Saturday, December 11, 2010

Demonstrations, kettling, cuts. Non-violent alternatives

I'm feeling a in a bit of a sober mood this morning, over the student demonstrations. An image from last Sunday stays with me, of the small Bristol demonstration shuffling meekly down Park Street and onto College Green, effectively prisoners at the pleasure of the Police Chief.

It now appears that if a British citizen chooses to go on a political demonstration, he or she runs a real risk of being unlawfully (arguably - Austin's case is still waiting to be decided in the European Court of Human Rights) detained by the police in a kettle.

The ostensible aim of Kettling ("Containment") is to stop demonstrators from interfering with the right of other citizens to go about their business, and to protect their property.

The implicit meaning of kettling is that it is a form of collective punishment. By detaining people for hours in cold conditions, without food, warmth, water or toilet facilities, the police aim to damp the fervour and energy of demonstrators, tire them out until they are willing to be photographed, identified and let out.

That is what you are letting yourself in for if you go on a demonstration now. Unless, that is, you can guarantee that there will be not one single idiot present on the demonstration who will challenge the police, step out of the agreed line of march, or throw punches, sticks, or rocks.

All the police need is one of these idiots (let us, for want of a better term, call them Provoking Agents, PAs) to act stupidly, and they have a pretext to kettle the demonstration.

I spent a long time last night, unable to go to sleep, running through possible responses to kettling.

The physics are fairly simple. It should be possible for demonstrators to break out of a kettle, using crowd pressure applied intelligently. But it is dangerous, not only because the police will use batons on the front line of demonstrators, but because of the risk of a crowd crush, falling, trampling and asphyxia.

So, reluctantly, we should abandon thoughts of breaking out by mobilising our force of numbers.  Which means that we are graciously granting the police their wish, which means in turn, that they owe us.

Within the Kettle

If kettled, we have to accept the situation passively, and make the best of it. I have suggested some strategies here and here.

The Key is to form into an organised group, instead of existing as a crowd of imprisoned individuals.  Kettled protesters are time rich. We can use the time to spread information, spread strength, and - supremely - to educate the police. It should be routine for all kettled people to line up and address their captors firmly, politely, individually and at length on political subjects - why they are here, the vital importance of the right to demonstrate, the illegality of collective punishment and unlawful imprisonment, and so forth.

Some coppers will happily chat back. Aim for consensus, and concentrate particularly on the effect of Osborne's cuts on the police service. This is key.

Other officers will clam up, and their faces may show dissent from your views.  In this case, try to guess their beliefs (think Daily Mail) and so go on to de-construct Daily Mail-type interpretations on what is going on.

When you get tired or hoarse, pull back and let another demonstrator take over in addressing your cop.

Six solid hours of being lectured, politely, by students on political matters is not going to be without its effect on the individual officers.


On the other hand, it is preferable not to be kettled. If it seems that one is forming, the cry should go up "Kettle! Scatter!" and run - run away from the cops, down side streets and alleys, and especially into shopping crowds, shops, and restaurants, there to merge back into the citizenry. Do nothing to draw attention. Have a cooling off period, and wait for mobile phone messages to select the next target to converge on. This, clearly, will not be agreed with police, so they can now kettle you on sight. However, to be kettled outside (or indeed, inside) Vodafone or Topshop actually serves the purpose, since it closed the retail outlet for the day. The police are doing our job for us.

In essence, we are turning around the force of the Force to cause it to serve the cause of the people.

In all this physicality, we need also to have a clear idea of the alternative to the Coalition cuts that are causing the civil unrest and breaking the social consensus.

Here are a few alternatives:
  • Axe white elephants like Trident
  • Withdraw troops from Afghanistan (~£6bn/yr)
  • Close down tax havens
  • Clamp down on tax evasion
  • Clamp down on tax avoidance
  • Stop the job cuts at HMRC
  • Tax bank bonuses
  • Impose a Financial Transaction (Robin Hood) tax
  • Stimulate bottom-up efficiency in all state institutions
  • Impose a one off capital wealth tax on the richest 10% to negate a large part of the historic National Debt.
These are serious times. The fabric of society is severely strained by the elaborate, violent pasa doble between the Police Chiefs and Provoking Agents. We need to think our way out of this, otherwise, trouble will escalate in coming months.


Phil said...

Some would say that the Police, Chiefs or not, are the Provoking Agents

DocRichard said...

Hi Phil

I am trying to define here the idiots in the demonstrators' side who act as Provoking Agents.

My point is that the violence arises mutually, as the Chinese say. What is happening in the debate going on about the demos is polarisation. One side sees only the student violence, the other side sees only the police violence. The truth is that it is a system - the violence arises mutually. The police say - you deviate from the agreed route, you step out of line, and we kettle you. Kettling is most clearly a provocation to violence. Frustration causes anger causes violence. No doubt about that at all.