Liberty: Kettling is a “fatally flawed” tactic

Isabella Sankey, director of policy at the human rights group Liberty, explains the fatal flaws behind the police tactic of kettling.

Isabella Sankey is the Director of Policy at Liberty

Last month, Liberty was invited by the TUC and the Metropolitan Police to provide around 130 legal observers for the March for the Alternative, which saw hundreds of thousands take to London’s streets in protest against public spending cuts.

Given that police brutality against the hunger marches inspired our founder, Ronald Kidd, to create the National Council for Civil Liberties (later renamed Liberty) in the 1930s, we were honoured to accept the invitation and continue our long tradition of legal observing.

Our volunteers were out there as impartial observers to monitor the policing of the TUC march on March 26th, but we were also in the police’s special operations room, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to examine the way the protest was handled.

Our remit was simple – to observe and record, not advise, and to remain independent.

Liberty’s report on the policing of the demonstration, and what we saw that day in the capital, has now been published (pdf). Encouragingly, the official march was generally peaceful and the police response was, on the whole, proportionate. However, our concerns over officers’ continual focus on the practice of ‘kettling’ still very much remain.

The simple fact is that the fatally flawed tactic of kettling human beings in difficult situations only makes things worse.

Nobody is condoning the actions of troublemakers seeking to hijack non-violent demonstrations. That’s not what articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act, which protect the right to peaceful dissent, are about. But police simply have to differentiate between the good-natured majority and the criminally violent few.

Not only does trapping peaceful protesters alongside more aggressive elements raise the temperature further, it often puts law-abiding demonstrators at additional risk from which they are powerless to defend themselves. Normally, if trouble erupts at a protest you can move away to safety – but not if the police are holding you there in a kettle.

During the March for the Alternative, we observed that officers had this tactic under near constant consideration. It was even authorised and then de-authorised on occasions, as senior police officials recognised the potential risks of sweeping up the innocent with the guilty.

Kettling is a blunt, resource-heavy tool, and there are many practical and ethical issues surrounding it. So why does it remain at the forefront of the minds of so many officers, pundits and politicians?

Policing protests is never easy, but there is still far too much thought afforded to kettling. Last week’s High Court decision, in the case challenging the decision to kettle peaceful Climate Camp protesters, is a promising development that should give the police further pause for thought. More cases are coming up, both here and in the European Court of Human Rights.

And Liberty is bringing proceedings challenging the decision to kettle children at the student protests late last year.

Hopefully the police will now seriously consider some alternatives to kettling, which do actually weed out the guilty from the innocent, and draw a line under this dangerous practice once and for all.

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