As night fell, and the House of Commons moved towards its vote on tripling student fees, the police in full riot gear closed in on the protestors in Parliament Square on 10 December. They began to corral them towards Westminster Bridge having formed a ‘kettle’ to contain them. They then trapped them onto the bridge which the demonstrators thought was being used as an exit – and a long cold walk – away from Whitehall. Once they had captured them there the police were ordered to squeeze the 'kettle' and crush the demonstrators so that they could barely breathe. This was indeed an operation of gross police brutality.
It was being used against those who were resisting a package of cuts that bears only a shaky resemblance to the manifestos and commitments of either Coalition parties. What kind of democracy acts in this way?
Kettling has become increasingly commonplace in the UK. Rather than an emergency measure, it now seems to be the first resort when dealing with any large-scale protest. To be detained without access to food, water, toilets or medical treatment is, without question, a serious restriction on the right to protest. It is no good maintaining we have a ‘right’ if in exercising it we must forfeit the freedom to leave an assembly. The right to protest should not have to be exchanged for liberty. After his experience at the G20 protests, Guy Aitchison described kettling as:
…a deliberate form of indiscriminate, collective punishment of demonstrators committed to peaceful protest, which seems designed to frighten people from expressing their disapproval of a system that is now, even by its own admission, dysfunctional.
Since its introduction in 2001, kettling has been challenged in the courts a number of times, unsuccessfully. Earlier this month, a new claim was brought on behalf of five students kettled at a recent demonstration. Deployed initially as an unplanned response, many now see kettling as a pre-planned weapon to grind down the public’s willingness to protest, and to punish those who partake regardless. There are few more fundamental rights than those currently being attacked, yet the European Court of Human Rights has, so far, offered no protection to those exercising this basic democratic freedom. Bethany Shiner, lead claimant for the most recent legal action being brought, said:
"I was with a group of young people who behaved at all times perfectly properly and lawfully. We then found ourselves kettled in sub-zero temperatures."
Despite a string of cases in 2009-10, no police officer has been prosecuted for their conduct towards protestors – or those believed to be protesting, in the case of Ian Tomlinson who was killed after a police offer attacked him from behind – leaving the public to question whether the police are above the law. Within a little over eighteen months, they have caused the death of a man walking home and then attempted to cover it up, left a young protester with bleeding to the brain and then attempted to prevent his treatment, bludgeoned a small woman to the ground at the G20 protest, employed a number of cavalry charges against contained protesters – many of whom were schoolchildren, punched protesters in the face, been caught at protests without their identity badges – leading to accusations of attempts to avoid accountability, kettled thousands of innocent protesters for up to nine hours, dragged a 20-year-old with cerebral palsy out of his wheelchair, and have now proposed simply banning marches through London. When criticised, they respond that the public should be thankful that they haven’t deployed water cannons… yet.
There has been barely a murmur from Westminster about the seriousness of the situation developing. Neither the Lib Dems nor the Labour Party has condemned the ongoing attacks on the right to protest. The focus has been almost exclusively on the minority of violent protesters who have been broadcast endlessly by the media.
Criticism of police thuggery tends to lead to the same stock response: violent protesters make kettling necessary. Identifying a violent minority is doubtless a difficult task; that is not in dispute. But a solution that effectively strangles the right to protest is not a solution at all; it’s an abject failure.
What makes the current police mentality all the more oppressive is the questionable legitimacy of the policies being contested. The cuts package delivered is of a different scale and nature to that proposed throughout the election campaign. The tripling of tuition fees and the removal of funding for arts and humanities has a similar level of popular mandate to the ‘de-nationalisation’ of the NHS: roughly zero. To embark on such a wholesale rearrangement of the state requires a very clear proposition at election time, which was not forthcoming. Nor is it tenable to describe many of these policies as a ‘compromise’ made necessary by coalition or the deficit. In the case of its education reforms far from being campaigned for they were campaigned against by the Lib Dems while they are projected as increasing the deficit in the immediate future.
The police treatment of those protesting against the state highlights the diminished role of the British public in their own governance. Having bailed out the banks and taken on a trillion pounds of private debt, British citizens have yet to see any meaningful reform of finance and the City. Having voted for comparatively modest cuts, they have seen the entire fabric of the state come under attack. And those so bold as to protest against this have now been kettled, beaten, and charged on horseback. The Home Secretary said she was unlikely to approve of water cannon as we had a tradition of policing by consent. Yes, we also have a tradition of government by consent.