I was stuck inside the Oxford Circus kettle on May Day 2001, so I knew I had a reasonable idea of what it feels like to be held against your will. What I wasn’t so sure about was whether what had happened nine years ago bore that much relation to recent kettling tactics – until I read Laurie Penny’s account of Thursday’s Parliament Square kettle in the New Statesman. Yup, sounds about the same to me.
I’d gone along with a friend in 2001 because we both felt that rampant globalisation and unfettered capitalism were unhealthy for our society (and looks like history will bear us out), and we were curious to see what would happen. We were cautious and tried to observe what was going on from a discreet distance. And what went on was… very little. There was a lot of hanging about by Speaker’s Corner, a colourful march up Regent Street which I remember as being a lot of fun, and then some more milling about in Oxford Circus. We knew there was a danger of a kettle (my friend being more experienced in protest than me), but we were unlucky enough to still be in the middle of Oxford Circus when the police closed their lines. For no reason that I could see and with no warning (and had also, if I recall correctly, previously denied all knowledge of the possibility of containment when asked).
That was about 1pm. For five hours we sat around, getting a bit hungry and thirsty, and hoping we wouldn’t need to follow the example of others who’d got so desperate for a wee they’d had to use the entrance stairs to the tube. We occasionally attempted to chat to the police. Some ignored us, staring over our heads and refusing to acknowledge our presence at all, others would talk to us amicably – but I’ll never forget the officer who, at a raised voice from the other side of the kettle, broke off mid-sentence and instantly stood to attention, shield raised (oh yeah, these were riot cops), face blank. These guys are trained to react to any disturbance, but it was the sudden switching off of his humanity that shocked me. He went from man to robot in a moment.
At 6pm on the dot, the police suddenly closed in and halved the space available. As far as I could see there was no incident to justify this. I’ve always thought it was done for the benefit of the 6 o’clock news: ‘look how violent these bastards must be – the riot police are having to crush them’. And crushed we were.
Have you ever had so little space that you physically couldn’t breathe? My friend was being crushed from the sides and was able to get a little room with her elbows. I was being crushed front to back – I am 5’4″ and whippet thin, and we were surrounded by tall blokes – and I couldn’t create myself any space. Not even enough for my chest to rise and fall to take a breath. I stood on my toes and tipped my head back to gulp some air – if you do that, if you stretch yourself, it turns out you can breathe vertically rather than horizontally. This went on for some minutes. I now understand how people died at Hillsborough.
Inevitably, someone else started getting angry – a shoe was thrown in the direction of Niketown. That’s right – a shoe. That notorious riot object, lobbed in the face of a police force suffocating a bunch of non-violent demonstrators and shoppers. But it was the shoe that got on the news.
The guys around me and my friend started to get concerned about us. They shouted at the police that we were getting crushed. After a few more minutes the cops indicated we could come out and, bless all those people in that kettle, they did their best to make a path for us (bear in mind they were still being crushed) and the police hauled us through the lines. We weren’t the only people to be pulled out because we were in danger. We got out about 6.20pm – the rest of them were held until past 9pm, and only released after being forced to give their names and addresses. Is it any wonder some then went on the rampage?
Before 1 May 2001 I had considered the police to be on my side. I was raised to look up to them and trust them. Now, I don’t. That day, I saw police with their ID numbers covered, police who didn’t give a toss about the human beings in front of them, police who deliberately attempted to crush the breath out of ordinary citizens. Everything changed for me, just as everything will have changed for the kids on the streets in the last few weeks. When they see police batoning their friends’ heads, and see the media reporting police casualty numbers but not the greater number of injured protesters, they will be shocked. And they’ll be determined not to be caught out next time – that’s why they deviate from march routes (they don’t want to be kettled), that’s why they bring weapons (because the cops are armed).
Kettles are counterproductive. They’re supposed to stop violence? OK, but a) in every instance I can think of, the violence happens after the kettle is put in and b) if you genuinely do have a bunch of people intent on violence, what do you do with them once you’ve kept them in a small area for hours, winding them up? How do you then let them go peacefully?
Kettles also radicalise people. They turn wimps like me into much stronger lefties than they were before. Far from intimidating people into not protesting (which is what I suspect the kettle is really there for; I can’t explain the use of dispersal tactics – horses, batoning, pushing back a crowd when there’s nowhere for it to go – in a containment area for any other reason than intimidation), they make people angry and determined to go back and show they will not be cowed. Watching what happened on Thursday, and the subsequent media coverage, has made me determined to get out there and protest. You know, on a Saturday. (I have a job now.) Over something like public service cuts. Because that’s the next big thing. And I urge all my middle class friends to get out there and see for themselves what it’s like. Spread the word. Don’t let the main story be this bullshit about violent protesters who the government can then ignore. We have a voice, and we don’t deserve to be denied the chance to use it.
See? Kettles radicalise.