Kettling: a ‘naughty step’ for protesters

The rise of police kettling on protests tells us a lot about both aimless radicals and cautious cops.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

A UK High Court ruling that police ‘kettling’ of student protesters was unlawful has been greeted with glee by many mainstream commentators, who seem to see kettling as a kind of modern-day brute Orwellianism. In truth, as annoying as being kettled is, this police tactic seems like a natural development in an era of flabby, formless political protesting. It is the lack of cogent political demands or discipline on radical protests today that has nurtured the kettling phenomenon, with the police erecting a ring around what frequently appear to be confused protesters.

This is not in any way to defend kettling, which restricts basic freedoms of movement and protest. Being kettled is a deeply frustrating experience. You are penned into a small area with thousands of other protesters for hours on end, with no access to toilets or provisions and little to no knowledge of when the police will let you go. This repressive police technique should be abolished.

However, the emergence of kettling does not reflect a new era of police ‘barbarism’ or ‘gross police brutality’, as some have claimed. Rather, the logic behind kettling seems to be an attempt by the authorities to adapt to a new kind of aimless protesting.

It is no coincidence that kettling first started to be used by London’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1990s. Protests such as the Seattle-inspired Carnival Against Capitalism were very different to left-wing protests of the past, with few stewards and no coherent purpose apart from generally raging against globalisation and money, leading to random outbursts of violence and the spontaneous smashing up of McDonald’s restaurants and car showrooms.

With the rise of these new kinds of protests, police started to use the kettling technique during the May Day riots in 2001, when thousands of protesters were forced into an area around Oxford Circus for several hours. Similar kettles were enforced during the anti-G8 summit protests in 2005, the anti-G20 protests at the Bank of England in 2009, and the major anti-fees protests held by students in London at the end of last year.

What all of these protests had in common was a kind of aimlessness. Largely lacking in stewards or organisers, many didn’t even have any real end destination. Indeed, the new breed of protester celebrates the fact that his actions lack the old ‘tyranny’ or ‘straitjacket’ of leaders and ideology. Unlike on past protests, these modern outbursts of rage seldom end in speeches or gatherings – at which demands might be outlined and solidarity shared – and instead end up as an easily kettled collection of bewildered youngsters.

Throughout the twentieth century, protests by-and-large had clearly defined collective objectives and demands, and, as a reflection of that, a clearly defined route and rallying point. The shift from cogent to chaotic kinds of protest was not consciously tactical, as many of today’s new protesters argue. Rather it reflected a bigger political break: the end of longstanding radical ideals and their replacement by the low horizons and general unease of the new green, anti-capitalist, anti-political spasms of untargeted rage. Bereft of direction, confused in their execution, the new protests are easily kettled, with the police effectively bringing an endpoint to a protest that lacks a natural one of its own.

The rise of kettling speaks to changes within the authorities too. This tactic reveals a new desire amongst the police to avoid engaging with protesters directly, to avoid beating and controlling them as they might have tried to do in the past. Instead, the police have developed mostly risk-averse, hands-off tactics for demos, of which kettling is a prime example.

Kettling is really a damage-limitation exercise. The hope is that in pinning protesters into one small area they will eventually become sedate or fall asleep after they have let off enough steam. In a bizarre turn of events, the police now even hand out glossy brochures explaining to protesters what kettling is all about and why the police do it. Kettling is analogous to parents sending children to the ‘naughty step’ to get them to calm down.

Indeed, in the absence of any clear collective ideas, protesters have in many ways become reliant on kettling as a focal point for their radicalism. Protests have turned into games of cat-and-mouse, as youths try to avoid being penned in by the police, using Twitter to organise flash mobs and effectively playing peek-a-boo with the police. The protesters achieve a semblance of collectivity through the experience of being trapped together in a kettle. The shared experience of being kettled has even inspired a book, Fightback! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, edited by an ‘editorial kettle’ of individuals who ‘were all kettled by the police, November-December 2010’.

Tellingly when kettling wasn’t used on the anti-fees demonstration earlier this year, students didn’t know what to do when the march reached its notional endpoint at Millbank in London. People were looking at each other asking, ‘When will the kettle begin?’, as if they were waiting for a rock concert to start. The lack of the endpoint provided by a police kettle led to many bewildered looks on the faces of the student radicals.

Kettling is best explained as a police tactic nurtured by the twin phenomena of confused, directionless protests and an increasingly cautious state. Yes, the police should immediately pull the plug on kettles – firstly because they are repressive and annoying, and secondly because it might help to force protesters to discover a greater sense of purpose to their demonstrations than playing a game of rough-and-tumble with the cops.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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