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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.

Editor's note: On Saturday, the Occupy Wall St. movement marched on the Brooklyn bridge in New York. Police officers cut the demonstrators off from the exits, entrapping them on the bridge, in the rain, before carting off as many as 700 to jail. In the story below, British journalist Dan Hancox writes about how corralling peaceful protestors, or "kettling," was used by Britain's conservative government to steamroll resistance to their drastic austerity agenda. As the Occupy Wall St. movement spreads to cities all over America, we may see much more of this type of policing of public space to quell protests. 

Across the western world, the public is losing a battle for territory. In the UK, publically owned health care, housing, welfare and education are being cut, broken up and sold off for private profit by David Cameron's Conservative government with audacious speed. This has a very physical manifestation-- in the suffocating of peaceful protest through a technique that has become known as "kettling," in which protestors are contained for five, seven or 10 hours without food, water, toilets, or hope of release.

Kettling has become synonymous with the enforcement of the Conservative government's radical austerity and privatization program. In November and December 2010 a student uprising in Britain larger than that of May 1968 saw over 40,000 students take to the streets of London on four separate occasions to protest against the government. They occupied countless university buildings during this period, and linked up with the anti-cuts movement UK Uncut (which I've written about  for AlterNet).

After those winter protests, the movement spread on March 26 to incorporate a 500,000 strong day of demonstration and action, and after a long summer beset by heavy policing and the set-backs of the August riots, the protest movement is gearing up once again. A public sector workers strike that could see as many as 4 million union members walking out has been called for November 30, and with the start of new university and school years, more large student protests have been planned for the autumn too.

The lessons from last year are manifold and debatable, depending on your tactical point of view and political affiliation, but one stands out, and I consider it unarguable: it is the physical act of protest itself, the very presence of ordinary citizens on the streets, which will radicalise, organise, and motivate the people of Great Britain to bring down David Cameron's government. The invasion of and occupation of the Conservative HQ, at Millbank tower in London, on November 10, 2010, was the first move in the fight back, both deeply symbolic and a shock to both sides. 'This is just the beginning' was the slogan that day: what happens on the streets of London (and Madrid, Rome, Athens, New York and San Francisco) in the next few months will determine whether this movement has an effective ending. What follows is adapted from my pamphlet-length ebook Kettled Youth, written and published in July 2011:

"Whose Streets? Our Streets!" The New Politics of Public Space

There has been a psychic revolution since the glass shattered at the Conservatives' Millbank headquarters -- and the new reality has been a shock to everyone. On the climactic final protest in Parliament Square on 9 December, you could see teenagers testing the edges of the kettle and feeling its barbed-wire edges, like animals caged for the first time. Pinch me to see if I'm awake, they cry, and then run back, eyes bulging with adrenaline -- I saw it after darkness fell that night, when conviviality turned to intense anger: that same full-body blood-rush of fear and excitement you get if you've been in a fight, or been mugged, or been in any kind of physical confrontation. It affects you physiologically, your nerves bristle and tingle, and you can't help but come back for more. Around 7 p.m. protesters stopped battling the police lines on Whitehall and started throwing rocks through the windows of the Supreme Court (who knew we even had one? I didn't, it was just another faceless, stately pile of bricks before). Some people climbed up and were close to breaking into the building, before the riot police stormed into the 'contained' zone to chase them away with truncheons and riot shields. The same happened with the Treasury, riot police desperately trying to keep the double doors shut from the inside, as teenagers chanting 'We want our money back!' used metal fences as battering rams.

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