Police and protest activity - Kettling in Glen Innes
On Thursday night I decided to attend a protest against state house removal in Glen Innes. The protesters have been running an ongoing campaign to prevent the removal of existing state houses.
On Thursday night I decided to attend a protest against state house removal in Glen Innes. The protesters have been running an ongoing campaign to prevent the removal of existing state houses, in which place, private property developers will be building houses which will cost more than anyone on an average wage will be able to afford. Protests over the past year have resulted in dramatic confrontations with numerous injuries and many arrests resulting. Dramatically Mana MP Hone Harawira had his window smashed and was dragged from his car by police after parking his car in front of a house which was to be removed.
The protest I attended on Thursday began normally; protesters milled around, Jimmy, a life long socialist lay down in front of one of the removal trucks and locals looked on with interest. Police numbers gradually grew, and I noticed that the street we were on had been blocked off by police. Suddenly 4 paddy wagons filled with police drove up at speed and officers spilled out – forming into lines and marching up the road. The situation was surreal, police numbers easily equalled that of the 40 or so protesters present.
The police then spread across the street – from one side of the pavement to the other – and swept up everyone in their path. I had been taking photos from behind the police line but upon moving to take a photo, I found myself being pushed up the street. New Zealand police have no lawful authority to sweep protesters up like this and forcibly move them. I know this – I have sat through dozens of cases resulting from protest activity and have discussed this point with lawyers familiar with this area. So I began asking the officers pushing me up the road to explain what I was doing that was illegal, and what authority they had to move me. The police refused to answer me so I sat down. I got picked up by 3 officers and carried a few hundred meters up the road. The police then moved in to kettle protesters, and I along with the others, was prevented from moving down the road for 15 minutes until well after the trucks with houses on were gone.
I came away from the protest with a disturbing sense of unease. I have been attending protests regularly for a decade now, and I have noticed that police behaviour is changing. Suddenly it is normal to see 20+ police at a small non-violent peaceful protest. The police have also adopted the process of kettling – physically rounding up protesters and containing them in a small area. Kettling is a denial of the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of movement. Kettling works because protesters know that if they don't go along with it, they will be arrested or hurt.
I have also seen the police use snatch squads at demos sending in a group of officers to pluck out and arrest those that are identified as leaders. The logic is that arresting these individuals will decapitate the protest and make it easier or the police to control.
It is also becoming normal to see police openly filming protests – first hand experience assures me that this footage will be turned over to intelligence units within the police who have spent the past 15 years harassing activists.
All of these practices are adopted from overseas – most notably the UK. Kettling and snatch squads have no basis in New Zealand law, but anyone who has been involved in the activist movement for any period of time will no that this does not constrain the police. More importantly these three practices are part of a more widespread strategy to contain and undermine political activism. These practices go hand in hand with infiltrating and spying on activists and tie into a police culture of violence, intimidation and harassment towards protesters.
So practically what can we do?
On the ground we can get smarter about how we protest. It's usually pretty easy to anticipate when the police are going to attempt to kettle protesters in. If we split into small groups of 5 – 10 people and kept moving once police numbers amassed we would make it very difficult for the police to use Kettling effectively.
We also need to work strategically to counter police attacks on protesters. We need to work publicly to defend the right to protest – not because protesting is protected by a liberal democracy but rather for our own protection. If the police know that they can shut down protests or use force without significant repercussions, then they will do so. We need to work to broaden the movement so that attacks on individuals and groups will not
Fundamentally we need to remember that oppression and injustice are maintained by violence; that the police do not exist to protect us, but rather to protect those who hold power in society.