‘Kettling’: a display of democratic repression
The response to protests against the G20 on 1 April has drawn criticism of the police tactic of ‘kettling', forcing demonstrators, and anyone else in the area, into a confined space and keeping them there for hours without food, water or toilet facilities. This is not a new tactic and its use has to be seen in the context not just of the whole repressive arsenal wielded by the democratic state, but also of its ideological campaigns.
First of all such a response to the demonstrations on 1 April, a form of collective punishment, was wholly out of proportion to the protests. Some RBS windows were broken, following a sustained media campaign to blame the bankers for all our woes, hardly a great threat to British capital. But the response was in line with the media build-up to the G20 - the great importance of the meeting to provide an international response to the recession on the one hand, the danger from violent protests on the other. The arrest of 5 people in Plymouth with imitation weapons and "some politically sensitive material" (according to the police) linked to the forthcoming protests, was given big publicity, as was anyone wanting to talk up the possibility of a fight with the police. The presence of Obama, the publicity given to the bigger demonstration on Sat 28th March (which passed without incident but had been built up with headlines like the Evening Standard's "100,000 plot to take over London") all added to the general hysteria. All this publicity to intimidate protesters, and make it appear that the only alternatives if you don't like the system are a harmless protest, or equally impotent violence.
When the demonstrators outside the Bank of England were finally released at 8pm they were let out one by one, photographed and had to give their names and addresses. This will all be kept on a police database along with all the other information the state keeps. In this Britain leads the world: "The UK's database is the largest of any country: 5.2% of the UK population is on the database compared with 0.5% in the USA. The database has expanded significantly over the last five years. By the end of 2005 over 3.4 million DNA profiles were held on the database" boasts the Home Office website, and the number of profiles held has increased to over 4 million, including 500,000 who have never been charged and 39,000 children. Other databases include ‘ContactPoint', on all children in England, ‘ONSET' for the Home Office to predict which children will offend in future, the ‘communications database' which will monitor all itemised phone calls, emails, mobile phone locations... The list is too long for a short article. In any case, the state spends £16 billion a year on IT and tolerates a huge failure rate in these projects - only 30% succeed - showing the priority it gives to collecting information to use when it wishes to in the future.
This information is all held by the same democratic state that has the Terrorism Act on its statute books, complete with 28 day detention without charge. The same one that co-operates in the torture of its citizens and residents, when it deems it not politic to carry it out itself (see ‘Britain asks its friends to do its dirty work' in WR 322 and ‘A short history of British torture' in WR 290). We should therefore neither be surprised at a particularly repressive response to demonstrators, nor lulled into any sense of security when they are not making obvious use of the information they have collected.
For the bourgeoisie's media this is all a question of human rights or a proportionate response. We are permitted to read critical pieces showing that individual police were spoiling for a fight just as much as any protester; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has written a report criticising the majority of government databases for breaking data protection laws. However the way the state views all these ‘rights' was made very clear by the House of Lords after a claim for compensation for a previous ‘kettling' in May 2001: "There is room, even in the case of fundamental rights as to whose application no restriction or limitation is permitted by the Convention, for a pragmatic approach..." (quoted in The Guardian 2.4.09). This could not be clearer - no matter how fundamental, unrestricted or unlimited any right is claimed to be, for the ruling class it is nothing but a pragmatic question whether to honour it or to arrest, ‘kettle', torture, or shoot a suspect on the underground. In fact there is no contradiction between democracy and repression working hand in hand for the defence of the capitalist system and its state.