“Kettling” Mass Arrest Tactics Have No Place in a Free Society

“Kettling” Mass Arrest Tactics Have No Place in a Free Society

By Farnell Morisset

I follow Anarchopanda on Twitter.  I think it’s great how a private citizen-panda has taken it upon himself to become a symbol of pacifism and kindness throughout the messy business that has been the last year’s protests.  So when his Twitter feed posted a message implying he’d been arrested… I knew something was up.

In yet another display of embarrassingly short-sighted police tactics, Montréal’s SPVM engaged a kettling mass arrest Friday night, and this time, Anarchopanda was among those in the can.  For those who don’t know, “kettling” refers to the police tactic of completely surrounding a group of people and holding them all in place so that all people involved can be individually arrested.  Kettling is an incredibly controversial tactic – when it was used a single time by Toronto police during the G20 summit, those who commanded it were later charged with unlawful use of authority and the Toronto police promised never to do so again.

Meanwhile, this was the SPVM’s third kettling that week.  Even more embarrassingly, an SPVM spokesperson justified the tactic by saying the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms does not allow for freedom of protest.  In case you’re wondering, it does – the right to assembly is the third point, right after the right to life and the right to protection of life.

But I’m not here to provide trial-by-comparison or debate the finer points of legal interpretations of human rights.  I’m not even here to defend the actions of the protesters – they broke the law and therefore should be arrested, the morality of breaking an immoral and unjust law is another matter altogether.  I’m here to tell you that a free and civil society should absolutely not tolerate kettling arrests, and also to tell you why.

Kettling Encourages Disorganised, Non-Violent Protesters to Become Violently Organised

This isn't exactly rocket science.

This isn’t exactly rocket science.

This, in itself, is the primary reason why kettling should not be tolerated, and it isn’t some wishy-washy sort of hypothetical comment about gradual escalation of violence, blaming the police for the violence done by protesters.  No, this is a straightforward, cause-and-effect reality.  See, by its very nature, kettling requires that a large number of protesters stand in one place for a long period of time simply because the police are telling them to.  This only works if the majority of protesters are willing to peacefully follow the directives of the police.  In last Friday’s kettle, 294 protesters were held in place by a line of a whopping 24 police officers.  If the police keep doing things like this, it’s only a matter of time before protesters start doing the math and realise they outnumber their captors more than ten-to-one.  That equation doesn’t end well for anyone once the protesters collectively decide they have had enough.

Kettling Violates Basic Human Rights in Cold Environments

Holding POWs in the cold without adequate shelter or protection from the elements for hours on end is a human rights violation.  Ok, sure, you can blame the protesters’ own poor clothing choices if they’re stuck out freezing.  I’m inclined to agree it is, indeed, pretty stupid to participate in a protest without making the proper choices in footwear and clothing for the possibility of being outside for a while.  I’d argue, however, that someone who shows up to a winter protest in tennis shoes and light jacket clearly does not have the intention of causing trouble for any long period of time, and so should not be treated like a potential rioter.  However, I’m also open to the idea that some protesters are just stupid.  Here’s the thing – stupid people have human rights too.  If the Geneva conventions promise enemy soldiers – people actively trying to kill you – some basic human rights, it stands to reason our own fellow citizens – even the stupid ones – should have those same rights.

Kettling Does Nothing to Prevent Future Protests and Disruption

Some people like to imagine that the protesters being arrested have been “taught their lesson”, usually accompanied by some fantasy of the protester held in lock-up for a day or two, mournfully seeing the error of his ways and deciding to shave, get a haircut, and turn his life around.  Unfortunately for social order (and fortunately for those of us who value independence of thought), it simply doesn’t work that way.  If Anarchopanda was back to tweeting late Friday night, it’s because he and all others involved in the mass arrests had been released and headed home.  By the next protest, they’d be just as available and just as undeterred.

Kettling Goes Against Time-Tested Crowd Control Theory

When faced with a mob, the goal of the forces of order should be first and foremost to encourage them to disperse.  This is not a new philosophy – policing manuals dating back to the 1800s make mention of this as the best and most desirable goal.  Crowds which disperse on their own are less likely to form again in as large numbers, since seeing others willingly leave your movement disinclines you from continuing your own participation.  By trapping the entire mob within a confined space, the police prevent the crowd from dispersing.  This only strengthens bonds and links within the mob, as they now much more clearly share a common struggle, and therefore strengthens the movement.  This ultimately encourages the mob to view itself as a common entity, which can only make it grow.

Kettling is a Crass Money-Grab

Here’s a crazy thought for you – it’s in the city’s financial interests to have as many protesters wind up in mass arrests as possible.  The current fine, in Montréal, for assembly without police pre-approval (a joke in itself) is 637$, with comparable amounts in other cities throughout Québec.  So, Friday night, the city of Montréal hypothetically made a gross profit of 187 278$ from the kettling operation.  I’m not saying Friday night was profitable for the city, since I’m sure the costs associated to kettling, arresting, transporting, and processing all those people was more than that… but you can’t deny this does offset some of that cost.  When the police is goading violence, denying basic rights as what looks like a financial consideration with limited actual effect on diminishing protests, you know something is very, very wrong.

Kettling Uselessly Clogs Our Courts

About those fines, though, they will most likely all be contested.  I’m no expert on how our legal system works, but I’m pretty sure our courts have more important things to do and our citizens have more important things to do with them.

Kettling Disturbs Flow of Traffic Longer Than Protests Themselves

Those who are understandably frustrated by the almost daily protests clogging up the streets might be tempted to sneer in contempt as the rabble are rounded up and arrested, but the fact is those poor gridlocked citizens have their troubles made considerably worse when the police make use of kettling arrests.  In case you were wondering, individually arresting hundreds of people is a long process.  During this time, streets are still cordoned off and traffic still grinds to a standstill.  The time this disturbance lasts is much longer than the time drivers would lose by simply letting the protesters pass.

With so many obvious moral problems and practical inconsistencies, it’s a wonder we still tolerate the use of this strategy by the police.  This isn’t confined to Montréal, either – last fall Québec Solidaire MP Amir Khadir was famously arrested on the streets of Québec in a similar kettling attempt.  That we’re still using such pathetic and outdated policing methods is the kind of thing people in a free society should find vulgar.

Law enforcement, you can do better.


About the author:

Farnell-Morisset_BiogFarnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image.

He is also alarmed by what seems to be an invasive and aggressive polarization of complex social issues for which there are no black-and-white answers. This eventual identity crisis, he feels, will only be solved through good faith in, and honest communication with, all sides pulling on our ever dwindling “pure laine” blanket.

It is with this in mind that he contributes to LifeinQuebec.com as a valued member of our in-house writing team.

Categories: Opinion

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset has an engineering degree from Université Laval and common law and civil law degrees from McGill University, where he also studied economics.

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