P(l)ot, Kettle, Black: The G20 Protests and Some Critical Legal Thoughts

So what stood out at the G20 protests? What was so im­portant about such a mass of in­di­viduals swarming in their many creeds against a system that is in seeming decay? What, some said to me, was the point of such an en­deavour when the leaders of the world were trying to gather to­gether and do some­thing about the cur­rent global situation?

The an­swer to this is the very dis­agree­ment with the con­structs that we have be­come so part of, the struc­tures that this very web­site and many others, whether within the Critical Legal tra­di­tion or not, seek to up­hold as falsity. Of course, there was a myriad of dif­fering is­sues to be put for­ward as well, from the chan­ging cli­mate, to anti-​war protests, to poverty, to housing rights. At a time when such a system of ex­ploit­a­tion has its belly up­turned and is at its most vul­ner­able, then quite frankly, why not have a go at ex­posing its rotten core when you have such an in­cred­ible op­por­tunity? This is all about sym­bolism of course, right now anyway, but the spec­tac­ular nature of such protests does allow for some at­ten­tion, whether of the pos­itive nature, or that of the more fa­miliar negative.

With the input of some per­sonal re­marks of the events of the day, some thoughts on po­lice and protest tac­tics will follow, with some crit­ical legal ob­ser­va­tions to conclude.

Kettle

Standing on the lines of those that walked from the four meeting points on April 1, I joined the home­less­ness march, or the ‘Black Horse’ march that rep­res­ented one of the four horsemen of the apo­ca­lypse. There were no ac­tual horses there mind, other than the mounted ones that joined us to ‘clear’ protestors later on in the day, whatever that means. In with the mish-​mash of fluor­es­cent jackets were po­lice, media, and a large con­tin­gent of la­bourers who were working on nearby un­fin­ished of­fice building pro­jects. I started to walk with two builders who had taken to the streets mainly out of curi­osity, as the media build-​up had been so pro­nounced. Not only had they un­as­sum­ingly joined the housing march, but they were also there for their own per­sonal reasons, having had little work on-​and-​off since last year due to the col­lapsed building market. They were shocked by the al­most army-​style man­oeuvres of the po­lice, even at el­even in the morning — they walked be­hind the lines and had a good vantage point up ahead as we fol­lowed the gath­ering crowds to­wards the Bank of England. The very pres­ence of these builders in­trigued me due the very ec­lective nature of the protestors who had de­cided to show their pres­ence within the Square Mile that day.

By noon, the four dif­ferent marches had sur­rounded the Bank of England, as planned, and there was cer­tainly a car­ni­valesque at­mo­sphere, as had been in­tended by those who had pro­moted the protests. Indeed, this frivolous feeling was felt by my­self pretty much until the point at which the real­isa­tion of the ‘kettle’ dawned. As now has been well-​documented, ‘ket­tling’ is a po­lice tactic much util­ised in the UK to con­tain protestors whereby block­ades are used and there is no means of leaving the protest once you are there, until the po­lice lines are re­laxed or broken. Enquiring along a number of the block­ades that were there, it be­came quite clear that there was an or­gan­ised in­tent not to allow anyone to leave the Bank of England area, each of the of­ficers un­help­fully stating, ‘You cannot leave this cordon, but try an­other of the lines.’

The very mixed make-​up of those who were present at the demon­stra­tion per­haps heightens the wor­rying stance of the au­thor­ities and their tac­tics in this in­stance. There were city workers there on their lunch breaks, there were eld­erly in­di­viduals and chil­dren who were caught in the blockade for hours. It does not need stating from a legal point of view that there was some false im­pris­oning going on.

Black

Now the Black Block are seen as some­thing to be her­alded and you can ima­gine that there might soon be a ‘Black Block’ col­lec­tion in Top Shop – ‘Get the new season’s fashion ac­cessory, a stylish black scarf hung loosely around the face with these flash pair of fake diamante ear­rings.’ The point is, there is no real ‘Black Block’ as a group what­so­ever, they are a tactic, the front­line of act­iv­ists who choose to ex­press them­selves in a more out­spoken manner than others who are present. These either take the form of block­ades or prop­erty de­struc­tion. Black Block tac­tics have been around for dec­ades, the shade it­self his­tor­ic­ally used by Autonomist groups on the con­tinent as it ‘…be­came the colour of the polit­ical void – of the with­drawal of al­le­gi­ance to parties, gov­ern­ments, and na­tions.’ (Katsiaficas, p90) There are many con­spiracy the­ories sur­rounding the smashing up of the RBS building, that it wasn’t even done by protestors in the first place, but the po­lice in their ‘Brown Block’ at­tire. It is fairly well un­der­stood that it wasn’t your normal Black Blockers anyway. What is clear here is that part of the ‘summer of rage’ pro­pa­ganda that the media are so willing to lap up, the Black Block are of course stigmatised.

P(L)ot

Having now had ac­cess to the many videos that are now coming in doc­u­menting the re­pressive stance of the po­lice on that day, it seems as though there is some­thing clearly that reached beyond the dir­ective of the of­ficers that were on the front­line of these attacks.

So what was the role of the law in all of this seem­ingly pre-​determined strategy of sup­pres­sion? There are in­stances when the law is, as al­ways, tailored to the wills of the au­thor­ities, and there­fore, they re­main within the law. The kettle strategy was very help­fully held to be lawful by the House of Lords in January (Davies). The old se­curity issue was wheeled out for Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, giving the po­lice stop and search powers to search for art­icles con­nected with ter­rorism. Most re­cently, sec­tion 76 of the Counter-​Terrorism Act 2008 crim­in­al­izes the taking of pho­to­graphs on demonstrations.

And yet there were also some flag­rant vi­ol­a­tions of the law, whereby for in­stance, a senior City of London of­ficer used the Public Order Act in an at­tempt to clear journ­al­ists from a me­morial event for Tomlinson on 2 April. The Met then apo­lo­gized for mis­using the law to dis­perse the media later on (Davies). There were a number of po­lice of­ficers caught on camera who could not be iden­ti­fied by their shoulder iden­ti­fic­a­tion badges, an­other breach of the rules of en­gage­ment. Not only that, but there was the il­legal evic­tion of the Convergence Centre that had been set up during the or­gan­iz­a­tion of the protests, and so too the storming of the ‘ram­pART’ so­cial centre, an­other hub of protest activity. Whoever said the po­lice would play by the rules?

Critical Legal Thoughts

So what crit­ical legal thoughts can be drawn from these ac­tions? Timely as it seems, that there is a great deal of con­fu­sion over whether or not the CCTV cam­eras were in op­er­a­tion at the time, or whether the Corporation of London had direct in­struc­tions to have the cam­eras in the area switched off prior to the days of the protests. And yet the use of re­cording, whether in the form of pho­to­graphs or footage, by the media, the au­thor­ities, or the protestors them­selves, is re­vealed as some­thing of a weapon of ac­count­ab­ility in the un­rav­el­ling of these events – and so too for demon­stra­tions in the fu­ture. Weapons of ac­count­ab­ility that allow for every bystander, par­ti­cipant, journ­alist or po­lice of­ficer, to enact their very own form of legal ob­ser­va­tion. This has been de­scribed as ‘in­verse sur­veil­lance’, the ‘…watchful vi­gil­ance from un­der­neath, by cit­izens, of those who survey and con­trol them.’ Could this be a post­modern ex­pres­sion of ju­di­cial re­view, taken back to its roots and re-​founded with the people? Back in 17th cen­tury, the moral weight of a com­munity echoed the streets if there was dis­con­tent with a de­cision made by a member of that com­munity, or even the au­thor­ities them­selves. With the ad­vent of ‘sous­veil­lance’, per­haps the level of dis­gust that seeing these videos can trigger could be some­thing very re­min­is­cent of cen­turies gone-​by mech­an­isms of ac­count­ab­ility indeed.

It ap­pears as though there is a very public tug-​o-​war going on over the rights to the very idea of cri­tique it­self. The law of the state versus the law of the people, and the rules of en­gage­ment dis­in­teg­rated by those who have the mono­poly of force – and ul­ti­mately, the mono­poly of law. What stands out is the role of the front­line act­iv­ists, the Black Block and their sym­bolic pres­ence. They seem to dance on the verdant lim­inal of the lines of the law in order to re­dis­tribute its con­tents. If there is an in­stance of the pot calling the kettle black, it must be the au­thor­ities’ ap­pre­hen­sion of pro­tec­tion in the form of leg­ality and sur­veil­lance, amounting to an­other typ­ical at­tempt to smother dis­sensus. We must there­fore take heed from the lim­inal, and seek to un­der­stand the fun­da­mental prin­cipals these act­iv­ists wish to re­trieve through their own form of cri­tique. The lim­inal is the threshold, the point at which de­cisional in­nov­a­tion takes place and en­tropic, res­istant leg­ality, can ensue. This is where con­stituent dis­sensus rests, the line upon which it es­tab­lishes it­self as ‘oth­er­wise’ (Christodoulidis, p189). The law (or the MET in this case) ac­know­ledges this through its at­tempt to thwart the lim­inal (the Black Block), and so legal ob­ser­va­tion in the fu­ture should most cer­tainly be on the front­lines – legal ob­ser­va­tion must be the frontline.

Texts:

Christodoulidis, E, ‘Against Substitution, The Constitutional thinking of Dissensus’ in Paradox of Constitutionalism, (Loughlin, M & Walker, N, eds) (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

Davies, Liz. (2009), “Cops must face the law”, Barrister, the Haldane Society

Katsiaficas, G., The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonisation of Everyday Life, (Oakland, A K Press, 2006)

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