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Not "kettling" but "bubbling" - a charming correction

Clare Coatman
17 April 2009

There's an interesting post by Tory MP David Davies (not to be confused with the former Shadow Home Secretary) in Conservative Home giving the police's perspective on the G20 protest and the practice of “kettling” (or in Davies’ fluffier and much less intimidating phrase “bubbling”). Davies is a special constable, although he was not present at the protest.

He urges caution in condemning the police over Ian Tomlinson's death before a full inquiry has been had, reminding us of the case of PC Mulhall who was wrongly accused of excessive force based on CCTV footage. Of course a full inquiry is needed before we can reach any conclusions, but while the full answer to the question, “Did a member of the police cause or contribute to Tomlinson’s death?” must await investigation by the IPCC, the question, “Were the police heavy handed?” is much clearer.

There have been numerous articles on police tactics in the last two weeks. Most of them come down too hard on one side or the other: either the protesters were there to provoke violence and burn the banks or the police were there to start a fight with entirely peaceful protesters.Davies points out that the police are human too and I completely agree – they are a diverse group like any other and among them was a section who were pumped up on adrenaline, psyched up by weeks of aggressive rhetoric and only too happy to lash out when the opportunity arose. There were also those who didn't want to be there, who just wanted to do their job and go home. There were all manner of attitudes in between.

If I, as a protester on that day, can understand that the police were made up of distinct individuals with varying emotions, attitudes and propensities for violence, why can't the police or their supporting commentators do the protesters the same courtesy? We were made up ofpeaceful protesters, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, passers by, those determined to antagonise the police, those who were spoiling for a fight, and by the end, mostly tired, hungry people. I am sure the police who struck out were reacting to weeks of priming bysuperiors and the media to expect a raging mass of faceless anarchists bent on destruction and I am sure those protesters who lashed out had genuine grievances, but were, out of frustration,airing them in the wrong way. There were no demons, just people reacting to pressure.

Davies caricatures the protesters as childish and the police as the heroes of the hour:

"...violence did not spread. This may have been because the protesters were not as violent as they had pretended or it may have been because the actions of the police in the City of London nipped things in the bud.”

He ignores the possibility that the media and senior police officials had exaggerated or overestimated the threat.

Davies seems to have a very black and white view of the events and those involved. He boils the police's choices down to two avenues:

"Sure enough, after a bit of peaceful protesting, violence broke out. The police then had two options. One was to allow the smallish number of rioters to continue damaging property throughout the city. The danger with standing back is that... a full scale riot could have ensued. The police took the second option...”

But he fails to consider other options. The police have the right to arrest violent individuals but they also have the duty to protect peaceful protesters who should not be subjected to a form of collective punishment. Certainly  if peaceful protesters want to leave a demonstration, for example to pick up their children from school, this should not be prevented.

The vast majority of comments responding to Davies' article (including a contribution from an ex-policeman) also take issue with his portrayal of the police as, without exception, a force for good.

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