The last few weeks of student-led protests against the ideologically blunt and financially reckless Tory-Liberal Democrat cuts and the massively short-sighted, brutal and regressive cuts to third level education in particular may well have marked something of a turning point in modern British history. They have won back the power of political protest that was seemingly lost after the defeat of the anti-war marches in 2003. Tony Blair’s smug platitudes about spreading democracy in Iraq saw it dissolve domestically in a sea of bitterness and apathy. The last few weeks have seen people learn once more, indeed seen school children and students teach us, that people do have power and that political protest can be effective. But if these protests have rinsed the smile from Cameron’s face and applied the defibrillator of dissensus to the heart of British democracy they also raise questions about the strategies of protest adequate to a police regime reared on football hooliganism and ‘event management’.
The first question that needs to be asked is what these protests serve to do.
Primarily they provide a symbolic representation of opposition to the Tory-Liberal Democrat government and its neoliberal policy agenda. This symbolic opposition can be broken down in to two further sets of roles which I would rather clumsily refer to as ‘ideological’ and ‘affective’. The ideological role of the protest is to reframe the situation in which the government poses its policy. By powerfully signalling mass opposition pressure will be put on the government’s ability to implement policy and a leverage created with which to prise open the coalition government. Further, it creates an opportunity for the public to rethink government policy especially those uncertain of it, those in support of it and those merely otherwise unengaged. In both cases this ideological role is directed outward from the protesters, at the public and at the government. The affective role of the protest is rather directed inward and allows the ties within the opposition to be built and strengthened and for militancy to be cultivated. This is not of course to suggest that signalling symbolic opposition to the government can be or indeed should be the only goal of protest movements but whilst the UK is ripe with potential energy at the current juncture the movement currently lacks the strength, support and crucially any coherent vision for a wider reformulation of the state, economic policy or the organization of social structures. To say this is not to doom the movement to mere protest or longer term irrelevance. On the contrary any viable alternatives will arise through and build upon the current protest movement and the politicization it has produced, if not entirely then at least in part.
Despite the fact that both the ideological and affective roles of this symbolic protest are crucial the strategy of concentrating masses in defined spaces in order to produce a spectacle of opposition is revealing its limitations in the context of the UK’s policing regime and strategy needs to be rethought. The standard form for modern symbolic protests has been to gather a concentrated mass of people in a defined space to produce a spectacular opposition. Of course such protests work to disrupt the daily functioning of the streets and hence economic and other activity but the main aim is to produce a semblance of ‘the people’ visibly standing in opposition to the government or its policy. This relationship between concentration and spectacle leaves protests vulnerable to the police containment strategy known as ‘kettling’ which so easily re-symbolises legitimate opposition as violent disorder.
Part of the problem of approaching police kettling is that the phenomenon has not been fully understood. Although it may at first seem the grossest form of numbskull territorialisation it is in-fact a more complex spatial strategy that works precisely within the same logic of concentration and spectacle as symbolic protest. It is important therefore to unpick the logic of the kettle in relation to symbolic protest. I would argue that the kettle aims to achieve two seemingly contradictory results simultaneously: to restrain and incite the crowd. Likewise it works on two simultaneous terrains, one the physical sites of protest and the other the virtual terrain of the media landscape it seeks to shape. The relationship between these two pairs of aims and terrains must be kept in mind.
First of all the kettle aims to restrain and mute the crowd. At the most basic level the kettle establishes a spatial container which restrains the protest by keeping the crowd in a specific site and hence limiting the disruption they can cause, the damage they can do to property and the scope of their threat to ‘public safety’ and ‘public order’. The kettle further aims to mute the crowd by wearing down their energies and holding them until they have been subdued with the passage of time. If these two aims concern the specific day of the protest the kettle obviously plays a longer-term and more repressive role in trying to put people off future protests. By making the kettle so unpleasant and boring (something that should work particularly well in certain weather conditions – very cold, very wet or very warm) the hope is that people will be put off ever protesting again hence limiting the work the police have to do implementing government policy.
As the kettle aims to restrain the crowd it simultaneously seeks to incite them. By making the kettle unpleasant and by limiting the protester’s freedom of movement as such the police aim to provoke an angry and violent response from the crowd. As Richard Seymour has noted this tactic is based on the assumption that the protesters can be broken down in to two basic groups: reasonable ‘peaceful’ protestors and unreasonable violent ‘anarchists’. The aim here is to identify, isolate and arrest the ‘trouble-makers’ so that they are punished both making an example of them and putting them off further engagement in protest. But the crux I would argue is not to produce violence in order to produce arrests but to produce violence itself. By inciting the crowd the police guarantee a violent spectacle that will feed the media’s addiction to violence, which always makes a news-worthy story.
This brings me to the second pairing in the logic of the kettle, i.e. its operation across the physical terrain of the protest site and the virtual terrain of the media coverage. The kettle of course seeks to divide the space of the city into spaces inside and outside the kettle and to isolate and manage disorder within a defined site in order to maintain it elsewhere. But what needs to be understood is that this spatial strategy of physical containment is also a media strategy which seeks to concentrate the spectacle of violent protest into a defined space precisely for the media. Thus the physical terrain of the kettled site is marshalled to produce violent spectacle for media consumption. It is a type of siege that lets the police appear under attack. The kettle thus needs to be understood as a form of media strategy deployed by the police to delegitimize protests and re-symbolize legitimate protest as unlawful ‘riot’. The kettle attempts to cast opposition protests as such as radical, violent and in need of police repression, whose brutality is legitimated by this same spectacle of student violence that the kettle aims to facilitate.
It should be noted of course that as with any system of ordering the police are not fully in control of the kettle. Kettling is not an immobile state but a dynamic process which is playing its aims against each other and against the unpredictability of the crowd. The lack of police control over the kettle was seen last week at the protests in London against the increase in student fees on December 9th. A greater number of the crowd were incited than had been expected and hence the assumption of a simple division into the peaceful and the violent members of the crowd began to dissolve. It should be noted that this greater level of violence from the protesters was in direct response to the growing violence of the police who have made kettling an increasingly brutal exercise in coercion and terror. At one level this increase in police violence from the very beginning of the December 9th protests can be seen as a police strategy to increase both tendencies they seek to elicit from the crowd – restrain in avoiding future protests and a spectacle of growing student violence. On the other hand it is testimony to the fact that the police are losing control of this game and are following the greater ingenuity and growing militancy of the protest movement with the rather pathetic reliance on horse charges and truncheon assaults. Crucially of course the police violence itself plays into the hands of media spectacle and despite the best efforts of the BBC, Sky News and even supposedly supportive media outlets such as The Guardian to cast the protest as a riot the totally disproportionate and provocative brutality of the police’s own actions have shone through.
Despite this it is clear that a protest strategy based on concentrating spectacle walks straight in to the trap the kettle sets – not simply in terms of the physical site of the protest but of the virtual terrain of the media spectacle. A new spatiality of protest, a new geography of opposition is needed that can prevent spatial containment becoming the medium for a media spectacle that delegitimizes protests at the same times as it legitimizes government policy and police brutality.
This is not to say that there is no room for symbolic protest as it appears to be the only level at which opposition can effectively operate in the current conjuncture. Further it is not to say that there may be the need for more large-scale concentrated protests in the near future, in which case preparation should be made for turning a kettle into a camp and hence turning containment back against the police, laying siege from the inside out. However, if concentrated spectacle is the only trick up the protesters’ sleeves it is sure to meet an increasingly violent that can be repeatedly re-symbolized in delegitimizing spectacles. It would be unwise to rely on the growing sympathy of either the media or the public as more beatings are meted out (something which the BBC’s disgraceful interrogation of Jody McIntrye, filmed being dragged from his wheelchair by police during the protests on December 9th, lays testament to). We may like to think such a change would occur but relying upon it would be to give a free-hand to the police and the media. Rather the initiative the protestors have thus far had over the police needs to be maintained.
A spatial strategy is needed for protest that avoids the possibility of concentration and containment and the type of media-friendly guerre en forme seen recently. It is time to return to Deleuze and Guattari, to Debord and the Situationists, to Lefebvre, even to Tiqqun and Hakim Bey and to take them seriously (perhaps for the first time). A form of protest is needed that places dispersal over concentration, mobility over stasis and perhaps even disruption over symbolism. If multiple smaller mobile groups were to simultaneously occupy key strategic sites and disrupt vital processes the momentum of symbolical opposition could be maintained without the police being able to herd opposition toward spectacle. The crowds could continuously move between temporary occupations to ensure the police are divided and chasing but to refuse them the pleasure of pitched battle. Imagine multiple small groups (perhaps numbering from 50 to 1,000 depending on the site in question) emerging at once to occupy government buildings, banks, constituency offices, party headquarters, shops, airports, train stations, tubes, buses, corporate office towers, Scotland Yard, Buckingham Palace, monuments, museums, universities, schools, roads and streets before dissolving and regrouping again – and not just in the centre but across London and not just in London but across the country.
This is not a novel suggestion of course and such civic swarming has already successfully occurred during the protests on November 30th when police gave futile chase to small bands of protestors across London’s snowy streets and again on December 9th when some who escaped the kettle temporarily occupied the National Gallery and ran amok on Oxford Street (and around the royal carriage). However, this strategy needs to be developed and spread so that small isolated clusters can become a ‘swarm’ (developing an alternate terminology of protest is also an urgent task). Such a strategy presents some serious planning and logistical challenges but a rough organizational frame can be provided by the numerous groups involved in the protests from student’s unions, groups in occupation, political activist groups and artists’ collectives and so on. The ability of those involved in the protest movement to work together has already been proven and there are ready made frameworks for realizing such a new spatiality of protest. Of course the police will be preparing for this strategic shift and are not as heavy footed and slow witted as some would like to believe. Therefore preparation has to be made for their attempts to coral crowds in to numerous smaller kettles and perhaps to more violently attempt to block protesters’ passage. The aim must be keep evading the nexus between containment, violence and spectacle, to avoid concentration and to keep moving. The police will of course as always have the law on their side and as there is no way for such forms of protest to be sanctioned there is likely be a greater number of arrests if protesters are caught. A step outside the kettle will be a welcome step outside the law and the consequences must be followed through even if we can’t yet know ‘where’.
- Rory Rowan, Critical Legal Thinking