It’s Time to End Kettling

The practice of ‘kettling’ protestors has become increasingly popular with police in the past decade – but its widespread use is an attack on democratic rights, and has little to do with public safety.

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Earlier this month, a coalition of climate change protestors, trade unions, socialists, and other activists mobilised at Glasgow’s Cop26 summit in a unified front against politicians’ continuing refusal to commit to meaningful change on the climate crisis. Although peaceful, the demonstrations were inevitably met with state aggression: activists reported incidents of the police abusing their power and using menacing tactics to subdue the movement.

One noted incident included the kettling of a bloc of demonstrators from the Young Communist League and Scotland’s renters union, Living Rent, despite Police Scotland’s vow to engage in ‘friendly and proportionate’ policing, as described by senior figures in the force. At earlier points during the COP26 protests, activists had reported being left without access to toilet facilities or medical assistance during kettles.

Kettling has a history in British policing. It’s a tactic that involves surrounding a group of demonstrators in one location and keeping them contained there—or sometimes gradually shrinking the area of enclosure—often for a very long time.

During the student protests of 2010, when 50,000 demonstrators took to the streets to show their anger at the trebling of tuition fees to £9,00 per year under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, groups of protestors were famously kettled by police for up to nine hours. Human rights group Liberty sued Scotland Yard following those protests, arguing that the kettling of people as young as fifteen in cold conditions without access to food or water amounted to false imprisonment, and therefore a breach of human rights. Two of the three teenagers on whose behalf Liberty raised the complaint had broken bones following the kettle; the third was reportedly suffering from shock. The fifteen-year-old was wearing her school uniform.

This was not the first legal action that followed an instance of police kettling. Although earlier challenges had been made, numerous complaints were made to the IPCC in 2009 following the kettling of protestors outside the G20 summit in London. Paul Stephenson, then Met Police Commissioner, ordered a review into the use of the tactic in April of that year, influenced by widespread outrage following the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson. Tomlinson had suffered a heart attack after being struck with a police baton and pushed to the ground.

There was a growing concern that non-demonstrating bystanders were getting caught up in kettles, too, and that kettles were doing more to foment aggression and anger than they were to diffuse it. As one former officer told the BBC at the time, ‘Inevitably, tempers get frayed. You can imagine that it wouldn’t take much of a spark to light the fuse.’ An ensuing high court ruling found that the police use of kettling tactics at the G20 was illegal, and set out new guidelines for its use—specifically, that kettles should only be used as a ‘last resort’.

Many would argue that these guidelines have not been adhered to. The 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Britain were subject to disproportionate force in police use of kettling and other heavy-handed tactics, according to a Netpol report entitled ‘Britain Is Not Innocent‘. In a section subtitled ‘Key Areas of Concern: Kettling’, the report found that:

Kettling was a common tactic used by police, enclosing a large number of protests for hours into a confined space – without food, water or access to toilets – making social distancing impossible. Many of those enclosed in these kettles were under 18 and some were identified by legal observers as vulnerable. In a number of instances, both inside and outside kettles, police ignored or even mocked injured protesters. One of the most serious cases involved a young black woman trampled and knocked unconscious by a charging police horse.

The report was informed by evidence from over 100 witnesses. In one instance, it later recalls, a protestor ‘was forced to urinate in the confines of a police kettle, as no alternative was provided, and the police used this as an excuse to arrest them.’

Concerns about kettling have a democratic basis. Despite appearances, the police have a duty to facilitate our public right to peaceful protest—and that can’t be done if peaceful protestors are trapped in a kettle. Kettling is intended for use when ‘protecting people from injury or property from damage, or preventing serious public disorder or violence,’ but recent history shows that such concerns are subjective, if not themselves subject to straightforward abuse.

It was only earlier this year that Avon and Somerset police force was forced to retract claims that officers had suffered injuries during Kill the Bill protests in Bristol, after all. Repressive policing tactics fuelled by police impunity themselves only breed escalation—and give the mainstream media the ammunition to shift the blame on those who challenge the injustice enshrined in our system.

Our protest rights are under a continuous and growing threat, and kettles are one tactic used to stifle dissent. The Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill is only the latest in a legislative onslaught that aims to enable state actors to manoeuvre with impunity; others with similar goals, including the Spy Cops Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill, have already been enshrined in law.

Whether we’re marching for Palestine, Black Lives Matter, or climate action, we are connected—not only in our mutual calls for justice, but in the repression we face at the hands of state forces committed to the maintenance of the status quo. If we are ever to live in a flourishing democracy—one in which we have every right to challenge a government that fails us—repressive police tactics must be subject to constant vocal dissent. Speaking out for ourselves and for others is one of the few powers we have.