-ish urge to raise my hand and say, “I know! I know! Pick me! I know who Peter Watts is!” As I wrote at my own blog, Peter is “the person who dropped everything when I fainted at a blood donation clinic. The person who rescues cats. The person who fixed the strap of my dress with a safety pin and his teeth. The person who stands up for me in critiques even when he thinks I’ve fucked up the ending (because I always do), who talked me through the ideas of my novel. The person who gives the best hugs.”
I suspect Judge Adair would have told me that was very nice, thank you, and would I please have a seat?
It’s a good thing I didn’t pipe up. Sitting across the aisle from us was Andrew Beaudry, the American border security guard who left his post and ran thirty yards, baton in hand, when he saw his fellow employees surrounding Peter’s rental vehicle for an exit search. He was the one who testified that Peter had choked him, who tore Peter’s shirt and said the words “I'm going to pepper spray you, now,” before unloading all over Peter’s face. The morning of the sentencing, Beaudry was walking along the columns of cars making their way to American soil. He was there when Peter and Caitlin and Caitlin’s parents were pulled aside for a secondary search. He asked them how they were doing. Noting Peter’s brief absence during the search, he asked, “So, are you guys here alone?” This is the same man who, before the trial started, was overheard telling his friends: “He’ll get two years. Piece of cake.” He sat only a few steps away from me. I knew him from his nametag. He was a lot shorter than I had expected. I felt his eyes on us when Peter’s attorney, Doug Mullkoff, gestured to “Mr. Watts’ supporters in the courtroom” and all of us, as one, stood up.
Beaudry declined to make a victim impact statement. This was after Mr. Mullkoff protested the accuracy of the sentence recommendation report. The report called for Peter to serve six months in jail. It also listed him as an American citizen, over-stated his annual income, and elided his 92-year-old father (the one in the assisted living complex) from the record. Things like this are taken into account when someone faces time behind bars. In Peter’s case, Judge Adair was also asked to remember the fact that due to immigration laws, Peter’s felony conviction ensured he would never again enter the United States. He can’t attend conventions. He can’t visit his brother who lives there. He can’t even use the US as a connecting hub when flying overseas. Mr. Mullkoff asked that rather than follow the sentence recommendation, Judge Adair give Peter a fine instead with no jail time.
After Beaudry declined to comment, Judge Adair launched into a description of how he came to the sentence he was about to grant. He stressed the fact that our ladies and gentlemen in blue are under severe stress every single day. They have no idea whether they will be coming home each night. They’re understandably on edge. He also told a story about his own brother being picked up by police when both brothers were young. Their father instructed them to do as a police officer says, no matter what he says, and to do it fast. He then praised the jury’s ability to follow instructions properly, and lauded their decision to convict. “This is it,” Caitlin whispered. “He’s going to jail.”
Then Judge Adair remarked that of all the cases he’d heard in his twenty years as a judge, he had never been asked so many questions by so many people about his opinion. He said that he had strived to avoid going to outside sources of information about the case, and keep his judgment to what he knew from the court proceedings themselves. He also said that he did not have a sentence in mind when he came to court that morning. He wanted to make up his own mind. He wanted to see Peter face to face. He wanted to pick his brain.
“He’s going to let him go.” Dave said. “Watch.”
The thing about Dave is, he can really read people.
“I’m going with Mr. Mullkoff’s suggestion,” Judge Adair said, as two rows of people let their breath out. It’s hard to explain what those words meant to us, in that moment. The cold, cruel spectre of Peter’s time away from us, of the indignities and pain he would suffer, had vanished. The shadow that had stretched over us from that late December night when Caitlin told me that Peter needed our help, to this sunny April afternoon when she looked at me and said “He’s coming home...” could finally lift. The two of them would no longer have to wonder if each moment spent together would be their last. Caitlin’s daughters would not have to tell Peter their stories in letters. He would be home for the epic Canada Day barbecue at Dave’s house. I wouldn’t have to burst into tears, anymore, when I allowed myself to think about his future. My birthday was this previous Saturday, and I had gotten my wish: my brother, in spirit if not flesh, was free.
Peter stumbled down the aisle toward us, blinking. “He did say no jail time, right?”
We all said it at once: “Yes.”
This is a love story. This is the story of one man who had no idea how many people were in his corner. Not just the people standing up for him in court, or the ones who wrote letters to his judge or to the governor of Michigan, but the people all over the globe who donated to his legal fund, who bought his books, who talked about the case with their friends and neighbours, who blogged it and tweeted it and kept the conversation alive. This is your story, and it’s about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, about what we can do together when the situation is dire and a line has been crossed. What happened to Peter Watts could happen to any of us. I think that this realization galvanized the number of people that it did. If you were among them, this is your victory, too. The power of love is not a magical force that alters the laws of physics or even the laws of our nations. It is simply the power that brings empathy to our decisions and to our words, the things that make us who we are.
“That’s what lucky people like us have,” Dave told me, as I pushed home against the last of the winter wind. “But some people just don’t, and it makes them do terrible things.”
I leave you with one of Peter’s fellow writers and cat lovers, Ernest Hemingway: “If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”
Madeline Ashby is a member of Peter Watts and David Nickle’s workshop, the Cecil Street Irregulars. She came to Canada four years ago and has not looked back since.