There is now a growing body of testimony from a range of people, from a wide range of political affiliations, that the police tactics at the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate on April 1, 2009 were remarkably heavy-handed and unjustified.
The Climate Camp was a discrete event and, as I and many others have now testified, it was, so far as we could see, entirely peaceful and convivial while the police presence - which was always, and appropriately, strong - was itself relaxed. What the police did towards the end of the afternoon of April 1 and well into the night hours was to create a problem where none existed.
The core issue concerns the police tactic of 'kettling' . (I'm not sure if the term originates with activists or with the police: I suspect the former.) Essentially, this means forming a barrier around a group of protestors so that nobody can get in or out of the protesting group. Around 5.30 pm on April 1, the police 'kettled' the Climate Camp in Bishopsgate.
I'm not an anarchist, and I accept the police have a job to do, and that perhaps in some circumstances - I have an open mind - this tactic might be appropriate.
But there are three reasons why it is in general a bad idea, and a tactic that should be the exception and not the norm:
(1) It increases tension and the possibility of violence. We have multiple, credible accounts that tension only emerged at the Climate Camp once the police had imposed the 'kettle'. You can understand why it might raise temperatures. It is, at a basic human level, distressing to be refused exit from an area, particularly an area where lots of other people are feeling distressed because they can't get out; and an area which is entirely surrounded by police in riot gear. You feel scared by the surrounding police; you want to get out; but you can't; and lots of other people around you are feeling the same, which reinforces your own distress.
(2) It increases risks of injury to the vulnerable. People at the Camp were of all ages. In my time there (4.00-5.10pm), I saw at least one family with a small toddler. A 'kettle' means 'nobody in, nobody out'. I have no idea if the police made an exception for families with young children when they imposed it: all the available testimony indicates that they were pretty insistent on people staying where they were. But you can see the potential problem. If you trap a group of people in an area, then if violence does break out, children and other vulnerable people are trapped: they are unable to escape the danger zone because the police are keeping them in it. Do we have to wait for some horrendous event in which a child is seriously hurt to see the danger here?
(3) It demeans and degrades the reasonable citizen. Finally, we have to consider the message which the 'kettle' sends out to us - to me and you, and all our fellow citizens. You go on a protest and you find yourself imprisoned in a territory by the police. The state is saying, in effect: 'We trust and respect you so little that we are going to do to you what we do to criminals: imprison you.' Yet, from your point of view, you are asserting a basic democratic right to protest. Your status as a citizen is symbolically demoted to that of a criminal - even though you are engaged in peaceful protest. This is demeaning and degrading. Do we want police tactics which treat peaceful protestors as on a par with criminals? Do we want a society in which ordinary people who peacefully protest have to suffer this humiliation at the hands of the state?
The issue of the 'kettle' is one that needs now to be brought into public debate. The police use of it at Bishopsgate on April 1 was, almost certainly, bad policing. It was bad in the most basic sense that it enhanced the risk of disorder the police are there to prevent. But it was also bad because 'kettling' is, in its spirit and message, fundamentally anti-democratic.