Opinionist: G20 Protests

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 108 months ago
Opinionist: G20 Protests

Police push into a crowd of protesters near Bank / image by chrisjohnbeckett from the Londonist Flickr pool

We've been talking a lot about the G20 protests this week and been mulling over a number of points. Namely, police tactics and what the point of it all was?

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.

Last Updated 06 April 2009


We've been talking a lot about the G20 protests this week and been mulling over a number of points. Namely, police tactics and what the point of it all was?

I'd question what the point of such blanket coverage was. This is probably the most impressive example of a media-created and fuelled event that I can remember. Numerous sites, including this one, spoke only about the protests, as if the thing these people were "protesting" about didn't even exist. Way to go on missing the bigger story.


When oh when did Londonist decide to hand the reins over to Rachel 'I'm a protester and it's a valid lifestyle choice' H? Sorry to be so flippant, some of what happened during the protests (on both the protesting and the policing sides) was not how we play cricket; needs to be investigated; should be prosecuted etc.

I haven't enjoyed the way Londonist has run headlong with what feels like RachelH's agenda during the G20. That is all.


> By the way, did you make it into work alright?

Yes, I did. I went very early before your protesting pals woke up. I did have to walk home though (an hour and a half with a head cold which is maybe why I'm hissy) as my bus had been cancelled due to the climate camp and kettle.

> lots of non-protesting Londoners who were there, I suspect, to laugh at the hippies

I think you'll find that was the rest of London looking for their buses too.

> Did the protesters get their message across or was it drowned out by panic over anarchists and pictures of smashed windows?

The protesters didn't have a message. They had garbled anger and frustration and yes they got garbled anger and frustration across loud and clear.

p.s. The only time I panicked over an anarchist was the night before when I saw one nearly walk straight under a very nice Audi on Wood Street having just asked directions to Bank in broken English tones which suggested he'd lobbed in from the Continent to lend a loud voice.

Chris Coltrane

Brilliant piece Rach, you've been doing some absolutely fantastic work with your coverage of the protests. Nice one!


excellent post. and very thoughtful.

I always had a very high opinion of police until I went to attend a lecture at the Heathrow climate camp and was appalled at the incendiary tactics used. quite an eye-opener and something we all need to consider with all of the legislation giving the police more and more powers (including the latest outrage about not taking pictures of police).


Kettles act as kettles - they heat up what's inside, to boiling point. And as the kettle is warming, tiered levels of Police response are waiting to enter stage left and stage right. All temperatures are planned for, and all temperatures are expected, including steam.


Can I also join the queue to say: keep up the good work ms H

The Flaneurbanite

Kudos, Rachel, for doing such a brilliant job of the protest coverage. It's tough to be objective and well-balanced on topics like this, and I think you did a smashing job of it! Cheers!

James Bardolph

I was there taking photos. I think you should be a police officer for a day next time something like this comes up - you can stand there all nice without a shield, helmet or baton while glass bottles are thrown at your head. See how long you last.


With the G20 moved on, comes a new law, no more is anyone allowed to photograph a police, fire, ambulance person without being threatened with a fine or prison. Just in case the photograph is used for terrorist activities.

This would make the header photograph illegal.

Free speech seems okay but not a free lens.

Good thing the G20 came first then isn't it...


The law you mention (Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000) has been in force since 16th February 2009, it does not make such photos illegal.


I was there taking photos too. I actually (and seriously)believe there were more photographers and journalists caught up in the kettle than actual and valid protesters. It warmed the cockles of my bitter heart to watch the live Twitter streaming out of the Guardian and the Times to realise that the journos were still cooped up with flat BlackBerry batteries and useless press passes.


I agree with your fans Rachel :) - great series of articles on the subject! Perhaps some of the complainers, here and elsewhere, are happy to have one-sided views in the news as long as it comes from their side (usually a passive one).

I have written at some length on the protests at Ecomonkey and continue to do so as I am absolutely appalled at the behaviour of our police force and the apparent acceptance by government and public alike of brutality and violence.

In response to some viewers confusion at the amount of photographers in many photos - most of us own cameras and many of us think it is imperative to record events such as this when we see them, simply because - as should be more than apparent by now - what is reported in mainstream news is often simply not true or only tells stories from a particular angle. With alternative news sources and prolific camera and video footage from the public, we all gain a more rounded view of what is happening in our world.


RachelH - yep that is my point, take the item image, show this to a judge and who's to say he/she wouldn't think that the image showed police oppression and not just public order?

Each photgraph could be judged differently by many people.


Give over luv - this article is left wing biased bullshit.