19 January 2012

Kettling: mass arrest for collective punishment

Mass arrest is now regularly used in Britain to punish political dissent.

Traditionally, when police faced large congregations of people whose actions they wished to impede, they resorted to the selective arrest of a minority and the dispersal of the majority. However, particularly since the G20 demonstrations in April 2009, police have changed tactics and sought the mass arrest of demonstrators in an action known as kettling.

Kettling is a euphemism for the indiscriminate detention of large numbers of people in temporally-created street holding pens. Those rounded up include, of course, the demonstrators, but also journalists and unlucky bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All these unfortunate souls are detained for several hours in these street enclosures without medical facilities, food, water or access to toilets, while denied any form of meaningful contact with those who are detaining them. The boundaries of the kettle are controlled by baton-wielding police, aided on occasion by dogs, horses and temporarily erected steel fences. Demonstrators facing the police lines, often suffer kicks and punches, supplemented by blows from police batons and riot shields.

The student demonstrations in the final months of 2010 saw the development of so-called “hyper-kettling,” a further torment inflicted on the incarcerated. The amount of space available to people inside the kettle is progressively constricted until the detained are packed in like sardines in a can. In one case, demonstrators were compressed on Westminster bridge with police lines sealing both bridgeheads.

Kettling was first used in Britain in 1999 to detain anti-WTO demonstrators in London. Initially justified as an extreme measure to deal with extreme situations, the technique has now become standard police practice, particularly in London. In one notorious case on 24 November 2010, teenage children demonstrating in London were kettled. The kettle was only opened after midnight, leaving many teenagers stranded in London on a freezing night.

As a means of causing pain and discomfort to those engaged in political protest, kettling is highly effective. Those beaten at the edge of the kettle, particularly when the incarceration area is being constricted, come off worst, as one journalist covering the student demonstration on 9 December 2010 points out:

“The police started to push back then they started using their batons on protesters. I was caught then and pushed up towards the front. I ducked, my glasses were knocked off my face so I was trying to hold them. Then, basically, a baton strike came to the side of my face and then onto the top of my head. Directly onto the crown of my head. I felt a big whacking thud and I heard it reverberating inside my head….blood was streaming down the back of my head and back of my neck and matting my hair.”

Yet even for those not injured by the police, the effects of street arrest can be severe. Physically, many will suffer from exposure, dehydration and inability to use toilets, leading to people needing to defecate and urinate in their clothes. Psychological suffering centres on the inability of the incarcerated to know when they will be freed; and hence the pitiful chants of “Let Us Out.” The anxiety may be practical, for instance not being able to make an appointment to pick up a child, or it may stem from the claustrophobia of being crushed in a crowd.

Kettling is also used as a propaganda tool.Television pictures show lines of police confronting a mass of demonstrators. The impression is invariably given that it is the police who are defending a line against aggressive street protesters, when the reality is that the demonstrators are being pushed into an ever decreasing amount of space.

The police and conservative authoritarians excuse kettling by arguing that among the demonstrators there are hooligans, who cause damage; therefore the police are justified in kettling hundreds of innocent people in extremely unpleasant conditions for hours as a means of dealing of dealing with the problem. Yet In confronting other crimes the police do not have recourse to mass arrest of the innocent for their own convenience. Additionally, the practical benefits of kettling are short-lived. Some demonstrators may fear to protest in the future, but others, angered by the experience of kettling, will abandon the traditional protest march in favour of more disruptive forms of protest, which do not lend themselves to kettling.

Under closer examination, therefore, ketttling can be seen as the collective punishment of political protest and is clearly intended as a deterrent against those thinking of exercising their democratic right to demonstrate. Its use does nothing to help public policing in the long run and explodes the myth that British police are operating merely to uphold the law rather than to deter and punish political protest.

Such mass and indiscriminate arrest simultaneously violates the civil right to demonstrate and the personal right against arbitrary arrest.

Kettling and police violence against demonstrators has now become common currency; and that which is a regular, normal and an every-day occurrence ceases to be newsworthy. Yet sometimes it is precisely that which is normal which requires moral and political focus. Why can police beat demonstrators, journalists and by-standers, at least without causing serious injury, with impunity? Why can these same people be detained in kettles for hours without redress?

How long will it be before police are explaining away stampedes in a kettle in which people die and are seriously injured? How long will it be before the kettle of today becomes the concentration camp of tomorrow?


In January 2012, the Court of Appeal overturned an earlier surprise decision of the High Court, which had held police action during the April 2009 G20 demonstrations to be excessive and unlawful. The Appeal Court judges in overturning the ruling exonerated the police and endorsed the violent police kettling operations deployed during the largely peaceful demonstrations.

The effect of the Appeal Court decision was to legitimise the forcible detention in street holding pens of thousands of legal non-violent protesters simply because senior police officers "honestly" believed that a “breach of the peace” by some of the demonstrators was possible. Flowing from this judgement is the precedent that any protest consisting of more than a handful of people can be lawfully kettled as a means of dealing with a possible future breach of the peace by a few demonstrators.

The decision leaves the right to demonstrate unmolested in tatters, handing the police the virtually unlimited power to incarcerate and punish demonstrators. In practice, this power will be used with discrimination: not so often that it become blatant that there is no right to protest in Britain, but sufficiently often to deter political protest on the streets.

Of course, the ruling can be challenged in the Supreme Court and in the European Court of Human Rights, but in the meantime the ruling stands.

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