Police Kettling: The Shadow of Death

Merrick, 6th April 2009ce

The ‘kettling’ of protesters at the G20 protests in London – police penning them for hours, refusing to let anyone leave and periodically attacking those at the edges – has caused widespread concern.

Duncan Campbell reports that

One officer, asked why people were not allowed to leave under their own steam, replied: "They might fall over." People were then asked for their name and address and required to have a photo taken. Those who refused were put back in the pen.

It seems clear that the police’s aim is to minimise the number of demonstrators. Having talked up a riot in advance, they discourage many people who are sympathetic to the cause from coming out of fear of injury. Then, on the day, by inciting a riot, kettling the crowd or other methods of physical abuse, they discourage people from coming to similar events in future.

They always say in advance that they will ‘facilitate peaceful protest’, but blocking people in for hours on end in blazing sunshine with no water or toilets is not facilitating anything except their ill health and anger.

John O’Connor, a former Flying Squad commander, defended kettling in extraordinarily totalitarian terms, saying that

using these tactics in a non-selective way does cause inconvenience to persons who are legally trying to make their point, but it is effective in controlling the troublemakers.

The same could be said of subjecting the entire population to house arrest or amputating the limbs of anyone not in the police. Certainly, what he says is a clear admission that kettling does not ‘facilitate peaceful protest’.


The police’s pre-protest claims are commonly fabricated tosh made to sound plausible by the inclusion of very specific details. For the G20 we had 1990 Poll Tax rioters ‘coming out of retirement’. Naming a particular ancient riot implies the police know their identity and are watching them.

For last year’s Climate Camp there was a ‘hard core of 150 individuals’ who were going to hijack the event and cause a riot. That’s a very precise number, again implying that they have definite intelligence to that effect. And, again, it was a complete fabrication. In the end, not even the police’s violent storming of the site could elicit a riot from the Campers. MP Norman Baker was there and told parliament ‘I witnessed unnecessarily aggressive policing, unprovoked violence against peaceful protestors’.

Conveniently, the next day the police announced the discovery of ‘a cache of weapons’ near the Camp. Of course, a block of kitchen knives, a padlock and chain could be used as weapons, but it’s hardly their primary purpose and it takes a particular bias from the police to describe them as such.


The media love these threats and talk them up as much as they can. In 1999, The Sunday Times reported that Reclaim The Streets were stockpiling CS gas for the London protests to coincide with the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Just like the police, such reports use precise details to give themselves an air of factual accuracy.

In two separate transactions in the past six weeks, at least 34 containers of CS gas and four stun guns… were imported from France and sold by a gang of nightclub doormen working in the Euston and Camden Town areas.

It was complete fiction, but the Press Complaints Commission said that as Reclaim The Streets wasn’t a formal organisation, nobody could have been defamed by the story.

The Evening Standard reported that the 2007 Heathrow climate camp planned to plant hoax bombs in the airport. In that instance, the Press Complaints Commission ruled in the strongest terms that the story was without basis, but their judgement is a minor detail months later. When the PCC throws the book at you, it’s like one of those little books of cats you get next to the till in Borders. The Standard can well afford a tiny little slap on the wrist, a small price to pay for the extra sales the sexy scare story generated.

I genuinely believe they write much of the riot reports in advance. For the G20, the Evening Standard’s front page story begins with a description of how 'police were bombarded with bricks, bottles and planks of wood'. In the detailed report on page six, though, they can only cite 'fruit and paint bombs' as missiles, and later on say 'one officer was struck with a pole'. But bricks and bottles, it just sounds right for a riot, so they can write that in advance and if it doesn't turn out to be true, well, who's going to complain?

After the October 1994 riot at a demonstration against the Criminal Justice Bill in London's Hyde Park, the Daily Star reported that 'railings were used as spears'. Sounds so plausible for a riot in a park, doesn’t it? The fact that Hyde Park’s railings are in squared welded sections, whose only possible alternative use could be very small ladders, didn't get in the way of what makes a good riot write-up.


This month is the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. The prime reason for the tragedy was the policing on the day. But to place the blame solely there is to miss the real root cause.

The crowd could not escape the crush because there were ten-foot fences at the front of the terraces. These were in place because of a common vision at the time – led by the police, amplified by media scare stories – that football crowds were not a gathering of people to be facilitated but a security problem, a volatile feral bunch that needed caging.

This attitude was reinforced by media stories of hooliganism, which in turn led to heavier policing, and the vicious cycle accelerated. Certainly, there were violent elements in football crowds. There still are. As Justin McKeating points out

Thousands of people descend on a city to express their passion. A small minority come for trouble and the police present are attacked with bricks and glass bottles. Twenty-seven people are arrested. They were Swansea FC supporters having a day out in Cardiff last year.

In the police-media talking-up of football hooliganism in the 80s, they discouraged people from coming to the match who didn’t want to be caught up in it, and in policing aggressively they encouraged aggression. Like the police’s treatment of demonstrations today, similarly exaggerated by the media’s fetishisation of violence, to a sizeable extent it self-fulfilled.

Even though there was no violence from fans at Hillsborough, police refused entry to ambulances, claiming fans were ‘still fighting’. If the police had treated football fans like human beings no lives would have been lost that day. But that sort of disaster was waiting to happen, and if it hadn’t come at Hillsborough then the attitude underpinning the police strategy ensured it would occur somewhere sooner or later.

The tactic of kettling stems from viewing all protests in that same way, and will just as surely lead to death. A man died at the G20 protests, and the circumstances are still unclear. But whether or not kettling had anything to do with the death of Ian Tomlinson, it makes no difference to the grave danger of the tactic. In the City people were held in continuous sunshine for hours with no access to water. People with medical conditions were not allowed to leave. If Ian Tomlinson was not the first to die in those conditions, someone else soon will be.


It’s not just kettling that hangs a sword of Damocles over protesters. Before the G20, representatives of the Climate Camp met with the senior officers in charge of policing the protests. They asked for three assurances. Firstly, that all officers have their numbers visible at all times. Secondly, it be recognised that legal observers – people provided by the camp to take notes in case of future court cases – should not be impeded. Thirdly, the use of batons on peaceful protesters is not proportionate; cracking open someone’s head for standing in the road is excessive.

The police agreed to the first two, but not the third. Why else would they do that, except that they do want to baton peaceful protesters?

At the G20 climate camp protest, come 7pm after the workers in the overlooking buildings and most of the media had gone home, the police tried to start a riot. The protest had not moved, nor were the police wanting the protesters to clear the street. They just waded into the crowd, punching and batoning people. And, as with police incursions into the climate camps at Heathrow and Kingsnorth, the crowd didn't behave like a textbook mob. They neither dispersed or attacked, but determinedly stood their ground, held their hands in the air to show they were unarmed and chanted 'this is not a riot'.

There is video of it here:

This is part of a police stategy that Commander Simon O'Brien called 'polite, proportionate and pragmatic'.

The climate camp was later sealed off in the same manner as had been used at the Bank of England earlier in the day. Police used dogs and batons on the hundreds of protesters who were outside the cordon. In a truly dystopian scene, protesters were spotlighted from a helicopter, dogs were set on them and then riot police charged, batoning anyone within reach in a chase lasting over a mile, only letting up when the last of the protesters were as far as Hoxton. Those inside the cordon were violently removed an hour later.

The practice of batoning heads, like kettling, will kill someone sooner or later. A single hard blow to the head can be fatal. You'd be unlucky to have it happen in a solitary strike, but it has happened before, with the death of Blair Peach at a London Anti-Nazi League demonstration.

When you multiply it by the thousands of such blows that strike the heads of peaceful protesters every year, the odds are tipping ever further towards death.

Indeed, as death from head injuries often happens later after a period of internal bleeding, it is quite likely that batons have already killed. But if the routine use of indiscriminately beating heads continues then, just like kettling, we will inevitably see people die on the street.

The sick irony is that when that happens it will, in turn, advance the police’s cause of discouraging people from coming on future demonstrations.