Those of us living in the so-called advanced democracies such as the United Kingdom often forget that Police is an integral part of coercive capacity of the state. Yet, what should make a democracy democratic is accountability of the state to the people. People matter. It is not enough that in Britain, there are organizations to oversee policing. Democracy is more about a culture than institutions, a culture that is intolerant of dehumanization of people. My experience of witnessing the policing of the recent student protests in London (especially on 24 November in the Whitehall area and on 30 November in Trafalgar Square) against the government’s attack on public education raises serious questions about how democratic we really are. The events of 9 December, and the efforts of mainstream politicians and media to shift the attention away from protestors’ demands and police harshness, makes it clear that the vocabulary of policing is set to get more violent.
What struck me most during the demonstrations was not the violent behavior of policemen (they were mostly male and so I use policemen consciously) per se but the language they used. While photographing the protests, I concentrated mostly on the police because I was shocked by the tactics, the facial expressions, the body language, and the vocabulary deployed by many policemen. It was clear that individual cops represented a kind of socialization, an acculturation that sees democratic protests as regrettable, protestors as nuisance at best and subversives at worst.
‘We do not kettle, kettling is a term coined by the media, we only contain’ – different cops parroted it as if they were giving a unique insight to me. I will be surprised if there is no memo shared amongst all police forces that asks them to refuse to accept that they kettle and repeat the mantra of containment. The medicalisation of discourse here is conspicuous. Expressions such as ‘We contain’ or ‘We end the containment through drip feed’ or ‘This is a sterile zone’ gives a sense that it is not people but virus/disease that is being talked about. Protestors are human beings and not diseases that need containment. When ‘containment’ creates ‘sterile zones’ around it, it is terror (there is no other word to describe it when one witnesses young men and women’s face when they are hit with baton or charged with horses and pushed into a confined area by police in riot gear) that is used by the police to create dissent-free spaces.
When I raised this with different policemen during the demonstrations and tried to explain to them that they are dealing with living breathing human beings, all I got was a profanity or a frown or an answer ‘this is our job’. The problem with ‘this is our job’ line is a lack of self-reflection about how certain professions suck humanity out of those in it. A cop standing on the external perimeter of the kettle smiled at an inquisitive old lady and said patronizingly ‘nothing serious, some students are protesting’ while his colleagues were using horse charge inside on 24th November; I had seen the same man an hour ago shoving a young girl and smirking menacingly at her friends who asked him not to be rough.
When I argued futilely with a few policemen during the bitterly cold evening of 30th November to allow a couple of young school kids to use the restroom of the cafe that had been shut on the explicit orders of police (they realized that students are getting hot drinks and using toilets in Cafe Nero and therefore a policewoman went in and asked for the place to be shut down immediately), especially as there were no protestors in that corner of the Trafalgar Square at that time, and in exasperation said that they ought to be ashamed of their behavior, their response was calm – ‘We are proud’. I have no doubts that they are proud of what they do. What to expect when the culture of policing dehumanizes protestors to an extent where they need to be ‘contained’.
Containment thus is not a strategy that prevents disorder, contrary to the police claims, for it encourages more anger, fear and exasperation amongst those ‘contained’. During the protests, it was clear that peaceful resistance became less so only after police started kettling. The police chiefs lie when they say containment follows rather than precedes any violence from the protestors. Surely those in charge of strategizing policing must know this. Why do they still persist with it? First, by ‘containing’ the protestors, they separate them from non-protestors and prevent solidarity or sympathy from the latter. Second, It is a sadistic technique to make protestors think twice before they exercise their right to protest. Third, by creating a limited geography and separating them from the general public, it dehumanizes the protestors so that policemen and policewomen see them as nothing but ‘subversive elements’ or as ‘thugs’.
As everyone who has experienced or witnessed police strategy of containment knows, the primary purpose is not to prevent disorder but to punish the protestors. Harsh policing peaks after the protest has peaked. On 30th November, after the protest had peaked, some people were arrested, and there were scores of protestors left at night in sub-zero temperature, hundreds of police remained. I wondered why so many police when the protest was clearly over. A policeman who I had befriended and shared a chocolate with while waiting for some of my students to come out of the kettle told me that all those who have a ‘history’ or ‘record’ are first identified (that is police cameras match protestors’ face with a database to see if they have previous record) and arrested; so those left inside the kettle in the last couple of hours are those who have no criminal record, have not committed any illegal act, and therefore have done nothing wrong. They are kept in to remind them of the ‘cost’ of protesting, to deter them from protesting next time.
Kettling/Containment is thus a subversion of democracy. It is a discourse that creates artificial separation between protestors and public (as if protestors are not members of the public) and rejects the former as subversives. It deploys vocabulary that dehumanizes protestors and thus legitimizes a culture of policing that is antidemocratic. After the recent student protests, Britain needs a serious rethinking of whether we want a democratic policing or a policed democracy.
Dr Dibyesh Anand is an Associate Professor in International Relations at London’s Westminster University. More details can be found at www.dibyesh.com