Saturday, April 04, 2009

Kettling: the tactic that backfired

My sympathies go out to Ian Tomlinson's family. Most of us have had someone close to us die suddenly, but it will be extra hard for you grieve in the glare of national news.

We must all resolve to try to make sure that this does not happen to somebody else in the future.

Demonstrations are a vital part of democracy, and they must be managed by the police service in such a way that they do not create fear and frustration for the demonstrators.

This means letting the people march.

The police might want to keep them out of certain areas, but a route can be agreed with the organisers.

On Wednesday, the obvious thing for the Bank demonstrators was to go an join in the entirely peaceful and almost entirely unreported demonstration against militarism in Trafalgar Square. We were exactly the same mix of people, with the same motivation: dissatisfaction with the way that the world is being run.

It was entirely a matter of geography that I started outside the US Embassy and marched to Trafalgar Square. The police did not kettle us, and it was a typical British demonstration, stopping just this side short of boring. It was a typical mix of Greens, Reds, possibly a few Orangey-Yellows. The Blues were present on the outside of the crowd, with tasteful Citron visibility jackets. Skin colour ranged from white with freckles, through pink, puce, cafe au lait through to ebony. Lovely. There were Palestinians, people nice as ever you could wish to meet; and one or two harmless eccentrics. We had a nice walk, listened to some good speeches and songs, and went back to our coaches.

Meanwhile, a few streets away from us, people exactly like us were being corralled, pushed, provoked and intimidated. Sceptics may say, well, you would say that, wouldn't you? To that I say, look at the videos of the Climate Camp, and read the Indymedia reports and the blogs of people that were there. Don't believe all you read in the newspapers.

Two demonstrations, one peaceful, one fearful and angry, leading in the end to a man's death. What is the difference between the two demonstrations?

In a word: Kettling.

A police public order practitioner, John O'Connor, gives the police side of kettling here. The managers at the Met appear to be perfectly satisfied with themselves.

The Law Lords (no, not the noble Lord, Lord Lawlor this time) have given their ruling here.
The fact remains that kettling caused such frustration and violence that did occur last Wednesday.

Kettling is supposed to be there to prevent violence, but it causes anxiety, frustration, and more seriously, is a threat to our system of democracy. Kettling is a threat to our British liberties. It is one more tightening of the ratchet that has been going on for a couple of decades, more rapidly recently as an aspect of Bush's War on Terror.

Police commanders should in future think very seriously before they decide on kettling. There is a balance to be struck between prevention of damage and causation of damage.
On Wednesday, the balance was lost, and the kettling technique backfired.

Kettling needs a radical rethink.

Given the tone of John O'Connor's article, and the judgment of the Noble Law Lords, it is unlikely that we are going to get an absolute ban on kettling next week. Though we may get it if Lois Austin wins her case in the European Court of Human Rights.

If the police insist on containment for indeterminate time, (up to 6 hours last Wednesday) then they should provide the prisoners with Portaloos, water, and food. There must be other modifications also. Here are a few off the top of my head:

First, there should be due warning given that kettling is going to be used.

Containment must not be absolute; leak points must be provided, so that people who need to get out, people like Mr Tomlinson, people with recrudescence of crowd phobia, people with babies to look after, and others who simply want to go home, must be given a facility to leave, without necessarily haveing to be treated like a criminal.

They should also provide clear channels of communication with the demonstration organisers.

These are surely the minimum set of conditions that we should expect of a police service in a democratic state.

With a few conditions like this, we can hope that a repeat of Ian Tomlinson's tragic death can be avoided.

There are also a few things that we can do about it.

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