Thursday 2 April 2009

Siege mentality

There is an old anarchist saying: the state creates the violence which it uses to justify its existence. Like a lot of anarchist sayings, it is an exaggeration of the truth. But it nevertheless contains a partial truth. If you needed evidence of this truth, one only had to be present at the G20 Climate Camp in Bishopsgate on April 1, 2009.

Kathy (my wife) and I met up at the Climate Camp at around 4pm. We went to 'Space 3' where the New Economics Foundation (NEF) was scheduled to run a workshop on transitioning to a low carbon economy. (There were three workshop spaces in amongst the general throng.) Andrew Simms, from NEF, was the speaker. Kathy and I sat down amidst the throng, and gratefully accepted pieces of the tasty vegan chocolate cake that was being passed around. A family group sat next to us, their toddler just about able to walk. Andrew said a few words about NEF's work and then threw the session open for people to make their own suggestions about how to lower our carbon footpint. Kathy shouted out: 'I've just bought a vegan cookbook. What else can I do?' Andrew's reply: 'Well, you might cook some vegan meals.' Later Kathy suggested getting a wood-burning stove. Andrew: 'Yes, so long as you're replacing the trees...?' He asked how many of us had bikes. Kathy and I proudly raised our hands. Then he asked how many of us had cars. Kathy and I rather shamefully raised our hands. After about half an hour of people giving their suggestions, he wound up the event.

We then took a walk around the Camp, spending a long time listening to the drumming and dancing at the far end. The sun was out. The music was great. Various kinds of food were being cooked and consumed. We started to need a pee, but neither of us could quite work up the courage to try out the Camp's hastily assembled eco-sensitive toliet facilities (advertised with the not entirely enticing slogan 'Another poo is possible'). Around ten past five, we sauntered off to Brick Lane for a meal, feeling that we had done our eco-citizenly duty.

On the way we heard on the radio that the situation in Bishopsgate had suddenly become 'tense'. This surprised us as the atmosphere when we left, about 15 minutes before this radio news report, was entirely peaceful and convivial. It also seemed surprising since at 6pm, the workshops scheduled to take place in the Camp were: (1) Buddhist meditation; (2) how to fight climate change with poetry; and (3) activist trauma support. We decided that we'd take a careful look back at the Camp once we'd finished the important business of having our dinner.

When we approached the Camp for the second time, at around 7.15 pm, the situation had changed completely. Approaching from the Liverpool Street station end we were confronted by a line of police vans, nose to nose, completely blocking entry to the Camp. Police officers in riot helmets were lined up behind the vans. Gradually, they formed a line in front of the vans. Noone was to be allowed in to the Camp. As if to fart in the face of the Climate Camp, all the police vans, though stationary, had their engines running (and this superfluous engine running continued for about an hour).

Beyond the first police line we could see a second police line of officers shoulder to shoulder. They appeared to be refusing to let any of those in the Camp leave. Nobody walked out of the Camp in the two and a half hours we stayed. One woman told us that she had managed to run out, had been grabbed by police officers, given an £80 fine for swearing at police officers while she was grabbed, and then released. (I have no way of verifying this.)

We learnt that the same police lines had been constructed at the other end of Bishopsgate, and that the alleys leading into the area were also being blocked off by the police. (The one alley we tried was certainly blocked off.)

The police were besieging the Climate Camp.

Noone allowed in; noone allowed out. We thought of the family with the toddler. Had the police allowed some people, e.g., those with young children, to leave before they drew up their lines?

Why were the police doing this? One answer: 'Its the superior powers, I'm afraid', said one policeman in good temper (rather in the spirit of the WW1 infantry song, 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here').

Another police officer (something like): 'I don't have to give you an explanation because I am acting on information which is not available to you.'

A third police officer: 'There was violence inside the Camp.'

Now this I knew, almost certainly, was a complete, bare-faced lie. I had been inside the Camp up until about twenty minutes before the police started this deployment. Given the atmosphere when I left, it was inconceivable that the Camp had suddenly become violent. It was a party!

So I looked the policeman in the eye: 'That's a bare-faced lie - I was in the camp just before this started and I know it wasn't violent.'

His reply? He immediately conceded, with a bit of a laugh, that, yes, he had indeed lied. Feeling a rush of republican self-righteousness hitting me, I asked him if he thought that this is how police officers properly serve the citizenry: by telling them bare-faced lies. Obviously hoping that I would just shut up and go away, he sort-of laughed again and agreed that, yes, this is how police officers properly serve the public. (I have the officer's name and identification number.)

Some officers were wearing balaclavas under their riot helmets. I pointed out to one officer that this meant I couldn't see his face properly. (I later learnt from another officer that they are worn because of their flame-repellant properties.) I then also noticed that he had no identification number on his jacket. Thus, if things got nasty, and he ended up in a tussle with a protestor, the protestor would have no way of identifying him: no face, no number. I reported this to the Legal Observer on the scene. About ten minutes later, another officer hastily tacked on some identification numbers to the offending jacket.

At some point during all of this exchange, another officer flicked his visor forward so that it hit me on the head. (It didn't hurt.) 'Oh, I did I hurt you?', he said (or words to that effect). In the moment, I took it to be an honest accident. My wife says it was quite deliberate.

So what do I take away from all of this?

First, I feel somewhat sorry for the police. Earlier in the day, they had been relaxed and good-tempered. After the seige started, they were tense - everyone was now tense - and their attitude veered between those who managed to remain reasonably good-tempered, and those who adopted a defensive attitude bordering on contempt. I don't think most of the rank and file really wanted to be there. What a waste of their time and energy, and distortion of their professionalism.

I say 'waste' of time and energy, and distortion of their professionalism, because, despite all of my questions, I never did get an explanation of why the police had decided to lay siege to the Climate Camp at around 5.30pm, when the mood was convivial, and, you'll recall, the next workshops were scheduled to be on Buddhist meditation, how to use poetry to fight climate change, and 'activist trauma support'.

I can understand not letting people in. Maybe you want the Camp to disperse? But then why also, apparently, refuse to let people out? What is the point of beseiging the Camp? Besieging the Camp would only have one obvious, predictable effect: to create a tense, potentially violent situation where none previously existed. Either the people making the operational decisions are stupid or very sinister indeed.

Third: the one report of this episode I have seen in the mainstream media so far - the tail-end of a piece on BBC News 24 - is superficial and gives no sense of the dynamic I have described above. I invite readers of Next Left to test what they get from mainstream media outlets against the account I have given here (which obviously is only one, limited account).

Finally, I think this episode provides some much-needed perspective on the recent discussion on Next Left around what lessons the British left can learn from Barack Obama's campaign.

A key aspect of the Obama campiagn was that someone from within a mainstream political party managed to connect with broader social movement politics outside the party system. Obama built a bridge between the two. So to replicate Obama's success, we surely need to build bridges between Labour and similar social movements here.

The Climate Camp is one, vital - and vitalising - expression of this social movement politics. Yet here is a Labour government treating it - or condoning its treatment - with what can only be described as contempt.

Unless Labour stops laying siege to such politics, and builds bridges to it, we will never get the change we really need.

Postscript: pictures of the Climate Change Camp here.

Further postscript (added April 6): Since posting this account in the early hours of April 2, I have had a chance to check it against other accounts appearing on other blogs. My claim that the 'seige' or 'kettling' of the Camp began around 5.30 pm is not corroborated by other accounts, which suggest it occured closer to 7pm.


Calix said...

Fascinating to hear a first hand account - I hope you're OK after your knock. The nature of TV reporting can never capture the full reality of these situations, and inevitably takes sides (always the one of the state, unless we're talking about foreign police against English football fans). The image most of us have in our minds from the clips we've seen is of a man throwing a TV screen through a window. Probably the wrong one...

Stuart White said...

Calix: the reporting in today's Guardian is quite good - though the discussion of what was happening at Bishopsgate cuts off just before the atmosphere changed. But the Guardian brings out clearly, what the BBC reporting quite failed to make clear - that this was not one big protest, but a number of separate events. What was going on at Bishopsgate was quite separate from what was happening outside the RBS.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thank you for the very interesting personal account. I admire your cool scrutiny of the situation, and found the conclusions which you draw from this convincing. I don't know whether you plan to pursue this further. My instinct is that it would be worth seeing if the police would give an account of the policing of the climate camp in particular. We would be interested in accounts from others who are there, and indeed from the police themselves. (Might there be value in working with NEF or others to put formally put some questions forward seeking a response through whatever the appropriate channels are)?

Though it does not excuse or make sense of the police actions, one guess/hypothesis might be that they decided to act at that point to contain/besiege the various different protests taking place, without discriminating between them in any way.

I was having a family day out of an entirely non-political kind yesterday, as it was my birthday, so the question of which protests to support posed in your earlier post didn't practically arise. I thought Saturday's Put People's First protest was an effective and important one in calling on the G20 to act. I agree about the climate camp being an important social movement, including for some of us slightly paler greenish non-vegans. I was personally much less sympathetic with some of yesterday's broad anti-capitalist and anti-G20 protests, though again the vast majority who attended were clearly peaceful protestors, while a minority seem to have attended with the intent of provoking trouble.

While the police can have a difficult job, it seems reasonable to expect policing to make relevant distinctions, so it seems worth finding out more about the reasons for the approach taken to the climate camp, where your account suggests this failed.

Katy Taylor said...

An article in the Telegraph ( heavily emphasies the violent intent/actions of "hooded thugs" and the "cheering mob". Seems all the more unbalanced next to your report of events...

Rachael Jolley said...

Stuart. Thanks for your first person account of your day. It's great for Next Left to get a report from the inside with your minute to minute experiences. Over in Westminster yesterday the atmosphere was totally different, there were crowds of police around being asked questions by tourists about opportunities to see Obama. Everything was so good natured and Westminster seemed quieter than normal. In fact the warnings about the problems we might encounter travelling to work all seemed over-hyped.
There is a question about how the mob mentality spreads which is probably just as relevant to a large group of police officers, as it is to a large group of angry demonstrators. It sounds like the police you encountered might have been caught up in that scarily mob moment.
I wonder what you think the people who were with you at Climate Camp will take away from the day and from their experiences?

Stuart White said...

Thanks all, for the comments. I'll pass the blog reference on to the people at NEF.

Apparently, this police tactic is called 'kettling'. While I wouldn't want to say that it is obviously inappropriate in all circumstances, my experience suggests that there are a number of serious problems with it which ought to make its use the exception rather than (as it seems to be becoming) the norm:

(1) The tactic is inherently provocative. It raises the temperature and creates tension where - as with the Climate Camp on Aptil 1 - there was none. It can, therefore, easily increase the probability of violence.

(2) To surround a demonstrating group and lock it in, without any regard to who is inside the group - e.g., children - puts very vulnerable people at risk should violence break out.

(3) One has to consider the kind of message the tactic sends to the demonstrating citizen. Speaking as one who has experienced it (even from the 'outside' of the 'kettle') I can say that it sends this message: 'We, the state, have decided to temporarily imprison you. Imprisonment is what we do to criminals - and that's the way you, the demonstrator, look to us, the state.' Given that, as a demonstrator, you feel you are simply asserting your democratic rights, to be given the message that the state sees your activity as akin to criminal activity is incredibly demeaning and degrading. You feel the degradation. Do we want a state that routinely makes its protesting citizens feel degraded when they protest?

Guatemala Reporter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with Stuart that 'kettling' was completely inappropriate for this protest.

I was at Climate Camp and unable to leave Bishopsgate when the police shut the last exit just after 6pm. At that time, the sun was starting to go down and many families and demonstrators not intending to camp overnight were preparing to go home.

Had the police not sealed the exits, the protest would have largely dispersed of its own accord. By refusing to let anyone leave until 11.40pm, yes, that’s right, 11.40pm, it seems that the many of the problems at the end were a direct result of allowing the situation to build up like a pressure gauge.

I watched the police evacuating Bishopsgate from the vantage point of a window ledge. By keeping Climate Camp contained, this peaceful protest had become a magnet for demonstrators still in the city after other, arguably more aggressive, protests that had been broken up. The police now had to deal with keeping two huge crowds of tried and frustrated protestors apart.

It was extremely intimidating to see Police in riot gear five deep advancing against demonstrators. Batons were used liberally and snarling Police dogs didn’t help the situation either. It is quite remarkable and a credit to Climate Camp protestors that a crowd of that size, crammed together against a wall of Police officers in riot gear, conducted itself so calmly.

It is such a shame that Climate Camp had to end in this way as the general opinion was that the Police were being very peaceful and convivial during the day. It seems that it was the fault of a crowd control strategy that blew any perceived threat out of all proportion, and actually resulted in making the situation far more dangerous than it needed to be. Many people went away feeling that they were being punished for protesting, and that the huge Police operation was a cynical attempt to justify the much-criticised ‘over-policing’ of the G20.

Stuart White said...

ajgardner: many thanks for your account. I am relieved to hear the police started letting people out at 11.40pm.

Sunder Katwala said...

Andrew May at LibDemVoice has an account which chimes with what both Stuart and ajgardner have written here.

Stephen Tall rather effectively challenges the argument of Daniel Finkelstein which is in effect that anybody protesting on Wednesday, rather than Saturday, was asking for trouble (with no distinction between the different protests).

Finkelstein thinks it is extraordinary that senior LibDems should not simply trust the police. But the case for more scrutiny than that is being made rather effectively and in a very level headed way by these personal accounts.

Derek Wall said...

Thanks Stuart,
West Papua, Brazil, Peru....London...civil rights are demolished, so people can be moved out of the way, so the destruction of nature can continue...madness.

For example, this week the Indonesian President is in town for G20 talking to Gordon Brown and Cameron, about 'investment' West Papua police brutality is routine, across Indonesia mines and palm oil for biofuel are displacing local people and leading to environmental destruction...London, West Papua, its all part of the same big process.

Stuart White said...

See also Sunny Hundal's excellent blog on the policing at Liberal Conspiracy.