What happens inside a kettle

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.

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5 responses to “What happens inside a kettle

  1. zefrog December 11, 2010 at 11:41 am

    Could it be that the whole police tactic is to spur protesters to violence so that the government recognises that the police is needed and cuts to its budget are a bad idea?

    in the meantime food for thought:
    Taking sides in a riot, Enemies of Reason
    Schoolboy warned by police over picket plan at David Cameron’s office, The Guardian (this won’t be good for your blood pressure)

  2. Kate December 13, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    No, it’s because the police are tools of state oppression. That is their societal role. Even though some of them are nice and will let you cry all over them when your handbag is nicked.

  3. Amy December 15, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I think your issue with the officer who went from conversing with you to becoming a ‘robot’ misses the point that in situations where things happen quickly, officers need to react quickly and there isn’t time for social niceties or questioning what they are told – similarly to any army conflict situation. These things can escalate and they can escalate fast. After the event, there can be analysis but in the actual moment it is essential for training to kick in and lines of communication to be clear. Those with rank take responsibility. Yes, they are people and can have a chat but they are there to do a job. And it is a dangerous job. Only today two officers were stabbed in the line of duty.

    I don’t know who decided on the kettling tactic, or what it is supposed to achieve, but I know that that tactic was not decided by the officers on the frontline. It seems unfair to blame them for a strategic decision made far higher up.

    I am not defending those officers that felt it necessary to drag a disabled man from his wheelchair etc. Bad decisions were made, I don’t know with what intent. I know that some of those on the march went armed with various objects, the premeditated intent there clearly to cause harm to property and/or people, and some no doubt out for a pop at the police while they’re at it. (I don’t buy the argument that it’s okay to take weapons just because the police are armed – do you take weapons out with you in the town centre? Cos the police there are armed too.) I don’t think you can treat either the police or the marchers as one homogenous mass and judge them all by the actions of a few.

    These riot police got up in the morning knowing they would be on the frontline, putting themselves in danger, and that’s a job they get up and do knowing the risks they undertake. If I was in their position, facing with containing the march, I’d be pretty scared, when you know full well there are people in that mass who mean you harm because of the uniform you wear. Their loved ones know that when they leave for work. They put themselves at risk as part of their duty, and I personally am grateful to them as it’s not a job I would want to do, and I wouldn’t like to live in an anarchic, unpoliced country. So oppress me.

    I don’t actually believe marching makes a difference anyway – none of the ones I went on ever did, Iraq war, student fees (first time around) – and protestors efforts would be better put into finding a more effective means of engaging with the problem.

  4. Rachel December 18, 2010 at 9:34 am

    The kettling tactic may not be decided by those on the front line, but the decision to clatter someone with a baton definitely is. And I’m sorry, but police are trained in crowd control tactics and they are provided with batons and shields. They’re not unprotected, and they’re not going out to face armed robbers. Police used to arrest suspected ‘troublemakers’ on demos, now they leave them to cause the very trouble they complain about.

    I used to not believe there was an us and them divide between the public and the police, that they were all brave souls putting themselves in front of danger. I wrote this post because I don’t believe that any more. Did most of us really believe the Met was “institutionally racist” before the Stephen Lawrence inquiry? Or did we try to take a more reasonable view when those who’d experienced it tried to tell us what they saw? I firmly believe there is a top-down attitude within the police that is anti-protesters, and that they are using tactics designed to intimidate people into stopping. Police are still not doing simple things like wearing their ID numbers, something it’s screamingly obvious for senior officers to check and immediately sort out. If senior police aren’t even willing to clamp down on this, what else are they condoning?

    It sounds patronising in a “you weren’t there man, you don’t know!” way, but I honestly think if anyone went down and saw things for themselves, they’d see I’m not on some anti-establishment rant. This stuff happens. A lot.

    As for protests – they tend not to affect whatever they’re immediately about, but they do have knock-on effects. The main problem now is that marches are being stifled and hi-jacked and the media’s only interested in covering a ruck. That’s why I’ve been watching UK Uncut with great interest – fun, non-violent direct action of the kind we used to get in the late 90s / early 2000s.

    Oh, and watch this space.

  5. Pingback: Kettling Debate Comes To The Boil | Londonist

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