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The Real Reason Why Police Cage Peaceful Protestors

With Occupy Wall Street protesters kettled on the Brooklyn Bridge this weekend, we look at how kettling was used on protesters during the London riots earlier this year.

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'Shall we go and get kettled? It'll be boring otherwise' one teenager said to his two mates as we walked together along the Strand on #dayx2, looking for one of the protest groups -- his friends weighed the pros and cons, whether they were adequately prepared for it 'this time'. I'm inclined to think this was less a victim's masochistic addiction to his own oppression, and more that a) he sought the solidarity of the kettle, and b) he wanted to play. Imagine if you missed out on all the action, how dreary and disappointing that would be -- echoing the Athens protesters again, the worst eventuality of all would be a return to normality.

And it would be a return, a regression -- to the way things were before Millbank, before that head-shift, before that explosive entry into the political sphere. The revolutionary esprit de corps that suffused the winter protests was spine-tingling for its novelty -- it's that transformative moment when 'solidarity' ceases to just be a Twitter hashtag, and becomes a tangible thing you can feel emanating from those marching alongside you, and hear in the chants that chime so perfectly with your own.

Kundera's description of young protesters 'in the joy of their play' is worth repeating: the denunciations of 'thuggery' from politicians and the media are ridiculous misrepresentations, but there's no denying that some protesters will have found pleasure in hurling a brick at a bank window or a line of riot cops. Maybe those few who did so had a sophisticated critique of the neoliberal agenda underpinning their actions, maybe they didn't -- but all of them chose violence (such as it is) because it was preferable to normality; a normality which deadens the senses, in which the horizons are limited and the vista before it cast in shadow

There was never any chance of missing out on the action on 26 March 2011. Organised months ahead of time, the TUC's 'March for the Alternative' may have seemed like a bewitchingly vague name for the biggest trade union demonstration in decades, to the casual observer. It wasn't the 'anti-cuts' 'anti-capitalism' or 'anti-Tory' march, but perhaps that speaks to some new-found self-knowledge on the left-- this is not anti, it's pro.

The so-called 'A to B march' from Embankment to Hyde Park attracted derision from some anarchists and students ('FSU For the Alternative' suggested some of the tongue-in-cheek propaganda from the Deterritorial Support Group -- FSU being shorthand for Fuck Shit Up), but all public demos are worth something. It's not true that the Iraq war protests changed nothing; though they certainly failed to change enough. But they tainted New Labour and Blair for ever, and arguably made it harder to, say, invade Iran at the drop of a hat. And yet, the failure of the Iraq protests to make Parliament even flinch, and the total vindication of the marchers by history, cannot help but make the predictable, rigid geometry of A-B feel insufficient: for those young, fit and angry enough to try something more chaotic, anyway.

Reading a book about Russian utopianism recently I came across a quotation from the Marquis de Custine: 'The square and the chalk-line accord so well with the point of view of absolute sovereigns that right angles become one of the attributes of a despotic architecture'. It's a funny idea, but in a way, it speaks to why the rigid geometry of protest under capitalist realism feels insufficient. Dissent is tolerated and absorbed by an establishment that knows -- and helps to establish -- its dimensions, and knows that it poses no threat. When MPs haughtily say that of course they support the democratic right to protest, they mean the kind that has absolutely no democratic impact. Iraq did far more damage to the contemporary British impulse to protest than kettling has done: just the other day, I told a friend who'd been on the Iraq demos about the anti-cuts protests. 'Why even bother?' she asked. 'Iraq was the biggest global protest in the history of civilisation, and we were right then as well, but they paid absolutely no attention'.

 
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