Thursday, April 02, 2009

Tea yes, kettling no!

Lot's of reports from across the blogosphere about excessive and aggressive policing (again!) at yesterday's G20 demos. Disappointing, but not particularly surprising. It seems lessons haven't been learnt from the policing of last year's Climate Camp at Kingsnorth.

I was there in spirit, but had decided to stay home and catch up on my backlog of casework and other Council stuff. However, fellow Green councillor for neighbouring Brockley ward, Romayne Phoenix, was there, and experienced first hand police tactics, including 'kettling', where the police surround a crowd of protestors and don't let anyone come or go for a few hours until the crowd either starts to get so angry that surge forward and push their way through the police lines (cue headline about violent protestors at demo), or they are eventually allowed to trickle out once the police deem them to be thoroughly demoralised and to have learnt a lesson for daring to exercise their democratic right to protest. A potentially effective way to turn a bunch of peaceful protestors into an angry mob, if that's the headline you want (though the vast majority of protestors refused to oblige the police with any violence yesterday).

Kettling is a very dodgy way to police a peaceful protest, in my opinion, as is using anti-terrorism legislation to check the ID of every protestor before you let them leave. Sadly, a man died at the protest yesterday - the IPCC are investigating and the cause is not yet known, but the media have been strangely quiet about it. Green London Assembly member and member of the Metropolitan Police Association, Jenny Jones, will no doubt be raising concerns about policing tactics with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson.

Anyway, account of the protests from Romayne below:
Picture: Romayne with fellow Green Shasha Khan, from Croydon.
"In 31 years of active participation in peaceful street demonstrations I have NEVER before been close to the threat of being 'kettled' in ( trapped ) by police. This tactic has more often been used at stages much later in the day after the majority of protesters have left, and when small groups seem determined to continue with their actions, and possibly a few of these who could have plans to develop their actions beyond the lines supported by the demonstrators of the day.

We started the day by joining others, from many different groups and charities, at Liverpool Street Station. The 'street theatre' plan was for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to march from different locations towards Bank. Each horse representing a different threat - War, Climate Change, Financial Crimes, and Land Enclosures. Each was assigned a separate colour. We joined in with the Climate Change group, headed by a Green Horseman.

Many people were in fancy dress costumes, others with elaborate face paints, some with craftsmanlike banners and flags and others with moving, witty or plainly stated quickly concocted creations. The atmosphere was relaxed and the sunshine brought out a festive feel to the affair. With a few odd halts along the way, we at last reached the area of the Bank of England where others had also arrived from their separate journeys.

Planning to leave the area of the Bank of England, with a few friends, having made our peaceful protests for about an hour, we headed towards Queen Victoria Street, only to be met at a fork in the road by a solid line of police. Beyond them was a space and we could see two further roads where police lines were 'containing' other crowds of people, just as determined as us to leave . It was very warm, bright and sunny and it was lunchtime. As we became further 'herded' together the police seemed to sip from their water bottles in a very provocative manner. Someone was heard saying that the police had declared that they were paid to work through the night in reply to her question as to when we all might be allowed to leave.

We were told that our detention was due to their anticipation of a breach of the peace. Legal advice sought while we stood held against our will, confirmed that such a threat of breach of the peace was a valid power that the police could use. Supposedly, as soon as such a threat has passed then people should be released. In our 'pen' the mood was fairly stoical / calm and we kept ourselves amused as best we could.

As time pressed on I made several challenges to the police about our civil liberties/ about methods they could use to plan an orderly exit using the helicopter views and their ground forces / about the lack of any actual breach of the peace in view / earshot of any of the hundreds of people so trapped in this particular road. On one occasion a senior officer was contacted to answer my concerns but as he came towards the line he simply 'whispered' to an officer and retreated. We were then told that we were to be held. Told that we would be held until they said so.

If anyone had actually been arrested they would have been entitled to water , food and the use of a toilet. After being detained for a couple of hours, and having arrived an hour or so before that, with no estimate as to the duration of our further detainment, this treatment of very peaceful people certainly seemed to be a provocative police action and not an 'intelligent' use of police or an acceptable set of tactics. Added to this, at various intervals we could see riot police, in full kit, rushing out of their vans , causing some panic and consternation in the hitherto still and mostly silent crowds. Just as suddenly the riot police seemed to retreat back to their vehicles. Was the agitation of the crowds the essential factor in justifying the fears of 'breach of the peace' ?

Being at the front of the crowd I did on a few occasions make calls for our civil liberties, listing some of the important responsibilities that these individual people had the need and the right to carry out ( child care , jobs, care of relatives, simply choosing where to spend their time, or preparing and heading for the AGM of their local council........). These seemed to go down well and at least broke some of the boredom factor of the situation.

On two occasions I saw an individual attempting to demand their freedom by walking 'through' the police line. This action resulted in a very aggressive response each time with four or five police officers to tackle the individual to the ground.

Eventually, when a group of people pushed forward together they broke the line of police in front of us. There was a sudden movement of bodies that could have resulted n a crush, but people were mindful of each other and no-one fell under foot. The impetus was however 'forward', and as I made my way to the edge of the crowd I could see that the police line had collapsed and individual officers were standing alone looking lost and without a plan. Continuing to walk on, the crowds dispersed. Peacefully.

I returned to find friends and colleagues as we had become separated in the surge. As we prepared to leave we could see others still being trapped in at the far end of the road. We decided to turn down a side street. Calmly we walked to the tube station. Free once more. For now.

Is this a taste of things to come ?
What is the point of having so much surveillance and yet failing to make proper use of any of it? We need to challenge these counter-productive and unacceptable police tactics now."


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. I am curious as to the kind of actions we can invent to escape this kettling tactic - I'm interested to hear that in your example the crowd managed to break the police line. Kettling has such potential to ruin demonstrations(as is the intention, I expect) and so as activists, we need to have an organised, tactical response whenever we find ourselves 'kettled' (is that a verb?!). Obviously strength in numbers is key. I don't advocate violence but self defence - i.e. against false imprisonment, which this is tantamount to - is the only logical action - we have democratic rights to uphold, aside from any of the things we are there to protest about. It's a case of getting more imaginative with our protests and I'm looking forward to seeing what solutions we come up with. And soon, I hope, before all democratic voices are silenced on the streets.

Sven said...

I did hear some media coverage of a group breaking out of the kettle, and then breaking back in again. I believe it may have been the infinitely focused on youths in hoodies and scarves. If this is done in a non-violent fashion (pushing rather than punching and kicking) it seems like a valid tactic to me. Making it clear that if people wish to leave the kettle, they can and will.

Incidentally, I dont see whats so objectionable about people covering their faces, as long as they aren't breaking the law. It seems like a sensible and non-violent protest against the ever increasing and indiscriminate use of surveillance by the Police.