flesl.net society & politics: kettling 1 (meaning and history)

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Kettling: the meaning of the word and some history

Kettling is a tactic used by police to control street protesters. This is how it works: police officers wearing riot gear use their bodies to form a “cordon” around a group of protesters. The area inside the cordon is called a “kettle” and the process of enclosing protesters in this way is called “kettling.”

When they are setting up a kettle, the police advance slowly, moving in formation, sometimes banging their shields and grunting to intimidate the “enemy.” Once the protesters are inside a kettle they are forcibly held there. No one is allowed to leave without special permission, and this is not often given. Inside the kettle, the protesters are given nothing to eat or drink, and they are not able to use toilets. Often, after a group of protesters has been kettled, the police tighten the cordon, and push the protesters into a smaller and smaller space until they are packed very closely together; if the protesters push back, the police retaliate by hitting them with their shields, their batons, or their hands. Sometimes police officers go inside the kettle and roughly pull out someone they suspect of having committed a crime — or someone who is shouting, or holding a sign, or taking photographs. Sometimes, over a period of several hours, all or almost all of the people inside a kettle are arrested and taken away by the police. On other occasions, kettled protesters are simply released.

Because they wear riot gear, move in formation, and use shields and batons to fight their “enemy” the specially trained riot police who are used for kettling, look more like soldiers than ordinary police officers. The military look of kettling fits in well with the history of the tactic and with the history of the word itself.

The basic meaning of the very old English word “kettle” is “a large metal container for cooking food or boiling water.” The word is most commonly used today, however, to refer to a “tea kettle” a metal container with a handle and a spout that is used to boil water for making tea or coffee. “Kettle” comes from the Latin word “catillus.”; the German word “Kessel” comes from the same source and has a similar meaning. However, German, unlike English, has a cognate verb, “einkesseln” which has the meaning of “encircle ” or “surround,” and it seems that both the verb and the noun have been used for a long time to refer to military surrounding. Certainly, it is used in German in reference to the Battle of Stalingrad in which, in 1942 and 1943, the German army was surrounded and eventually defeated by the Red Army of Russia. In German, this battle is known as the “Stalingrad Kessel.”

During the Second World War, however, the word was also being used to refer a practice that is more similar to the contemporary police tactic than to large-scale military action. At about the same time as the Battle of Stalingrad was underway, the German armed forces in Warsaw, the capital of occupied Poland, were — in accordance with their government’s policies — attempting to concentrate all the Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto into a very restricted area so it would be easier to “deport” and then to kill them. This area, which was cordoned off with ropes, was nicknamed “the Kettle.”[1]