Former Met assistant commissioner Andy Hayman defended police use of the ‘kettle’ last week in the Times. The kettle is basically a cordon of police – ‘normal’ or in riot gear – who surround groups of demonstrators, or any other ‘troublesome’ group, keeping them in one place for hours at a time. The idea is that eventually the people within the kettle get tired or bored and just want to go home. But its effect is to tar thousands of people – including people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – with the same brush as a tiny handful of idiots hellbent on violence and destruction.
Commander Simon O’Brien said: “those who wanted to leave could, and those who wanted to stay and make their point, we facilitated that” and that by the end, those who remained wanted to be there. Not actually true. The Guardian reported reported parents wanting to go pick up their children, others in tears, refused permission to leave. Some escaped when police lines broke, but others were gradually released only if they gave their names, addresses and had their photograph taken. Nobody is legally obliged to do this, but anyone who refused was sent back into the cordon for daring to exercise their legal right to protest and privacy.
Tom Whipple in The Times said, “if I were to design a system to provoke and alienate, I could not do better”. All a kettle does is create the very violence it’s supposed to stop. It immediately sets up an ‘us versus them’ situation and tips the balance in favour of a backlash. After all, if you’re already being treated like a criminal, why not behave like one?
In his article Andy Hayman talks about ‘snatch squads’, a quick smash and grab into a crowd to pluck out someone identified as a troublemaker. Why detain thousands when between 40 and 200 have been singled out as violent? Why not arrest the people they’re after and let everyone else go? I suspect they don’t because there wouldn’t be anything to charge them with; is one side-effect of a kettle that it superheats the atmosphere to such a degree that it brings out any latent violence, providing a reason for arrest? It certainly doesn’t stop it full stop: witness the mini riot at London Bridge on Wednesday night and the destruction that occured after the kettle was lifted at Oxford Circus in 2001. But again, it’s worth stopping to wonder if that violence would always have happened, or was it partly created by police tactics?
But even if we were to accept, just for a moment, that kettles stop violence, what possible justification is there for its use on the Climate Camp? No eyewitnesses spotted anything other than fluffy loveliness down at Bishopsgate. In fact, during my wander through the camp I saw a small group of friends who’d clearly come down after work and were just opening up a bottle of red wine to enjoy in the remaining afternoon sunshine. It made me wish I’d been as organised. Though since a cordon was thrown up an hour later and the riot police sent in, it’s probably just as well I wasn’t. And as Bishopsgate had been open to pedestrians the entire afternoon, how many onlookers were caught up?
Yes, the camp blocked off a major City thoroughfare. But Climate Camp organisers say they’d been trying to talk to the Met for weeks. The Met denied all knowledge. Clearly somebody’s lying here. Were the police ever interested in engaging with the demonstrators? Or was the intention to intimidate and justify the media frenzy that happened in the lead-up to the protests?
And the final problem with kettles: people get hurt. We still have to see whether the police did play a role in Ian Tomlinson’s death, but how can they expect to wade into crowds (of mainly peaceful protesters and bystanders, let’s not forget) with batons, or dogs, and not cause injury? Another little discussed tactic of a kettle is to squeeze protesters into an increasingly small space, until there’s no room to move or – sometimes – breathe. It’s a miracle nobody’s ever got seriously hurt at one of these things.
And ultimately, what did any of it achieve? Did the protesters get their message across or was it drowned out by panic over anarchists and pictures of smashed windows? There was certainly little impact on the G20 leaders themselves, particularly on climate change. I would suggest all the police achieved was to destroy their relationship with thousands of members of the public.
However, it might be nice to end on a positive note. Yes, there is one. On my wander through the Climate Camp I overheard conversations by lots of non-protesting Londoners who were there, I suspect, to laugh at the hippies. But they were stunned – in a good way – at the organisation and genial atmosphere. At the music and the dancing. At the ingenuity and decoration. If Climate Camp managed to change these people’s minds about the nature of protest, if it planted a seed of doubt that might germinate the next time they see TV pictures of ‘violent’ protests, then it might be worth it. The more people see for themselves the true nature of these events, in time we might be able to stop discussing disproportionate police tactics because they wouldn’t have the tacit backing of the general public.
So go on: spread the word.