The state of kettling

by | 8 Dec 2010

The resort to kettling as a preliminary strategy of the London Met has left many of us worried – not to mention cold, hungry, and angry for hours at a time. Those of us who have been subject to the pigpen have many stories to share about being detained for hours on end without medication, proper clothing, food, or communication with outside parties. And we are worried, not just about the growing prevalence of this strategy as a way of forcibly delimiting the spaces of public protest, but also because of its potential effects on the hearts and minds of protestors and other demonstrators-in-the-making.

In several conversations I have had with comrades who’ve been rounded-up on one or more occasions, there has been a recurring theme of concern. These individuals articulate a hesitation about going to future actions for fear of long detainment in (especially as Winter sets in) less than desirable conditions. Of course, one might respond to such concerns with a simple ‘get over it – dress warm and see you on the streets’. There is some important advice to heed in such a retort. Certainly we don’t want to be giving the London Met any credit in scaring us off with their strategies of containment. We could – and will – wait them out any day.

However, as kettling becomes a normalized tactic at large-scale demos, many who would normally be inclined to demonstrate for a few hours talk about staying away for fear of being contained for an entire day. Certainly, the potential deployment of kettling makes it difficult for those with children or other obligations to commit to being on the streets. Moreover, since the normalization of the tactic, I have seen the mere arrival of the would-be kettlers strike fear in people on the streets for fear of arbitrary detention. Now, I am no proponent of liberal democracy but it strikes me that, even on its own terms, the normalization of this strategy has serious consequences for the liberal conception of public dissent.

And Lois Austin agrees with me.

Austin, a demonstrator kettled at Oxford Circus in 2001 during a May Day march, recently challenged the tactic (Austin v Commissioner [2009] UKHL – represented by Christian Khan). Austin argued that the use of kettling was a deprivation of her liberty and constituted a breach of Article 5 of the ECHR. The courts sided with the police in the original case, as well as on appeal and in the House of Lords. In the House of Lords case, Lord Hope claimed “…measures of crowd control will fall outside the area of [Article 5], so long as they are not arbitrary. This means that they must be resorted to in good faith, that they must be proportionate and that they are enforced for no longer than is reasonably necessary” (12). The case has now gone to the ECtHR – along with two other cases represented by Bindmans (Lowenthal and O’Shea) and another by Liberty (Black) – and isn’t expected to be heard for several years. For those eager to wait for the case hearings or the police to act in ‘good faith’, I must say that holding one’s breath has shown to have seriously adverse health effects.

Significantly, what the Lords spent considerable time elucidating in Austin was the police force’s need to respond to an “unexpected” threat from protestors who i) did not negotiate their plans with the police, and ii) broadcasted the likelihood of serious property damage. Indeed, the legitimacy of kettling in this instance rested on the understanding of it as a spontaneous reaction, rather than an institutionalized strategy for policing dissent. However, as we see the proliferation of the strategy as normalized tactic, beginning in some cases before demonstrations even begin (see reports from Birkbeck students on the morning of 24 November 2010), the Lords’ reasoning (unsurprisingly) falls short.

Although one might hope that the adverse effects of kettling as a normalized tactic would catch the attention of some Lord almighty (and it may well in the pending Judicial Review investigating the proportionality of the police tactics), the innumerable avenues for clemency available to the police do not inspire hope. In addition to the judges’ justification of the tactic based on the immediacy of the situation, they also legitimized it on the grounds that Austin continued to have access to a megaphone (and therefore her right to freely express her opinions), that there was a potential threat to public safety which only the police could know and monitor at the time, and that it was reasonable, given the actions of some, to detain all. As David Meade argues,

What we see in Austin is effectively collective guilt by association – and the larger the potentially guilty group (that is the larger the numbers of those threatening or becoming violent), the more defensible it is for the police to exercise indiscriminate control. They do not need to make specific allegations of the likelihood of trouble against any one person provided they can identify a cohort they cannot isolate and deal with separately. (Mead [2009] EHRLR: 9)

Not that any of this is new or particularly shocking for most of us. What is significant however, is the prevalence of “guilt-by-association” that circulates in this reasoning, and its resonance with that of the most recent comments made by UK Police Minister Nick Herbert. In an interview with the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow, Herbert warned potential demonstrators of the perils of taking to the streets for the National Day of Action on 9 December 2010. Herbert claims,

anybody joining one of these demonstrations must take care…if you know, having seen the scenes on the previous week, that there is a group of people who are bent on violence, on causing criminal damage, on intimidation, on breaking the law, any of us would think twice, wouldn’t we, about whether we wish to be associated with those people” (emphasis mine, Friday 3 December 2010).

Herbert’s opaque comments here are analogous to the amorphous powers of the police themselves – both are driven by vague crypticisms that can be put to use as the wielder (or the wielder’s Staff Sergeant) sees fit. As Walter Benjamin aptly put it in 1921, “the violence of the police is as amorphous as its phantom manifestation (nowhere graspable, everywhere in evidence)”. Given these comments and the judges reasoning in the Austin case, it is likely that “guilt-by-association” will legitimize the use of kettling at upcoming student demonstrations merely as a result of the “violence” at previous demos.

The impulse to seek legal redress against kettling is tempting – indeed, the hopes of finding a thread which would unfurl the tightly woven powers of the police in these instances is enticing. But the fact of the matter is firstly, that cases, reviews, and reports (such as the HMIC Denis O’Connor’s report “Adapting to Protest”) come after the fact. They have no way of retroactively helping us on the streets when we are dealing with police violence. Secondly, and more foundationally, if such a thread was found, I imagine it would unravel to reveal countless more sweaters, all hand-stitched with loving care by the promises of liberal democracy. These promises, designed to self-legitimize themselves, produce endless justifications for the necessary delimitations of freedom in the name of state security. Here I do not only mean the contemporary experience of governance through securitization, but also the very stability of the state. As we continue to invest our political hopes in these state-sanctioned approaches, we remain dependent on and invested in these promises of liberal-democracy that will continue to allow the police to utilize their powers largely how they see fit.

Kettling is a terrible tactic both for those caught between the police lines, and for those who fear such a fate. But perhaps rather than attempting to frustrate the strategy through legal means, our plan of action should be to show its incapacity to work on the streets. We saw a minor glimpse of this on Wednesday 24 November 2010 when upon a police attempt to kettle, hundreds of demonstrators went running in sporadic directions, indirectly creating dozens of anarchic snake marches in central London. These splinter groups may have challenged the aesthetic of the single mob-demonstrations that are so photo-friendly, but their uncontainability is a real threat to kettling. Perhaps then Herbert’s comments should not be a ‘warning’ to those planning on turning up to the day of action on 9 December, but rather an incitement to creative approaches in rendering kettling an ineffective police tactic.


  1. Thanks for this article. I wonder what we can do given the above?

    I spent many hours kettled yesterday around Parliament Square and then on Westminster Bridge. Who to contact? the media did nothing on the kettling of hundreds, or was it a few thousand on the bridge, potentially a very dangerous tactic that could have led to serious harm. It was mass arrest, collective punishment that was being meted out against us.

    A complaint to the IPCC? To our MPs? Is there any point in these? Do we just give up on the idea of mass demos? Or find creative ways to make the kettle productive?

    • Thanks for your comment. I know, the length of the kettling on Westminster bridge yesterday was incredibly atrocious. I don’t want to discourage attempts at forcing politicians to condemn police violence (within which I would include kettling) but as I said in the article, that tactic hasn’t gotten anyone very far as of yet. I think firstly we have to take care of ourselves by being prepared for kettles (warm clothes, food, medication, etc…), but also try and think about strategies of demonstration that outwit kettling logic. When everyone gets stuck in one massive mob we aren’t being very effective dissenters. I think we have to be more alert so as to avoid being kettled (being aware of the space around us) and create disturbances in those unexpected spaces. I think this means creatively strategizing in smaller (and multiple) groups while simultaneously supporting other demonstrators’ actions…

  2. What you don’t deal with is how to answer the ‘guilt by association’ move. I’m afraid the protest movements do need a response to Nick Herbert’s challenge, and the only one that makes sense is to repudiate the deliberately violent element and organise demonstrations in a way that clearly separates peaceful protest from them. Otherwise the government and the police will always have a compelling argument for kettling. After yesterday the movement is at a crossroads and this hard choice cannot be avoided.

  3. that, am I going to add to said sea of comment? Yes, I think I am since I’m not on my own doiman First off, I don’t agree with the tuition fees policy. University was plenty expensive enough for me back in 1989. Personally I think a carefully considered graduate tax is a much better approach paying for benefits realised rather than putting up a barrier to achievement. However, for me, the whole fees affair has been marked by hypocrisy and self-righteousness on both sides. Clearly, some students are going to suffer from this legislation. I feel for them. But I don’t particularly feel for their right-on, middle-class friends who get validation from aligning themselves with the oppressed’. For them, demonstrating is about looking cool and feeling worthy, rather than challenging regressive policy. And if this is really about political rebellion, how about questioning the policies that will bring genuine, physical suffering cuts to housing benefit, children’s services, etc. Children in foster care can’t ride their Railcards down to London for a fun day out with placards so why not raise a voice for them, as well as your own interests? Tuition fees are bad, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re low down on the scale of suffering. All this would be forgivable if the protest was likely to have the intended result. But it’s not. It plays straight into the hands of the Tory government (yes, I know), who can play with ideas like using watercannon to excite self-righteous, reactionary sentiment and bolster their own image as guardians of what’s right and proper. Deep down, I think both sides know this. The students don’t want to overthrow the government, just as the government don’t want to batter them with nightsticks. All have too much to gain from the status quo. Rather than shaking things up, the protest merely serves to entrench each side’s positions which are far closer to each other than either side would like to admit. Once all the noise is made, the right-on students will become media planners and the MPs will become Lords. And the next generation can take the stage for their round of empty, pious posturing.Tom Albrightonb4s last [type] ..


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