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At boiling point; Policing and crowd control expert, Professor Peter Waddington, assesses the controversial 'kettling' technique employed at the G20 conference.

Byline: Peter Waddington

'Kettling' - as used by police dealing with G20 protesters in London recently - is a tactic for dealing with disorderly crowds. It was devised by the London Metropolitan Police in the wake of the Poll Tax riot in 1990. On that occasion the police had relied on a tactic that had become a staple of public order policing since the 1830s and used throughout the rest of the world still - dispersal. Dispersal involves putting a crowd to flight in order to break its coherence.

Flight is induced by charging at members of the crowd either on foot or horseback (very occasionally vehicles may be used).

The experience of the Poll Tax riot was that dispersal was counter-productive.

It succeeded in spreading the disorder that had occurred in Trafalgar Square throughout the West End. Cars were torched, windows smashed, and bystanders terrified over an extensive area. Police raced from one scene of disorder to the next. All of this was a recipe for fear, anger, excitement and aggression on the part of protesters and their sympathisers, but also showed police officers in bad light. For example, a squad of officers on horseback flattened a woman and rode over her and whilst she did not suffer significant injury, it was a scene that continued being replayed long after the Poll Tax had withered.

I was in the midst of the Poll Tax riot, just beginning a three-year research project on public order policing in London.

I had recently completed a book - The Strong Arm of the Law - based on research during the course of which I'd been trained in all levels of public order policing, from shield carrier to command! Now I was observing and recording how public order policing was done in practice.

After the riot, I wrote a memo to the Assistant Commissioner responsible for Territorial Operations, as it was then called. I argued that it would have been better to have contained the protesters in Trafalgar Square until they calmed down and then allowed to disperse under controlled conditions.

This suggestion found favour with senior officers who faced, over the coming months, the prospect of further demonstrations on issues that aroused the passions of protesters, such as the first Gulf War. It was also no secret that the anti-Poll Tax marchers intended to hold further demonstrations and did so in the autumn of 1990, which led to disorder around Brixton prison where some of those arrested in the first riot were being held. There was an imperative to find something better and I attended strategy meetings as part of my research at which these issues were raised. I did not feel that I could remain aloof from matters of such public importance, and so contributed to those debates.

Then the anti-Poll Tax campaign announced that they would hold an anniversary march in March 1991. Senior officers responsible for policing central London were left in no doubt that politicians would support an application for a ban on the march. From Downing Street to Westminster Council voices were raised calling for the march to be banned, but senior officers resisted.

They felt that with proper planning the march could be policed. If disorder broke out the tactic would be to contain disor- derly protesters until they calmed down and could be dispersed gradually.

In the event it wasn't until 2000 that the tactic was put to the test. In November 1999 an international conference had been severely disrupted by protesters in Seattle. This inspired other protests of a similar nature and May Day was to be an occasion for such protest and Parliament Square was the location.

The day itself was mostly peaceful with protesters removing the turf in the centre of the Square and planting what looked to me like dead twigs! In the late afternoon the statue of Churchill was defaced and a little later the Cenotaph in Whitehall was desecrated with obscene graffiti and a MacDonald's restaurant was attacked.

Shortly afterward police in riot gear sealed off Parliament Square and at the other end of Whitehall, police were doing likewise around Trafalgar Square..

Now encircled protesters tried various tactics to breach the cordons around Parliament Square, without success.

Eventually, a delegation of three women approached the senior police commander and offered to negotiate - exactly what the police wanted. An orderly dispersal was arranged and the protest was over.

No one was hurt, few arrests were made and a little damage was caused. In Trafalgar Square protesters were held for several hours until they too calmed down and were allowed to disperse.

This set the pattern and it has been repeated many times since. Following a similar operation, at which I was not present, in Oxford Street, there was a court case brought to test the legality of this containment tactic. Both the High Court and Court of Appeal found in favour of the police. Provided there are good grounds for taking such action, it was lawful and not a breach of the Human Rights Act.

The focus of attention on the G20 has been on two momentary episodes in what was otherwise a remarkably successful policing operation. Compare what happened in London to a host of cities across the world brought to a halt by mayhem, as well as the shootings of protesters by police in Gothenburg and Genoa. No public order tactic is free of the use of force by police. Disorderly protesters do not willingly succumb to containment. In a tension-filled environment sparks will inevitably fly. But better a tactic designed to calm a situation, than a return to dispersal tactics that have claimed lives even in Britain - Kevin Gately at Red Lion Square in 1974 and Blair Peach in Southall in 1979 were both killed during traditional dispersals of disorderly protests.

I welcome Sir Paul Stephenson's (the Commissioner of the Met) referral of this tactic for review by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary. It is always necessary to review practice and experience.

However, I remain firmly of the view that containment succeeds in restoring order by using boredom as its principle weapon, rather than fear as people flee from on-rushing police wielding batons.

Professor Peter Waddington, an expert in policing and director of the University of Wolverhampton's History and Governance Research Institute, has served as an adviser to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Review of Policing; New Zealand Police reform programme; and US Department of Defence panel on non-lethal weapons in crowd controlIn a tension-filled environment sparks will inevitably fly

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Police contain or 'kettle' protesters at the G20 summit
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Article Type:Conference news
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 21, 2009
Words:1100
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