Discipline and kettle
By Jane Elliott
Jane is a lecturer in contemporary literature at the University of York. She writes about popular culture, middlebrow fiction, and politics. Her book, Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory, was published by Palgrave in 2008. Jane is also the humanities editor of The Public Intellectual.
Recently, I was kettled for eight hours in London. With hundreds of other legal protesters, I was held within an open-air police cordon, first on Parliament Square and then on Westminster Bridge, without access to food, water, shelter or bathrooms.
It was December 9, 2010, and Parliament was voting that afternoon on cuts to education funding that would triple fees for undergraduate students. The measure was the first in a series of proposals aimed at revamping the university system in keeping with market principles: the individual student would bear the bulk of the costs, and universities would compete for what little public funding remained, most of it channeled into science, engineering and technology. The Tories and their Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, wanted to create a university system that acted like a corporation, and many people in the country, including me, wanted to stop them.
So at noon that day, I joined the estimated 40,000 people who assembled in London and marched to Parliament Square to try to make our voices heard. When my friends and I attempted to leave the Square at 3 p.m., the kettle was in place and we were trapped. At 9 p.m., we were herded onto Westminster Bridge, held for another two hours, and then finally released single-file through a series of staggered police lines. At that point we’d been standing in the cold for twelve hours, eight of them against our will.
Kettling is a relatively new response to legal protest, which dates from the 1980s but has become increasingly prominent in the last 15 years. The practice boils down to a simple operation: police cordon off protesters in a specific outside area and keep them there, usually for a minimum of several hours, and then release them slowly in small numbers.
Kettling turns a collection of angry, focused and united people into a group of tired, docile individuals whose most pressing goals are food, water and access to a bathroom. As an instrument of policing—and silencing—political protest, it’s wickedly effective.
It certainly worked on me. By the time I was standing on Westminster Bridge, I was swaying with tiredness and kept having to stop myself from resting my head on the nearest shoulder, whether it belonged to one of my friends or not. I never even opened the half-liter of water I’d carted around all day, because I didn’t want to make my need for a bathroom any more pressing than it already was. The bridge seemed about as removed from shelter as one could get, suspending us between the cold sky and the cold water, and in that state, the crush of other humans provided a kind of basic animal solace. At that point, we had no shelter but each other.
After about an hour of standing there, I started to worry they really would keep us there all night. We couldn’t see over the crowd or even tell how far we were from the police lines keeping us in place; we didn’t know if they were letting anyone out, or when or why. It felt like they could do anything to us, and very well might.
Kettling works so well because it uses the body’s own basic needs against protesters: hold people long enough and you can transmute the desire for social justice into the desire for a loo.
But the fact that kettling is effective isn’t enough to explain its growing use as a punishment technique. Forms of punishment both reflect and produce relationships between the individual and society, as Michel Foucault argued in his famous work Discipline and Punish. Medieval punishment was spectacularly painful and public because breaking the law was thought of as an injury to the body of the sovereign. Torture in the public square was a punishment meant to visibly transfer that injury from the sovereign to the criminal, a form of revenge that restored public order by reestablishing the total power of the sovereign. In contrast, modern prisons reflect the idea that the goal of punishment is to prevent future crime through deterrence. The penitentiary aimed to alter the criminal’s behavior from the inside out.
In the first model, power aims at the body. It cares little for individual motive or character. In the second, power takes the individual’s interior life as its arena—a transformation of the relationship between government and the people being governed.
If the medieval and modern models of punishment reflected the forms of governance that spawned them, then kettling as a form of policing seems to reflect the very neoliberal forces that we had assembled that day to fight against.
Neoliberalism is a complex and variegated phenomenon. At base, however, neoliberals are united by the belief that each aspect of society should operate like the economy at large, governed by market forces and competition. The current proposals were an attempt to apply those principles to the higher education system. Under neoliberalism, the populace transforms from a collective group with a common interest in general social welfare to a disparate group of individuals who encounter one another publicly only as competitors in an endless series of markets. As its endpoint, neoliberalism imagines a world in which individuals are on their own to survive as best they can and there are no public resources whatsoever. Kettling gives us some idea of what that kind of world might look like.
Once the police lines closed us into the kettle this past December, we couldn’t exit the square. Other than that, though, we could do pretty much whatever the hell we wanted. Ordinarily, kids burning park benches or defacing statues would have been stopped in a manner of minutes. In the kettle, they burned every bench to a cinder and danced around the fires. While newspapers lamented the destruction of property the next day, no cops tried to protect property or control behavior in the kettle, as if creating a cordoned area of turmoil and destruction was the goal. Whether we held hands and sang songs or toppled the statues on the Square, the cops were clearly going to let us do what we liked until they decided to let us leave.
And, as the day went by, Parliament Square looked more and more like a scene from any recent post-apocalyptic film: a chaotic zone from which law and order had been eradicated. The sun set, and people lit smaller fires, spray-painted revolutionary slogans on walls, filled the gutters with urine, smashed every window they could reach and briefly broke into the Treasury.
But despite the apocalyptic imagery, most of kettle was calm, even orderly. The fires and urine-soaked pavements, which the next day’s news treated like deliberate expressions of mayhem and disrespect, were mostly just a logical response to cold and lack of bathrooms. As I toured the Square with a friend, we skirted knots of people huddling around fires fueled by protest signs and banners. One group tipped over a newsstand and tried to use it as a fireplace; as it went up in flames, it filled the air with black smoke and the smell of burning plastic. A few young women were using a telephone box as a makeshift bathroom, taking turns blocking the glass sides from passers-by. One large doorway had been turned into an impromptu computer lab, with journalists and protesters sharing the space. As a sign of what we might get up to if left ungoverned, the doorway computer lab has stuck with me as a sign of how ineradicably civilized many of us really are.
That feeling of calm came in part because there were rules in the kettle, even if there were no laws. For the most part, our rules seemed to be: comfort and protect each other, don’t trust the cops, and burn whatever you can to stay warm. Also: dance if you can keep the speakers powered.
The rules on violence, however, were less clear. Hundreds chanted encouragement at kids who tried to smash the reinforced glass of the Treasury windows with rocks. Others saw the turn to violence as an abandonment of the moral high ground, and felt our cause was weakened. Some people blamed those who were pushing against the police lines for the continuation of the kettle, though seemed clear later that the police had always intended to hold us until at least 9 p.m., after the members of Parliament had voted and left.
Because the violence was limited to that against property and that between protesters and cops—localized at the barricades that barred our exit from the area—it had little effect on conduct within the kettle. Every potential exit from the square, however, was a friction point where real violence erupted between cops and protesters. Lined up three and four deep in front of their vans, the cops used their batons to push back the crowds at the barriers and the people pushed back. Anything that might conceivably be of use by the protesters on the frontline was passed over head from the back of the crowd to the front–bricks, placards, barricades left lying around the Square. I saw a ladder go by, from who knows where. But if you moved ten yards from those friction points, you wouldn’t know they existed.
Kettling applies force in a way that is minimal, focused and violent when resisted. But at the same time, it produces an ancillary zone that is cut off from what we usually think of as civilization. A kettle creates a group that has no shared public resources, no access to infrastructure, and no recognized form of political collectivity.
Kettling erases the social realm as a zone of jointly held resources and mutual responsibility. Kettling, in other words, manifests neoliberalism’s basic tenets. Neoliberalism aims to make the whole of government run on market principles, which leads to war on social welfare programs. As these are dismantled or privatized, all responsibility for public welfare is shifted to individuals, families or, at a stretch, communities—usually understood as local religious or ethnic enclaves with no governmental status. When Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was “no such thing as society,” this is precisely the goal that she had in mind. Despite the Tories promotion of “Big Society” in their successful 2010 campaign, the Coalition goverment’s policies amounted to the same Thatcherite ideal: transfer all responsibility for social welfare to individuals or local non-governmental communities, and transform government into an instrument for keeping the market—which is now everything and everywhere—on an even keel.
By incarcerating protesters in a space with no public resources, even public restrooms, in which we are each left to our own, unequipped devices, kettling prefigures this denuded, meager form of collectivity. This is a world in which there is no shared infrastructure, we each scrabble for what we can get, and we are free to fight each other so long as we don’t cross the barriers that separate us from those deciding our fate. If neoliberalism wants to eradicate the idea that society, understood as a form of public, mutual responsibility, might have anything to do with government, understood as official legal and financial apparatus ruling our collective lives, then the kettle is a perfect instantiation of that goal.
Inside the kettle, we might have operated as a community of a sort, but we were one robbed of basic rights, stripped of public services, and denied any collective voice. And, in this state, we could be allowed to be lawless simply because it didn’t matter what we did. To put it another way, a kettle offers a pretty good picture of what’s left of “society” once government has withdrawn all resources and legitimacy from it in the fashion neoliberalism desires.
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