This is the first of two articles written by Kevin Blowe in preparation for the ‘Standing up to Surveillance’ conference tomorrow, at which he is speaking. Reproduced from his blog Random Blowe with permission.
An online campaign calling for a ban on kettling seems, on the face of it, like a complete no-brainer for anyone who has attended a major protest in the last two years. The enforced street containment of protesters for long periods and severe restriction on their freedom of movement by the police appears designed to deliberately shut down legitimate dissent and has a marked tendency to increase the likelihood of confrontation.
But here’s a question: if kettling WAS actually banned, would the policing of marches and demonstrations suddenly and significantly change for the better?
Containment is, after all, just another way of saying ‘control within strict limits’ – and rigid control of protest does seem like an essential part of the way all demonstrations are now policed. For instance, we’ve all seen that efforts to ‘kettle the message’ – through the control of accurate information on unfolding events, of the way news is reported by the media, by talking up the prospect of violence and planting the odd outrageous claim about ‘ammonia filled lightbulbs’, or simply seeking to dictate the boundaries of what is a ‘reasonable’ right to freedom of assembly and expression – is seen as just as important to the police as containing people and controlling public space. When this control of the message breaks down, as it did with the unusually high level of public scrutiny following 2009’s G20 protests (resulting from a combination of public disquiet at Ian Tomlinson’s death, protesters’ own video evidence and eye-witness testimony), we’ve then seen how desperately keen the police become to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the consequences of their containment tactics.
Let’s take the boundaries of what is a ‘reasonable’ as another example. One of the striking features of the recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report “Facilitating Peaceful Protest” is that all its recommendations relate to just one type of street protest – the stewarded march from point X to point Y along a pre-arranged route, sanctioned by the police under prior negotiation.
Now marches are undoubtedly an important part of the popular expression of dissent and only the biggest cynic would argue that the recent, enormous TUC anti-cuts march wasn’t a significant achievement. It was, however, far from typical because of its size and the value of the ‘point X to point Y’ march as a tactic has been diminished by the disillusionment a generation of demonstrators felt after raised expectations of the impact of the huge march against the Iraq war in 2003. In addition, anyone who has attended a number of marches begins to notice that they often feel distinctly like a ‘enclosed public space’, separate and isolated from the world beyond the lines of police and stewards, with little interaction with the areas that marchers pass through and, commonly, with very little wider media coverage.
Growing disillusionment with ‘traditional’ marches may in part explain why police contact with protesters is far more likely to be confrontational during protests that, until recently, have been studiously ignored in the establishment debate over public order – protests such as sit-ins, occupations, blockades and spontaneous action that targets economic and corporate interests including banks, carbon traders or businesses that like to avoid their tax responsibilities. These tactics have grown in popularity over the last five years. So are the vast majority of these kind of protesters not also engaged in ‘reasonable’ dissent, even though they don’t ask for prior permission and deliberately avoid attempts by the police to control and contain them? The mass arrest of UK Uncut activists at Fortnum & Mason on 26 March does rather suggest that the police have already made up their minds on this question.
But back to the question of what wider impact, if any, a ban on kettling would have in practice on the general treatment of demonstrators. The way people respond to this probably depends upon whether they feel the police are really trying to facilitate protest or rather to impose ‘control within strict limits’. I would argue that the evidence for the latter seems harder and harder to ignore – which makes kettling is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the ideological gulf between the police and direct action / civil disobedience activists over what constitutes ‘legitimate’ protest.