Over the past few decades the police have developed a tactic to contain protests, which has become known as kettling. This involves forming a circle around the protest, then gradually closing in to restrict the territory occupied by the protesters. This cordon forms a stranglehold on the protest, restricting and containing the protest for hours, until finally being allowed to go home.
This tactic has been subject to accusations of human rights abuse and several court actions has been taken in an attempt to ban the practice. However, despite protesters claims to being held without charge for hours with no facilities, food, water or access to medical services or even toilet facilities, the courts ruled that the practice was legal due to the potential for violence.
What makes the tactic so effective isn’t just the ability to contain the protest but also the psychological effect. Being contained in this way for hours on end is not only demoralising but also creates a disincentive to participate.
During the student tuition fees protest in 2010 the kettling tactic failed when the thin blue line was broken, resulting in students taking over and trashing several government buildings. After which the police added, what became known as ‘snatch squads’ to the kettling tactic. This involved identifying protesters who posed the greatest threat. Then small groups of police officers in full riot gear (the snatch squad) would break into the protest group towards the target.
In the final days of the 2010 protests, the protest became fractured as students tried to evade containment. The protest broke into several small blocks. With some becoming total chaos with individuals charging around the streets of London getting totally lost. One reporter noted that ‘it feels like a game of ‘kiss chase’ – or, when I see a policeman punch a boy out of the way, entirely without provocation, ‘punch chase’.
The tuition fees protests were repeated again in 2014, when the government proposed an increase in tuition fees. The first few days followed the usual predictable routine – Kettling, violence, groups breaking off, claims of disproportionate use of force etc. But several days into the protest the tactics changed. Many of the students adopted a hit and run tactic. Where small groups would meet at random locations, followed by a flash protest, disrupting traffic etc. then scattering when the police turn up, blending into the crowd. At times, the police were forced to admit that they had no idea where the protest was taking place. The tactic was effective, not only because of the confusion, but also because the ratio of police to protesters needed to contain the protesters was vastly different to that of kettling. With kettling, a relatively small number of police are able to contain vast numbers of protesters. Only those protesters around the periphery of the circle are in conflict with the police. The majority are inactive. But with a hit and run tactic the ratio of police to protesters needs to be much more even to be effective.
These tactics are surprisingly not new. Such tactics have been used by the military for centuries. With the kettling vs hit-and-run scenario resembling the Anglo-Saxon shield wall vs the Celtic skirmishing tactics.
The Extinction Rebellion
The Extinction Rebellion seem to have improved upon the hit-and-run tactic with the more typical environmental tactics they’ve used over the years to protect areas of habitat etc. In what has become known as a ‘Swarm’ protest, protesters meet simultaneously at a particular location. The try to occupy the location, either by sheer number or by gluing or chaining themselves etc to the location. The kettling tactic seems to have had very limited success against the Extinction Rebellion. With the police at a complete loss on how to deal with the situation. The protesters have had a stranglehold on London with the ability to practically close down parts of the city at will. And only ended after the protesters decision to do so.
The protesters have elevated environmental issues to a much higher position on the political agenda. With MP’s endorsing Jeremy Corbyn’s call to declare a formal climate and environment emergency. As well as committing to kick-start a ‘green industrial revolution’ with the development of new technology as well as changes to transport, agriculture etc.
However, environmental activists aren’t the only stakeholders with a beef with the government, or even possibly the largest or angriest. With police action shown to be so impotent to protest and the support for the government at an all-time low, and such deep division within society, could we be in for a year of rage and protest?