As thousands of students began fresh protests last week against the coalition government’s decision to raise tuition fees in England to £9000, calls were made for the Metropolitan Police Force to abandon its controversial ‘kettling’ tactic.
Almost 2000 signatures have been lent to a petition demanding that the system should no longer be used against demonstrators, after angry responses to disproportionate use of force by the police during several protests at the end of last year.
Throughout November and December, as the coalition government proposed and voted on its policies to cut state funding for universities, treble the fees paid by students and axe several high profile access grants for poorer students, thousands of activists, pupils and concerned members of the public turned out in force to demonstrate their disapproval and alarm at the plans. Yet following a chaotic initial protest, where the police showed a complete lack of preparation and training for the event, a tactic of ‘kettling’ was instigated and used at all subsequent large-scale demonstrations.
‘Kettling’ involves the forced containment of large numbers of protesters in a confined space by armed riot police officers, refusing to allow anyone to join or leave the restricted area for many hours. There was no charge levelled against those in the ‘kettle’; indeed many thousands of those who experienced this treatment were teenagers and children; yet their freedom of movement and their right to protest were effectively removed.
The ‘kettles’ were maintained on several occasions for up to nine hours, often in freezing temperatures and with those inside having no access to food or water. Several extremely serious complaints have been lodged with the Independent Police Complaints Commission indicating that some protesters, who were badly injured, including young people with broken bones, were refused either exit from the area or medical attention during their ordeal.
Now an enormous backlash against the forceful police tactics has arisen, with the signed petition only one of several branches of public outrage at their methods, which saw one disabled student pulled from his wheelchair and thrown to the ground by police officers. The calls for the banning of ‘kettling’ stem from two clear arguments: the first, that the treatment of those inside the kettle was unacceptable, with serious injuries being sustained from such close confinement (often, it is claimed, at the hands of police officers) and medical treatment denied.
The second, and perhaps most interesting argument, is that as citizens of a democratic government, we have a right to freedom of speech and a right to peaceful protest. Human rights campaigners and activist groups including members of the Green Party and even the Metropolitan Police Authority, argue that this freedom was taken away from many peaceful protesters who had committed no crime and were ‘kettled’ within moments of their arrival at the protest, giving them no chance to march or demonstrate as they had intended. Such tactics, claims a Metropolitan Police spokesperson, should be used only as a “last resort”, yet they were clearly pre-meditated and immediately implemented by the police at several protests last year, not instigated as a last resort or as a result of serious upheaval. This has prompted campaigners to declare that “kettling is an infringement of the fundamental right to peaceful protest”.
Of course one must also consider the situation from the point of view of the police; to realise that serious measures are necessary to prevent extreme chaos and outbreaks of violence for the safety of all involved when such large numbers of people are present. But one cannot help but wonder whether this approach can possibly claim to have been appropriately targeted at the small minority of protesters inciting violence, and whether it was used too often, too soon.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, there has been a fundamental flaw in the police and government response to the attitudes and actions of those finding themselves confined for so long without explanation or cause. There has been an absolute failure to recognise the justifiable anger and frustration of innocent, peaceful people denied their freedom and right to protest, as well as a complete lack of recognition that this frustration manifested itself in much of the disorder that eventually broke out at the scene. (For instance several small fires cited as examples of the vandalism and violence of protesters were in fact lit in desperation to keep warm as night fell with freezing temperatures after hours of containment.)
As Dave Hill so succinctly pointed out in his Guardian blog, we must question whether the “benefit of any prevention of disorder by kettling justif(ies) the anger, dismay and sometimes further disorder that it creates.”