NYPD agents block the Manhattan Bridge exit as hundreds of protesting police brutality and systemic racism from Brooklyn attempt to penetrate the Manhattan neighborhood after a citywide curfew in New York came into effect. | Scott Heins / Getty Images
The police crowd control tactic has been used in protests across the country.
Just before curfew at 8 p.m. in New York on Thursday, protesters in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx approached a line of police officers blocking the street. On the other hand, the police attacked and trapped the crowd. “This wasn’t even a confrontation, it was a trap”, Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz wrote.
The chaos seemed to be an example of “ketling, “A tactic used by the police to control the crowd that pushes protesters into a confined space so they cannot leave. Once blocked from escaping, the police may make arrests or slowly disperse the protesters. Situations may become unstable if the police use violence, which prevents people from escaping.
After the Bronx incident, dozens of people were arrested, with reporters, protesters and eyewitnesses saying the march didn’t get chaotic until the police came in. New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea disputed this, saying that the NYPD had received information that the group intended to burn down and mutilate, ” according to amNY.
Disconnection has increased tensions between the police and protesters, who see “ketling” as another example of police using excessive force, effectively turning peaceful demonstrations into tense affairs or confrontations. The New York Times reported that police used the tactics in downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday, and the Gothamist reported that there had been protesters chained in the Upper West Side on Friday. On Tuesday, the NYPD hundreds of protesters captured on the Manhattan Bridgeand refused to let them go to Manhattan. The deadlock ended when police allowed everyone on the Brooklyn side to leave.
Kettling is not only used in protests in New York. More than 600 protesters were arrested in Dallas on Monday after protesters told police she locked up in Margaret Hunt Hill, to force a confrontation. In Washington, DC, protesters were also trapped in a street on Monday and surrounded by police.
Kettling is not a new tactic; it was used in particular during climate protests at the G20 summit in London in 2009, and occupy Wall Street protesters sued after hundreds were trapped on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. However, as protests continue across the country on their second weekend, the use of boilers is under scrutiny by the police. And for many protesters, it adds to the perception that the police are provoking conflict.
What is boiler?
Police use boilers as a form of crowd control. The goal is to confine a crowd to a specific space – think a city block or a bridge – and block the means of escape. As Colin Groundwater wrote in GQ, it is the opposite of other crowd control or riot control tactics, such as tear gas delivery, which are intended to expel large crowds and make people flee. Kettling keeps them in it, and it’s often up to law enforcement when and how people can escape.
That could mean people being detained until the police feel ready to release them, or sometimes it could be detaining people or mass arrests. And in cases where a crowd rebels or uses violence, ketling helps police control a space and detain those who cause chaos.
This is what the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio have said to justify using the tactic in some circumstances. “I don’t want protesters to be locked in if they don’t have to,” said the Blasio during the Ask a Mayor portion of the WNYC Brian Lehrer Show on Friday, but added, “Sometimes there is a legitimate problem and it is not visible to protesters.”
However, Kettling tends to bring crowds together, which can make the police tense and unstable, because people who would otherwise walk or leave just can’t. And when the tactic is used, especially on city blocks or in public spaces, it can also put you at risk of sweeping up bystanders, people who are just trying to get to work or shopping or going for a walk.
Scott Michelman – Legal Director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia and Principal Adviser in the lawsuit sued against Washington, DC and the Metropolitan Police Department for “stealing” protesters in DC on Inauguration Day in 2017 – telling me that this inability to just get away increases unnecessary contact with law enforcement.
Even if the police have legitimate law enforcement or security reasons for wanting to spread a demonstration – other than shutting down a message they don’t like – stealing raises two other concerns: constitutional issues and, in particular, amidst of the coronavirus pandemic, public health concerns.
“The constitution restricts who can hold the police – not just arrest, but stop – and the stops raise constitutional concerns.” Michelman added that the kettle is often “sweeping people.” [up] who have done nothing wrong, and either have simply exercised their right to protest, which is not only legal, but also constitutionally protected, or people have no relationship whatsoever with the reason that the police are detaining someone. ”
Crowding people into a tight space for a long period of time can also be dangerous. It can be legitimately frightening to bring people so close together, to sharpen people and increase volatility. And during the coronavirus pandemic, tactics such as probing don’t allow for social distance at all. While the six-foot rule has been largely broken by protesting (however, many protesters wear masks), tightly packed protesters or people together only increase that risk.
“The tactics of the police – the boiler, the mass arrests, the use of chemical irritants – which are completely at odds with public health recommendations,” said Malika Fair, director of public health initiatives at the Association of American Medical Colleges, Politico said. “They cause protesters to violate the six-meter recommendation. The chemicals may require them to remove their masks. This is all very dangerous.”
At the same time, cities like New York have banned curfews, making the issue of stealing – and other police attempts to control or divide the crowds – a little gnarlier. Peaceful protesters have defied the curfew in many places. “The way it usually goes is [the police] and then they usually only do it when there is a legitimate reason for it, ”Carol Archbold, a professor of criminal law at North Dakota State University, told me. “And they often use the reason for curfew.”
And there is a legitimate question whether ketling increases the likelihood that a peaceful protest will lead to a more violent confrontation. If the police choose to use a boiler tactic, “there is the problem of possible overuse or abuse of the police force, whether it be using batons or other things like tear gas,” Archbold said.
Ali Watkins, who wrote in the New York Times, described a protest Wednesday in Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn where hundreds of protesters sang hands up, while protest leaders attempted to send the group out of the area. But by then they had been trapped by the police. “For the next twenty minutes in downtown Brooklyn, truncheon officers turned a demonstration that had been largely peaceful into chaos,” she wrote.
Sarah Einowski, an ACLU advisor to the Oregon lawsuit against the city of Portland for protesters who protested on June 4, Overall, tactics such as ketling can have a chilling effect on protest. Like tear gas or rubber bullets, people who want to exercise their meeting rights may be less likely to get stuck longer without water or bathrooms.
Jacqui Karn, criminal investigator, described her experience in a column in 2010 during a protest fee for students in London in the Guardian, which she called a “shocking experience.”
“The dilemma remains: how do the police protect the rights and safety of protesters, but also how to deal with a disordered minority without using excessive force or igniting the situation?” she wrote. “I’m not sure I have the answer. All I know is that I was effectively endangered and held for no reason. That didn’t feel like the actions of a country that respected my rights. ‘