Monday 14 December 2009
Walt Staton was dropping off water jugs for people who attempt the often deadly trek into
On Friday December 4th, an Arizona District Court judge told Walt Staton, a 28 year-old seminary student, that he might be facing 25 days in a federal prison. His crime was "knowingly littering" along the U.S.-Mexico border.
One day last December, Staton and a friend named Victor Ceballos, loaded 70 plastic water jugs into the back of a truck and drove from
Staton and Ceballos are volunteers for a group called No More Deaths, which offers humanitarian aid to those trying to cross the Mexico-Arizona border. Volunteers hand out water bottles and socks; they provide food and basic medical care. These actions carry risks of their own; in July 2005, two No More Deaths volunteers were charged with multiple felonies for driving three travelers to get medical care. Their case was eventually dismissed.
When it comes to the water bottles, volunteers are precise; they monitor each drop-off point to see if they've left too many or too few and they pick up any debris. "We put the water jugs right on the trail. So you can't miss them. Because a lot of people walk at night," Staton explained in a phone interview with AlterNet.
"We hear stories from people about how they were literally crawling on the ground and thought they were going to die and came across gallon jugs of water and were able to live."
It was ten days before Christmas when Staton and Ceballos were almost finished with their route. "We were dropping off 70 bottles total over five different locations," Staton recalled. The second to last spot that day was the
Staton wears dark-rimmed glasses and speaks with hushed restraint, as if handling an oversensitive microphone. He says that as they were leaving the site, a law enforcement agent and border patrol officer pulled them over. Staton, Ceballos, and two University of Arizona students, who were researching a term paper on No More Deaths, received tickets for littering.
Staton faced a 12-person jury in June. "The defendant left full plastic water jugs on the refuge with the intent to aid illegal immigrant traffic," the
Ceballos and the students had their charges dismissed, but Staton was found guilty. He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and was forbidden from entering the refuge for a year. Staton decided to appeal. "I still can't conceive of this as being a crime," Staton says. "I'm not asking the judge to lessen the community service. I'm letting her know that I'm not going to do it at all. Not one hour, not 300 hours. I'd like to see the court stand up for international human rights."
In a letter to Judge Jennifer Guerin, Staton explained his reason for appealing the case and for not complying with his sentence. "My decision to place sealed gallon jugs of water along trails used by migrants to cross remote areas of the Sonoran desert should be understood as an attempt on my part to uphold international human rights law, specifically the right to life," he wrote. He cited three reports -- by the ACLU and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights -- accusing the
"Humanitarian aid is never a crime" is No More Death's tagline. The phrase is printed on their website, on their posters, and t-shirts. They do not consider their work to be civil disobedience -- that would require intentionally breaking the law -- but implicit to their efforts is the belief that international human rights law supersedes U.S. homeland security concerns, not unlike the legal argument for forbidding waterboarding or shutting down Guantanamo. "We don't think Walt committed any crime by putting out fresh clean jugs of pure water to save human lives on the refuge," Bill Walker, Staton's attorney has said.
AlterNet spoke to Staton on Thursday, the day before his resentencing hearing. He was in a break between classes and said he was feeling "pretty optimistic" about his case. It wasn't clear whether to believe him or whether he just has a strong distaste for drama, particularly when he is at the center of it. At the end of our conversation, I told him I'd get in touch with him following his hearing the next day. "Hopefully," he responded and let out a nervous laugh.
On Friday, the day of his resentencing hearing, No More Deaths volunteers gathered outside the courthouse. They had set up 206 cardboard gravestones along the side of the building -- marking the number of migrant deaths in the desert this year. A woman wearing a headdress and frayed black and white pants stomped to the beat of a tambourine. Staton addressed the crowd. "I'm here to offer an invitation. I'm inviting this court to take an opportunity to reconsider the sentencing against me and their overall stance on how they treat humanitarian workers and migrants."
The hearing lasted 20 minutes; Judge Guerin denied his request to modify or suspend his sentence and threatened Staton with 25 days in federal prison for disobeying court orders. Judge Guerin will hear his appeal on December 21st, when the final sentence will be issued. No More Deaths has started organizing a letter writing campaign to Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and to Arizona District Attorney's office.
A couple of days after the hearing, Staton was back at school in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs