It has been very interesting in the last few days, to read the range of comments posted here about the police justification of policing the G20 protest and the tactics of containment.
It has been particularly interesting to get some views from TSG officers themselves. One, going by the name of MCM comments, “we were doing our job, we were doing what we were told and we were getting on with it and we were doing exactly what we were trained to do. If you don’t agree with the training then fine, but don’t try and persecute us for doing what we are trained to do.”
Personally speaking, I can’t help but agree that the officers highlighted in the G20 footage were doing nothing out of the ordinary. It may not have been justifiable – as was also said on the comments page, protesters behaving the same way would “be in front of a magistrate within days”. But it certainly wasn’t unusual. For many years now the police have been operating a policy of containment (as opposed to dispersal) of demonstrators, and this is what it looks like. It is close up, and involves kettles and cordons and inevitable pushing and shoving of protesters with hands or shields and the extensive use of batons. As MCM says, “this has been going on for years – especially at football – because we are trained to Police public order situations that way.”
Containment as a tactic was developed by the police as a way of avoiding the sort of full-on confrontation seen at the Poll tax protest in 1990. According to many commentators, including academics and police themselves, the widespread violence was largely caused by police dispersal tactics, such as baton charges and horses being ridden at crowds of people. The criminologist academic Peter Waddington suggested that the police should have contained rather than dispersed the crowd, and the tactic of ‘kettling’ was born.
Containment has been widely criticised, apart from the violence inherent in it, because it involves the lengthy detainment of people who have committed no offence. MCM’s views on this are revealing. “The tactic of containment or kettling DOES work however, by having a significant majority of people who don’t want trouble they naturally keep the minority in check, even after many hours of getting bored and pissed off.” I suspect that ‘the significant majority’ may have some understandable objections about being held for hours on end, without water, without food, without toilets, sometimes in the cold or wet, just to ‘keep the minority in check’.
As a tactic containment has surely has reached the end of the line. For years it has been a disaster waiting to happen, and now it has resulted in a death. I stand to be corrected, but as far as I know, the UK police are the only ones in Europe to operate such a strategy. Police elsewhere in Europe adopt more of a stand-off approach, interfering less and using dispersal methods (tear gas, water cannon) from a distance in cases of disorder. Police have criticised this idea as being even more likely to produce injury, but I have no figures on this. But clearly has the significant advantage of allowing people to go home!
Yet European tactics seem unlikely to be adopted here. It runs counter to the UK police’s philosophy of ‘preventative policing’, and I suspect that CO11 and their FIT teams will be particularly loath to let the ‘kettles’ go. They have provided extraordinarily useful opportunities for CO11 and their FIT teams to get photos and personal details of political protesters. In fact, I suspect ‘kettles’ have sometimes been formed for entirely that purpose.
So where will we go from here? I suspect we may see attempts, by police and by press, to make divisions in political protest between the good protesters (law abiding and compliant) and the bad protesters (those who object to having their movements restricted, who defend themselves from police batons, who push at police lines or who may be prepared to damage property in expression of their dissent). The politicians will then seek to give more freedom to the former, whilst putting even more restrictions on the latter.
I fear that the police focus on ‘preventative policing’ of demonstrations will end up being strengthened rather than weakened. This could lead to ‘bad protesters’ being treated increasingly like terrorists, having their movements monitored and being pulled from their beds in ‘anticipation’ of crime or public disorder. Not unlike the action taken against a group in Nottingham last week. Given the ease with which the police can currently go after suspected ‘terrorists’ without apparently even a shred of evidence, that is a worrying thought indeed.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that all the G20 coverage and the awakening of middle England in outrage at police brutality will bring about a greater degree of freedom for all of us. But I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I think it will ultimately be down to us to get a hell of a lot better at protecting ourselves (and others) from G20 style policing.