Thursday 2 April 2009

We need to make 'kettling' an issue

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.


andy m11 said...

Hi Stuart, totally agree you obviously saw much of the same abuse of power as I. I was lucky enough to get out of there but not before seeing one unprovoked assault by a police officer on a photographer and a peaceful good natured protest transformed by the police into one of resentment and panic.

We need cross party pressure on this. Whilst the protest is still fresh in peoples minds to get the word out.

To add to the kettling issue, there are unconfirmed reports of taser deployments as threats to some protestors today. According to the principle of proportionality tasers should only be unholstered during instances of extreme violence. I'll update my facebook group tomorrow morning as I may have more on this.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. I am sure there are many ways to take this forward.

1. One specific proposal from me: I propose it would be a good idea, from a Fabian perspective, for me and you to write to Ed Miliband, since as climate change minister, he has rightly been saying we need more civic mobilisation on climate change. There might be value in also writing to others (such as the police minister) but I think Ed Miliband's comments mean this seems to me a good way to push the point about the damage done to environmental campaigning in general, and also to include the political point about the damage to the Labour party in particular. I hope he might at least take up the issue with colleagues in government.

2. There could obviously be value in a formal complaint to the police: that would best come from either the organisers or a group who attended. That may well already be underway: or Andrew May might have ideas about how to take this forward practically, as might NEF or others. It certainly sounds to me as though there would be interest on LiberalConspiracy, LibDemVoice and other relevant sites in promoting a plan to compile several personal accounts; others involved the recent LibertyConvention might also be interested. This would need a lead volunteer to coordinate it; (that shouldn't be us, as we weren't centrally involved, but happy for Next Left to promote this idea alongside others, as I agree about cross-party and non-partisan pressure).

3. Less ambitiously, a letter from you to the Guardian would be a good idea, unless there are already many similar letters tomorrow.

Sunder Katwala said...

To clarify, it seems to me that the LibDems are well placed to take a lead on (2) in terms of formal scrutiny of the policing, Parliamentary questions, etc.

It would be good if they did so in a way which involved Greens, environmental pressure groups, etc. We might be able to offer some help with Labour members and backbenchers if useful.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a lawyer, but without pretty clear justification, this would appear to breach Articles 5, 11 and - arguably - 3 of the ECHR (as you said, it was degrading and we have a much broader definition of torture than our American cousins thank God). This is going to run and run.

Chirimolla said...

The worst thing about kettling and this kind of police behaviour is that it puts people off protesting. This is a democracy. We have a right to protest. But hearing about this is really offputting to someone who may want to be involved in Climate Camp or other peaceful protests in the future.

Individuals involved should complain to their local MPs. If possible go along to a surgery and discuss the issue with them in person. If a significant number of backbenchers cause a fuss about the treatment, it will be a good way to raise the profile of the issue within government.

Rachael Jolley said...

Stuart - You might note that a number of articles about police over reaction and kettling today in the national press, catching up with your report yesterday. LibDem MP Martin Horwood appears to be have been an eyewitness to police action around the climate camp. And the Guardian even quotes criticism of kettling from a former Met officer.

Stuart White said...

Thanks for these comments. Particular thanks to Sunder for some constructive suggestions about how to take this forward. I would be delighted to write a letter with Sunder to Ed Miliband. I think there is a definite head of steam gathering behind a campaign against the kettling tactic, which I will try to support. I entirely agree that one of the worst aspects of kettling is that it simply frightens people off demonstrating.

Bring said...

The tactic of kettling was used for another reason on 1st April.

People around the bank towards the evening were only being allowed to leave the kettle if they agreed to being photographed and giving their personal details to the police. If they refused they were put back in the kettle.

We've really got to stand back and look at police strategy and motives involving legitimate democractic activity as this technique and the accompanied political database is criminalising political activists and is now getting extremely sinister.

Unknown said...

I saw the same tactic of kettling a peaceful protest the next day outside the Bank of England, when protestors came for a peaceful demonstration to mark the death of Ian Tomlinson.

The police were incredibly aggressive. At one point I was taking pictures, and a policeman rode straight at me on a motorbike, with the clear intention of intimidating me and ratcheting up the potentially confrontational nature of the afternoon.

It was, quite frankly, very scary.