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.

15 January 2012

Danish Cartoons: No to religious censorship

Multiculturalism has confused the left on matters of censorship

In 2006 the New Labour government in London promoted a bill in Parliament to outlaw the publication of material that religious people might find offensive. The main backers of the bill were fundamentalist Muslims.

Some on the "left" felt that this bill would play a positive role in reducing anti-Muslim feeling in Britain and help integrate society. I did not agree; hence the letter below.

6 February 2006

Hi Ian,

I never thought, when we left university in 1983, that twenty-six years later we would be debating the possibility of fining and even jailing people who mocked religion, nor putting the Enlightenment on par with Islam. Times change.

Islam, like all religion which purports to command behaviour beyond that of the individual choice, makes a totalitarian claim on society. Liberalism, by contrast, aims to maximise the individual’s freedom of action, consistent with everybody else having the same freedom. The trade-off between the two is not one of reconciling two positions which are different but of the same kind (e.g. should the outside of the building be painted yellow or green), but of compromising one position which purports to give maximum choice to all with another that seeks to impose a ‘patterned’ life on everybody.

Let me take three consequences of attempting to appease fundamentalist Islam, which has become so enraged in Britain and elsewhere this week as a consequence of cartoons published in a Danish newspaper. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that no Muslim in Britain need see these pictures, and whatever is decided in Britain is hardly likely to cause Denmark to rescind its long tradition of freedom of speech).

First, if Islam were to be protected against ridicule, then of course other religions would enjoy the same protection. ‘The Life of Brian’ and anything like it would be seen no more in the New Britain.

Second, if a cartoon published in a newspaper causes outrage, then so much greater is the outrage, for example, of women walking uncovered through Muslim areas. Once you have abandoned the individual rights as a basis of law making, where does one stop in ensuring social peace through appeasement?

Third, most people who want to attack Islam (as opposed to Muslims) are from the Muslim community itself. The veil of censorship would fall on the likes of Salmon Rushdie, and we would have the absurd position of the British State attempting to stop the secularisation of Islamic communities, and prosecuting dissidents within its ranks.

The whole debate in Britain is absurd. Last week we had the Blair government seeking to impose censorship on publications which ‘insulted’ Islam (and for form’s sake other religions too). What effrontery from these New Labour scumbags! What kind of insult is a cartoon compared with the massacre of hundreds of thousands in Iraq? Why does the government concern itself with insults against Muslims caused by scribblers, but see none in 90-day detentions without charge? The truth is that the Blair government seeks censorship for the same reason that seeks 90-day detentions and war – it wishes to expand power of the state.

I know you decided in the end to oppose the Religious Hatred Bill, so what I’m trying to do is to pull you back even more firmly into a defence of liberal positions, positions which form the bedrock, in my view, of any worthwhile socialism.


2 January 2012

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

Nationalism conceived as an imagined community continues to be a driving force in the world today.

Imagined Communities, first published in 1983, prompted a series of investigations into nationalism that embraced several other writers such as Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner. Of the book itself, there is much discussion on the net, so here I only want to add a few points which were of particular interest to me.

Nation as an imagined community is a gripping idea. The members of these communities (British, Swiss, Indonesian, etc) imagine themselves as part of a family or Gemeinschaft even though it is impossible for them to know one another. The book is an attempt to account for that conception in the modern world.

Anderson traces the first steps towards the development of the nation in Europe. The Middle Ages were nation-free. Allegiance was to king, church and lord and neither language unity (except for the Latin of the elite) nor clearly defined geographical boundaries existed.

Printing changed everything. After the market had been exhausted for Latin texts, publishers sought to exploit the vernacular and in so doing put in train the process of turning some local dialects into literary languages. In parallel, the development of the absolutist state expanded the state bureaucracies, whose officials used the vernacular language which was unified, consolidated and disseminated in printed form across territories.

Anderson comments on the seeming oddity of nationalism taking off first in the New World before exploding in Europe in the French Revolution. In discussing this, the book draws not just on North but in strong measure on South America. The argument is that the colonial officials of these states resented the growing centralised power of their European masters, so the middle rank state bureaucrats in league with commerical interests in the colonies rebelled. Rebellion had nothing to do with either ethnicity or language.

In Europe by the late Nineteenth Century the key promoters of nationalism were the school teacher, civil servant and journalist. Nation increasingly became anchored in an ethnic conception of language. Royalty and aristocracy engineered a new basis for their position: their representation of nation-ness as opposed to loyalty to them through God and tradition.

By the end of the nineteenth century most of Africa and Asia were colonies of European powers. As the state apparatus and commercial organisation expanded the number of administrators grew. European colonialists had their superior position preserved through growing levels of racism. The racist aspect of nationalism expanded.

In ruling their colonies, the imperial powers also imported their own nationalisms, which became templates for the oppressed people of those lands to copy. For instance, the story of the French revolution taught in colonial schools became a ready tool for those fighting for national Independence in Indo-China. Independence movements consolidated the existence of nation states across the globe, however ethnically heterogeneous those states were.

Nationalism did not die with advent of communist regimes after 1917. Revolutionaries consolidated their power within existing state apparatuses. Indeed, Anderson begins his book by focusing on the conflict which broke out in 1979 between two communist “nation” states, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Anderson highlights two features of nationalism which traditionally are overlooked: the map and the museum. Every nation state carves out is territory on the earth and so makes a shape of itself. In fact that shape comes to represent the nation as a shape without marking for rivers, mountains, towns, etc. The museum collects together the images and artefact's of the nation.

Several other features of the book are worthy of comment.

First, Anderson’s argument is distinctive, not just in his characterisation of nationalism and his argument that it is not something which is historically finished, but in the fact that the bulk of his examples are taken not from Europe and North America, but from Latin American and Asia. While this is fully justified given the argument, some of the material calls on historical knowledge which might challenge the “educated amateur.”

The book avoids jargon, though it does overflow with metaphorical language, but it is less flowery than the writing style of his brother Perry. The text is nonetheless easy and enjoyable to read.

Finally, the book ends with a chapter on its own history and an account of its publication and translation around the globe. Against the charge of arrogance, one could certainly excuse Anderson given the influence that his book has had. And strangely, the chapter is interesting to read in its own right.

ANDERSON, Benedict,Imagined Communities, Verso: 1983, 2006.

1 January 2012

Britain is no longer a free society

By the end of 2007 there was a growing realisation that civil liberties in Britain were draining away. (Written December 2007)

Britain is now a society, which has departed from any normal understanding of civil liberties and personal freedom. People can be held by police for a month (and soon longer it would seem) without being subject to any charge. They may also be sent to prison and suffer other deprivations of liberty for what amounts to ‘thought crimes.’

Last month, for instance, a twenty-three year old woman, Samina Malik, received a nine month suspended prison sentence plus a community service order for writing jihad poetry on a cash till receipt and for having visited jihad websites. This was even though the jury found no intention on her part to aid or commit terrorist offences.

The current acceleration in authoritarianism consists of three interrelated process. First is the ever growing surveillance society with the ubiquitous CCTV cameras - soon to be augmented by electronic identity cards – which increase the power of the state vis-à-vis its citizenry. Second is the widening raft of illiberal legislation ranging from the banning of demonstrations outside parliament to the criminalisation of free speech and free browsing on the internet. Third is the increasing resort to prison and control orders. Britain has become the most watched state in Europe and has the highest proportion of its population in jail.

All of this has happened, of course, against a background of a genuine terrorist threat, but one that has been exaggerated and abused by government. Yet we live in an age of political passivity, sustained by a slow but real increase in the living standards of so-called "Middle England" and for many better-off workers too. Thus suverying the situation from a position of relative comfort, Mr and Mrs average are so used to believing that they live in a mostly free and tolerant society – and that any restrictions are reasonable and serve the general good – that they are not noticing that the structures that sustain that freedom, gained over centuries of struggle, have now cracked and are coming apart.