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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