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333 – The MP caught in the kettle
18 May 2009 (20:35:47)

Tom Brake saw the treatment of G20 protesters as a parliamentary observer and says police tactics must change

At the beginning of my day with the G20 protesters, I had every hope that my presence there as an independent observer on behalf of parliament would be redundant.

Sadly, as I reflect on a day that turned ugly in places, my concerns about how the event was policed have grown.

From the media reports trailing the protests, it almost seemed inevitable that some level of conflict would occur. There is often a minority attending some protests who do not mind causing trouble, and a smaller number who will actively seek it, stealing the headlines away from issues like climate change, third world debt, employment or the world economy.

Anyone who has been to a protest, music festival or a football match understands that crowd control is a thankless task – little praise when things pass off peacefully; dominating headlines when tragic and appalling incidents like the death of Ian Tomlinson occur.

The words engraved on the Queen’s Police Medal, ‘Guard my People’, have perhaps never been so poignant in light of the number of stories of violence and intimidation that have emerged. The Home Affairs Select Committee and I have heard evidence from the Independent Police Complaints Commission that more than 50 complaints were being looked into. There are lessons to be learnt from the policing of the G20 protests, and learnt they must be.

On the day, many of most violent protestors were arrested by police and swiftly removed from the City. But we judge our police force not only by how they handle a relatively small number of very difficult individuals, but also how they manage a much larger body of peaceful protestors.

I was rooted in one of what has been dubbed the police ‘kettles’ for five hours. I witnessed first-hand the professionalism of many police officers, as well as the final failure of the police strategy. ‘Kettling’, far from tackling the situation efficiently, fanned the flames. Many of the problems the police encountered I believe ultimately stem from the tactic.

In short, ‘kettling’ should come under review. Kettling involves the police building a wall of riot shields and batons around a mass of protesters, the peaceful alongside the problematic – and slowly squeezing them into a tighter space. People are allowed in, but absolutely no-one is allowed to leave.

Slowly the number of those ‘arrested’ (not my choice of word but that of a very senior police officer) within the kettle increases. No access to food. No water. Young trapped with the old. Journalists trapped with anarchists. People, like an elderly couple I spoke to, who simply didn’t want to be there at all.

It is not surprising that, under such conditions, an otherwise overwhelmingly relaxed and peaceful crowd can become agitated, and then angry, and finally alienated from the police. The tactic proved misguided and counter-productive.

My team escorted one protester with a suspected broken arm to a police cordon. Not even his friend was allowed to accompany the injured man as he left the kettle.

Journalistic freedom was curtailed too – I filmed a journalist, flanked by police, prevented from leaving despite legitimate credentials and contact information for the police to use. For me, this raises serious civil liberties issues and that’s what prompted me to release the footage to news networks and make a formal complaint to the IPCC.

Journalists have the right to carry out their lawful business, and report the way in which the police handle demonstrations, without state interference. They need to be confident that they can carry out their role.

The public in turn have the right to impart and receive information: the media are the eyes and ears of the public, helping to ensure that the police are accountable to the people they serve. Effective training of front line police officers on the role of journalists in protests is vital.

Police forces must consider how to ensure their officers follow the agreed media guidelines, and take steps to deal with officers who do not follow them.

They must also consider how police officers are disciplined when they are found to have either covered up or removed their identification numbers. I support the very strong comments made by chief inspector of constabulary Denis O’Connor that there are no circumstances in which it is acceptable for police officers not to display their ID.

Five hours inside the ‘kettle’, as pressure built, gave me ample time to think about how things could have been handled differently and to question when our hard fought liberties were lost – when containment became not about containing the mood of the crowd, but about physically penning them in and ‘arresting’ them simply for being, in the eyes of the law, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is now a different public mood to contain – one that wants to know why a man died, why thousands were detained against their will and why dozens were injured.

The public won’t be silenced this time by backing them into a corner.

Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington

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