Last updated on 28th July 2019
Note: this article was originally written in 2016, but today, after nearly 6 months of Yellow Vests protests, it is more relevant than ever before and has an almost prophetic character.
Despite the plaintive speeches of the police unions concerning the unclear and even contradictory orders that they may receive, one can note since the beginning of the movement against the labour law, in any case in Paris, a desire to break in a relatively new system of maintaining order on this scale in France: kettling (or “nasse”).
On several occasions during demonstrations, law enforcement units (CRS or mobile gendarmes) tried to surround the protesters. The idea here is to isolate all or part of the procession, to possibly immobilise it, to stop some of its members, or to cause its dispersion person by person. This technique was not born suddenly in the devious mind of some police strategist. It had been previously tested in France, in different contexts (non-sanctioned rallies at places), like during the movement against pension reform in 2010 in Lyon, or during the mobilisation against COP21 (under a state of emergency) last November. Above all, it is a technique already used by the police abroad, especially in England (where we have already seen “traps” last until around 9am) or in Canada (where we have already seen the police arrest more than 500 protesters at once).
Concerning the movement present in Paris, the manoeuvre was carried out once (and partially succeeded) on April 5th. That morning, the high school party demonstration that departed from Nation was the scene of clashes involving police forces – who had become accustomed to positioning themselves in clusters on the sides of the procession. Soon enough these units violently charged the demonstration, not in order to disperse it (with tear gas for example), but on the contrary – to “tamp down” some of the protesters on one side of the street, in order to encircle a hundred people (the part certainly considered the most virulent of the procession). Some of those locked up managed to escape by climbing onto the roof of a building under construction. The others were kept circled. The rest of the procession was violently incited to continue its course, and later the police proceeded to the dispersion of the encircled group, person by person; a party being taken away in police vans (mainly for identity verification).
The manoeuvre was repeated on April 12th against a wild demonstration of a few hundred people, departing (at night) from Place de la République towards the police station of the 2nd arrondissement. This time it was almost the entire procession that found itself surrounded. It was once again a building site that offered a way out to those trapped. On the 14th of April, when the morning procession of high school students joined the starting point of a new demonstration in Stalingrad, it was again completely encircled, before being released under the throwing of gas. The afternoon demonstration was almost entirely surrounded by lines of CRS, which this time let the procession advance.
But it is certainly April 28th and especially May 1st that the police most clearly sought to cut the event into “small” groups (of a few hundred people), more easily controllable.
We must distinguish two situations.
- The encirclement of the entirety of the protesters, which usually takes place at the starting point (COP21) or at the finish point of the event (Commissariat of the 2nd arrondissement; Nation). The thing is relatively simple to implement for the police: the system is already there, at all the points of exit of the square, and it is enough at a given moment to tighten the ranks of the police, and thus to forbid access to, and exit from, the rally.
- Isolate and immobilise all or part of the demonstration while it is already moving. The police put themselves in a position to decide not only the course (we started to get used to this) but also the pace, the holding, and the dispersion of the demonstration. When that’s enough, that’s enough: either the procession was already completely encircled and it is simply stopped (with the fantasy that, like in Germany, the police can “pick up” individuals who are too agitated directly in the encircled procession); or it was too big to be completely encircled and the police therefore try to cut it down (smaller pieces being more easily controlled).
We are faced with a movement in which, very quickly, in the demonstrations, the trade union processions have been systematically overwhelmed. Firstly, by the “young” processions, which they did not manage to encircle and in which there are organised groups of high school students. These groups, determined not to allow themselves to be taken, retain some modes of action normally not used in the balloon-sausage demonstrations (attacking banks, doing wild demonstrations, daubing the police).
In Paris, from demonstration to demonstration, these “young” processions became bigger and more heterogeneous (and the security officer manoeuvres were “counterproductive”: when they hit protesters on March 24th, when they imposed a snail speed, like March 31st). Far from the fantasy of an “autonomous cortege, grimaced in black to represent the pirate flag” as recently recited by an “expert”, we have rather seen the formation of a demo head composed of … all the components of the movement. Grey hair in the middle of high school students, hallucinating young people, me-to-myself-era, lost-flag bearers, anarchists, contract workers, and labour-law protesters, many unemployed (since there is a lot of unemployment), SUD with CGT members, people who film the police, others who throw rocks at it, street vendors, “petits diables” who move about in their corner, crowd haranguers, crowds who do not like to follow the harangue crowd, reinforced banners, banners not reinforced, faces masked (gas), others uncovered, vials of physiological saline solution by the hundreds, and all the others who are laughing around. But “pacifists” and “breakers” – no.
Why does the French police abandon a law enforcement doctrine that has so often succeeded so far (people keep at a distance) to risk a new exercise? Putting police and demonstrators into contact produces wounded people (on both sides, but especially demonstrators) and images of violence (especially at a time when it is so easy to film/broadcast). It is therefore both risky (the “death” that politicians have feared since 1968 – and especially 1986) and politically costly (accusations of violence on the one hand, and of not controlling the situation on the other).
This “turning point” may have been decided before the March protests. In any case, it is entirely consistent with the situation described above. When a procession of “non-affiliates” becomes the main procession; when it is always more heterogeneous; when within it the detestation of the police is always greater; when there are more and more people equipped; it is necessary to react. “No, the movement does not escape, in all directions,” say the services of police unions, “there is simply a group of people, identifiable, identifiable by the colour of their clothes and their practices, and they are so identifiable that they are going to be isolated, really, in the demonstration itself. Look, it’s them who we encircle. As for you ‘ordinary protesters’, you are invited to continue your route, without looking.”
The practice of kettling goes hand in hand with the discourse of the minimisation and identification of what is happening in the Parisian processions; talk about “dozens” of breakers/black bloc/autonomous; talk that is the absolute opposite of what we saw growing up in the street; but which corresponds to the police dream (the situation would be so much easier to manage) and the media (the situation would be so much easier to explain).
WHAT TO DO?
For now, in Paris, the technique of kettling has not worked very well, at least during the big events of March 31st, April 28th, May 1st. On April 28th the police cut off the procession, but because of the configuration of the site (a bridge) it was forced to do so in the wrong place of the procession. It found itself sandwiched, and instead sought to put an end to this situation by chasing the head of the procession to the point of final dispersion with tear gas (return to more “classic” techniques).
On May 1st law enforcement managed to cut the procession while having previously placed a line in front of it. So it sandwiched some of the protesters (a thousand). But it was not able to proceed to a complete encirclement, the lines of policemen located on the sidewalks having been previously driven away by the demonstrators. Above all, it’s always the problem when we try to isolate something that is not so easily identifiable: several hundred people have gathered on the other side of the police line (the side of the “union procession”), by strongly insisting on ending this situation. The union procession could not abandon the situation as it was (it was taking the risk of being alone with the big balloons). The police were forced to end the encirclement. Police unions may complain afterwards: what else could they do?
The technique has therefore failed to generalise so far. But the disaster that would be the success of such an operation hangs in our face (when the processions are less thick especially, or when some unions will feel again the legitimacy of virtually dissociating themselves).
How to defeat this practice?
- Prevent the police from cutting the procession. There is already a lot of attention from the protesters towards this question. On April 28th a first attempt to cut the procession was prevented relatively simply. On May 1st protesters (at the head) did everything to avoid the incursion of police lines on the sides, with relative success (“no bastards on the sidewalks!”). But having the certainty that the police cannot “cut” (even in situations of confrontation, which is the time it usually favours) would require another level of organisation. This would require people to take on this task with all the material and the risks involved. But does the “head of the procession” really want to be a hermetic bloc (to the police, but certainly also to the rest)? I.e., to hide behind banners, helmets, and sticks – in short, behind security officers? Until now it is rather the “loose” (distended) character of the head of the procession that has made its isolation by the police complex.
- Pierce the encirclement. Those who saw the CRS on 1st May, with their gas masks, shields against shields, in double-line, gas in their hand, place their sticks in the “attack position”, as they say, know that this is not possible in the current state of things. The tactical advantage (for the police) of the encirclement with contact is that the demonstrators cannot profit any more from their numerical superiority. To break the line, it would imply to be more equipped and more violent than the police themselves. We come back to the previous point: it is push the head of the procession towards isolating oneself. In truth, the trap does not easily crumble from the inside: it is outside that it is more fragile, and it is paradoxically those that it does not concern who are best placed to act. Those who are not caught, or manage to get out, by massing on the other side of the police lines, weaken them, and worry them, while restoring the confidence of the trapped people.
- Increase the human and political cost of such a system. Wait until someone dies from suffocation in a crowd movement; or that someone goes crazy and kills a policeman. This would be really stupid (and cynical).
If it’s not possible to tilt the balance of power by fighting in the street and physically against this system (although, in a detailed manner, this can sometimes succeed, as we have seen), it must be won politically. I.e., negate the political effects sought by such an operation: terror, isolation, dissociation. The goal of the trap is to isolate (and produce by isolating) the “most determined elements”: when, like May 1st, it is filled with people of all kinds, it does not achieve this goal. The police usually proceed to a selective and progressive emptying of the trap, assuming that those who leave first are the most frightened, and therefore the least dangerous. It is this equation that must be countered: by remaining numerous in the trap, or by letting people targeted by the police run away as long as there are still too many people to make arrests. On the other side of the police lines, do not stop chanting, do not agree to continue demonstrating until the trap is lifted, throw water and food over the lines when the trap lasts for a long time and fatigue is felt – in short, making a strong relationship between the inside and the outside exist, all of this contributes to thwarting the political operation of the trap, if not to win it militarily.
We have not finished talking about kettling and “nasse”, concerning this movement and later. And it is required. But on the condition of exiting the reflection of anxiety. “Oh my God, we’re going to be trapped, we’ll be finished …” It was a joy that the procession that went for an aperitif at Valls’ home sang “We are encircled, we are surrounded, we are, we are, we are encircled”, and it was a joy that those who had escaped had returned to pressure the other side until the system was lifted. On a day like on May 1st it was the entire demonstration that was subjected to this police strategy. It is necessary that one diffuses knowledge about this and rejects it. It is necessary that the intimacy with the police that has been imposed on us during demonstrations in Paris is taken for what it is, not a “provocation”, not a desire to trigger clashes, but the implementation, little by little, of a new technique of policing that any person still determined to take the street in this country must consider as unjustifiable.