The Real Reason Why Police Cage Peaceful Protestors
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.
Those kids on the front-lines looked variously scared, angry, cold, laughing, fighting, hurting; but they were all there: awake, and alive -- bashing into riot shields just to check it was real. It was. Walking into the main quad at UCL during the month-long winter occupation, among countless banners, signs, and messages of support, I was confronted by one especially memorable slogan: 'THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING'.
The kettle is neoliberalism's most apt strategic deployment -- and as a public order policing tactic, it is as risky as its philosophical underpinning. The intent is to suffocate protest with 'containment', to stifle the swarming dissemination of dissent, territorialising with hard lines; but in fact it agitates and intensifies: it pushes the dilettante protester into becoming a hard-liner, a kind of unwitting agent provocateur.
The smashing of the glass in Millbank tower marked the first shattering of capitalist realism, and the forging of a new mind-phase for a generation of protesters. Its physicality saw it dismissed as wanton vandalism -- made easier for the media by the dropping of a fire extinguisher from the Millbank roof by one 18-year-old now serving 32 months in jail -- but it represented the much-needed re-emergence of young people into the public sphere. The month that followed 10 November -- culminating in the Westminster Bridge kettle described above -- saw a totally unexpected surge of political energy. With no warning, there were three more major student protests, attended by hundreds of thousands of young people: and in between, a non-stop flurry of debates, public meetings, rallies, marches, occupations, and headline-grabbing viral actions against tax-avoiders by the likes of UK Uncut and the University for Strategic Optimism. Scores of university buildings have been occupied, as well as Conservative Party HQ, several local town halls, government departments, schools, banks and shops.
'THIS IS AN IDEOLOGY' said one placard I saw on the Trade Union Congress-organised March for the Alternative on 26 March 2011. It was just those four words - the 'ideology' in question is not a written bullet-point manifesto, not yet, and the danger is it will never become one: but for now, it's a vital affirmation of a world beyond the end of history, and beyond capitalist realism. Until it calcifies into a propositional political agenda, protest and dissent is the ideology. 'Don't call ME post-ideological, like it's an insult, like we don't stand for anything' is the message emerging from a generation far too young to even remember the Cold War.
This energy went on tactical sabbatical for the Royal Wedding in May, the vast majority of protesters choosing to sit it out for pragmatic reasons. Yet the wedding still saw horrendous new levels of political policing, even with barely anything planned by way of protest: including the arrest of a crying child for holding a pen, the raiding of squats and vegetable co-ops ('BEWARE THE ANARCHO-SYNDICALIST COURGETTE!') and the de facto internment of over 100 other innocent citizens on the astonishing charge of 'conspiracy to cause a breach of the peace'. As the royal family sang 'Jerusalem' in Westminster Abbey, it was observed that were he alive today, its author, the anarchist William Blake, would be in a prison cell for this same kind of 'pre-crime'. But that 'return to normality' that the Athens protesters feared -- it's not happened yet, because the cuts have barely even begun to be felt yet, and those people that took to the streets have been changed, in both their heads, and their actions: returning from central London's causeways to local actions, occupations, and campaigns, looking for new methods and opportunities to fight back - this is still, just the beginning.
I saw my colleague, journalist Laurie Penny, speaking on an Education Activist Network panel in March, comparing the internet's emancipatory potential to the seismic changes that followed the creation of the printing press: 'It didn't just change power, it changed people... the English vernacular Bible was a heretical decryption of power.' There was, she went on, a link between the first newspapers, produced in the English Civil War, and its culmination in the execution of Charles I -- the liberating spread of information catalysing spectacle into the most absolute, insurrectionary kind of engagement. 'The audacity of the idea that you can take a square and topple a dictator does amazing things to people's heads,' she went on, with the kind of excitement I can recognise as someone who has had that same transformation of the imagination '... the same way Wikileaks did. Things are going to change in the next 20 to 40 years in a way we can't predict - all we can do is be ready'.
It's appropriate that by far the best art-work and propaganda to come out of the movement so far is by a collective called the Deterritorial Support Group -- it's a pun on the Territorial Support Group, the Metropolitan Police's thuggish public order cops: in December's protests the TSG left one demure, peaceful student needing three hours of emergency surgery for bleeding to the brain. The divide is clear, and both physical and psychological. You are territorial about public order disputes, and mark your lines with these toy soldiers -- we, on the other hand, challenge this by being everywhere, all the time. 'WE ARE EVERYWHERE' was one of the most potent slogans of the November and December uprisings, as occupations skittled one on to another, town council meetings were stormed by old ladies and sixth formers, and high street shops up and down the country were shut down.
Turning a kettle into a rebellious 'occupied space' is one thing, but an even better way of subverting the tactic emerged on 30 November's student demonstration, in the exemplary chaos of the cat-and-mouse protest. An unusually thick winter snowfall in London gave the day a special feel from the outset, and, wary of more kettling in response to the official, pre-announced route, tens of thousands of school children and undergraduates alike made merry fools of the Metropolitan Police, constantly darting down side streets in their hundreds, making sharp U-turns to avoid looming police lines, splitting off like tributaries before rejoining the main currents at iconic spots across the capital; from Oxford Street to St Paul's Cathedral, from Liverpool Street to Buckingham Palace, we spanned the entire centre of the city
It was a protest widely known by its Twitter hashtag, #dayx2, and protesters were regularly on Twitter and SMS, checking in with friends, new acquaintances, and the #solidarity and #demo2010 tags, to find out where the police were. My abiding memory of the day is standing on the Strand, and Hyde Park Corner, and Charing Cross Road, checking my phone and saying 'Nope, not that way, there's a kettle forming by Bank, let's go and join that other march heading west.' The police kept trying to kettle us, but each time failed to enclose more than a hundred or so protesters, meaning there were others elsewhere they had to worry about -- it was as if we turned them into the world's worst cadres of sheepdogs.
The whole day felt like dissent as directed by Molière: you'd peek down narrow side streets and see groups of protesters running the opposite way down a parallel street; or lose the group you were with, stand there furrowing your brow over Twitter for a minute, only to look up and see several thousand chanting youngsters marching towards you. How'd that line go, about first time as tragedy, second time as farce? Well let's not be too dismissive of farce, not least because it's more effective than tragedy: we caused ten times as much disruption, and made ten times as many people aware of our cause than if we'd marched straight into a kettle. 'I just saw you march past my office window!' a friend texted me at one point -- it was that kind of day.
At the head of one phalanx of young people marching down Holborn, I found two boys in school uniforms plotting their route, confidently directing the placard-waving foot traffic and leading anti-government chants. Jack Gillespie, 14, and Chris Leonidou, 15, had come from Latymer School, a 386-year-old state school in Edmonton, North London. 'We got a three-hour Saturday detention after the last one.' Jack told me, seemingly unconcerned by this fate. 'They said if we missed school for this today we'd be excluded.' Didn't that worry him? I asked. 'I'd rather have one day's exclusion than pay £9,000 a year,' Chris replied without hesitation.
Eventually, after several hours of stamping our feet all over London, the rivers rejoined in Trafalgar Square as night fell. Suddenly it was snowing again, much heavier than before. 'You can come in, but you're not getting out again,' the police explained to late arrivals, as they put the lid on the kettle, closing ranks around thousands of young protesters. Inside, fireworks and flares were set off, a samba band played, helicopters buzzed overhead, bottles rained in on the police lines, and somewhere in the distance sirens wailed. More than 100 of these protesters had been arrested by the end of the night.
Felix Cohen, a friend who worked on Fight Back! with me, quoted Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting in response to the new spirit of protest, describing a scene of young protesters giddily dancing as a kind of prelude to their inevitable clash with riot police: 'On the one side the police in the false (imposed, decreed) unity of their ranks, on the other side the young people in the real (sincere and organic) unity of their circle; on the one side the police in the gloom of their ambush, on the other the young people in the joy of their play.'
'We wanted to be talked about,' Cohen wrote, of the cat-and-mouse protest, 'and someone was trying to stop us, so how did we react? Not in the serious Marx/Lenin/Trotsky mode of discussing what it meant as workers, nor even as self-consciously as the situationists, but rather as though it was a game.' This happened to us repeatedly on #dayx2: we would move along the streets of central London with one group of protesters, giving thumbs up to passers-by, notice a column of riot police lined up by the side of the road, sidle up to them sometimes, and overhear their words to each other 'soft lines, soft lines' -- that means it's okay, that means you can still slip through the police to freedom. But when a kettle looked more likely we'd step out, or turn off down a side street, looping back around, checking Twitter, looking for TSG vans -- and then, running into other groups of under-30s, catch the glint in their eye, and just know they were doing the same thing. Several times that day we found ourselves on street corners with strangers, swapping info -- 'Yeah, my mate says there's a kettle forming near St Paul's now, we were going to head down there but not any more.'
'Ah what about Victoria?' 'Yeah, we were with a group near Victoria, they tried to kettle us there but we got away.'
The inevitable consequence of this is Sukey, a glorious bit of zeitgeist technology which works as a hub for protesters' information -- you text or tweet @Sukey to tell them what's happening on the ground -- then the team at Sukey HQ aggregate and sift the details, advising in real time where police lines are, and which way you should go to avoid them. The name, of course, comes from the child's nursery rhyme: Polly put the kettle on -- but Sukey took it off again.
'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'.
Among the slogans that were chalked on the ground in Trafalgar Square on 26 March, one stood out. Along with re-tooled situationist phrases like 'ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE', contemporary concerns like 'WHERE'S ALL THE MONEY GONE?', and some cold hard stats about the cuts, it was the phrase 'I MELT THE GLASS WITH MY FOREHEAD' which caused me to recoil. It captures the psychic transformation this generation has gone through: smashing through the glass at Millbank, struggling through the hard lines of the kettle, and finally piercing capitalist realism's façade: an aperture through which now flows the pent-up energy, imagination and passion of a generation who will need to use all three, extensively.