Kettling: what the word means and a little 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]

The first well-known modern use of kettling — not as a tactic of war or as a tool for facilitating genocide but as a way of responding to political dissent — took place in Hamburg, Germany in 1986 when 800 anti-nuclear demonstrators were kettled in a field for an entire day. Kettling has been used against street demonstrators in many places since then, but it is in Great Britain that the police have been most enthusiastic about the practice. Because the British police are so ready to kettle protesters and because the English language seems to have borrowed the name from German, it is natural to imagine that the idea of kettling also came to England from Germany. It is not possible to say for certain whether or not this is so but at least one British scholar thinks that it did. David Mead, of the University of East Anglia, an “expert in public order policing” has suggested that a group of British police who attended a football championship in Germany in 1988 and had there an opportunity to observe the crowd control methods of the German police brought the idea back to Britain.[2] He does not say whether or not they also brought back the word, but it seems likely that the German police, having impressed their British colleagues with their kettling technique, would have told them what they called it and that the British, noting the similarity in sound and meaning to English, would have adopted it in translation.

If the British police did bring the word home, however, they eventually lost their affection for it: Since the word has become common English, the police themselves have refused to use it. They prefer, instead, to speak of “containment.” Presumably, they find this less metaphorical label more dignified. Certainly it avoids giving any support to a popular but probably fanciful idea about the derivation of “kettling” which has often been suggested by opponents of the tactic: that kettling is called “kettling” because, just as water is put in a tea kettle to boil, protesters are put in a police kettle to make them “boil” with anger. Naturally the police do not like this idea because it implies they are kettling not — as they insist — to protect public order but to provoke violence from the protesters and in that way to give themselves an excuse for being violent in return.

Whether or not there is any truth to the idea that the word “kettling”is a metaphorical reference to a boiling tea kettle, a group of students in the UK have taken advantage of it to come up with a clever name for anti-kettling software they have invented.[3] The software, called “Sukey,” uses social networking sites and smart phones to enable protesters in different parts of a city to provide each other with instant information about police movements and so avoid being kettled. The name “Sukey” is an allusion to a well-known English nursery rhyme:

Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on
We’ll all have tea

Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again
They’ve all gone away

tactic: method of winning or getting advantage in war, game, business, etc

street protester: to protest means to say that some action, decision, policy, etc. is wrong (unfair, unjust, harmful etc); street protesters are people who go into the streets to publicly protest the actions and policies of their government

riot gear: a riot is violent behavior by a large group of people usually in a city and usually leading to property damage and injuries; it often involves fighting with police or soldiers who are trying to end the riot. Gear is clothing or equipment used for some special activity.

cordon: a line of police, soldiers, security guards, etc. preventing people from entering or leaving an area. A verb, cordon off, is also commonly used for the practice of putting a rope, or yellow tape, around an area to keep people out or in.

advance: move forward

formation: a special arrangement of soldiers, war planes, etc. that is maintained as they move. E.g. The planes flew by in formation.

bang: make a loud noise by hitting something

shield: flat object made of wood or metal that fits on a soldier’s arm for protection in battle

grunt: make a pig-like sound

intimidate: frighten

forcibly: by force, i.e. violently.

baton: a small “club” (long, thin object for hitting people) used by police

retaliate: respond aggressively to an attack. E.g. if someone hits you and you hit them back, you’re retaliating

roughly: violently, i.e. the police officers who do this aren’t worrying about whether or not they’re going to hurt the person

suspect: if you suspect someone, you think they have done something wrong

commit a crime: do something “criminal” (A crime is something that is against the law, i.e. illegal; “criminal” is the adjective form and also the noun form (a person who commits a crime is a “criminal.”)

trained: “train” means to teach someone how to do something (rather than how to understand it)

military look: “military” is the adjective for things connected with war, armies, etc. “Look” here is a noun meaning “appearance”

fits in well with: goes with, suits, is appropriate to

spout: part of a container for liquids that sticks out (“protrudes”) to enable the liquid to be poured without spilling

cognate: one word is cognate with another if it comes from the same source (i.e. if it has the same “derivation”)

refer: a word that refers to something names it; when we use that word to name the thing we are referring to it. (“Mention” has a similar meaning.)

encircle / surround: These two words have a similar meaning, i.e. they are more or less “synonymous.” Something isencircled or surrounded if something else (a wall, fence, buildings, mountains, rope, or a “cordon” of police) is on all sides of it (i.e. “all around it.”)

eventually: after a period of time has passed (often a longer period than was expected or hoped for)

defeat: lose (or be beaten) in a contest of some kind (e.g. a war, a game)

contemporary: two events are contemporary if they happen at the same time; when used as here “contemporary” has a similar meaning to “current” or “present-day”

large-scale: this phrase has a similar meaning to “large” but is used when referring not to things but to “activities” such as businesses, institutions, and projects.

underway: if an event is underway, it is happening

armed forces: this phrase refers in a general way to the army, the navy, and the air force

occupied Poland: when one country invades another and conquers another, then keeps its army there and forms a new government, the conquered country is referred to as “occupied”

in accordance with their government’s policies: a government’s policies are the rules and principles (often based on laws) which it acts on; to do something in accordance with those policies is to “follow” them or to be obedient to them

concentrate: if things or people are concentrated, they are kept close together in a small area

ghetto: an area of a city — often a very poor area — mainly occupied (lived in) by members of a particular ethnic or religious group

deport: forcibly send people out of the country where they have been living to another country, usually their “country of origin”; the word is put in quotation marks in the text because it is the word that was used, euphemistically, by the Germans to describe sending Jews to concentration camps where they were killed.

nickname: an informal, unofficial name. The Jews living in the ghetto spoke Yiddish, a dialect of German. (The word is most commonly used to refer to “familiar” names of people, e.g. “Johnny” for “John”)

facilitating genocide: the verb “facilitate” means to make something easy; the noun “genocide” refers to an attempt to kill all the members of an ethnic group (an ethnic group is a group with a particular religion, culture, language, homeland etc.)

dissent: “dissent” as a verb has a meaning similar to “disagree,” but it is used mainly to refer not to disagreement with another person but with the (usually official) opinions, policies, or acts of a government or other institution. It can also be used to refer to the ideas or beliefs of the majority of the population. (The noun form is “dissident.”)

take place: happen

anti-nuclear demonstrators: “demonstration” in this sense is synonymous with “protest” (The verb form is “demonstrate.” and people who demonstrate are “demonstrators.”) The anti-nuclear demonstrators referred to in the text were demonstrating against the use of nuclear power as a source of energy because, as they believe, it is too dangerous.

enthusiastic:if you are “enthusiastic” about something you really want to do it, find it very interesting, think it is a good idea etc

natural to imagine:“natural” here means “normal,” “what is to be expected.” “Imagine” when it is used in this way has a meaning very similar to “believe” or “think.” (There is no suggestion that the thing being imagined is unreal or merely mental.)

scholar: A scholar (usually a university professor) is someone who is studying something (usually apb social, not a technical, subject) at a very high level. (The word is cognate with “school” and in the past was used to refer to any student.)

public order policing:public order refers to the normal, calm operation of society; when the normal operation of society is disturbed — for example, by violence in the streets — public order is lost and must be restored by “public order policing.” “Policing” is the -ing form of the verb “to police,” which can be used to refer to “police action.” (This verb is not common and is quite formal.)

colleague:someone you work with is your colleague. The word is most often used to refer to someone you work with in your “profession” (law, medicine, architecture etc) or your business.

translation:if something written or spoken in one language is put into another language it is a translation. (Or, to use the verb form “translate,” it has been “translated.”)

have lost affection: if you have “affection” for something, you like (or love) it; if you later “lose affection” for it, you don’t have that feeling anymore.

presumably:“Presumably” is an adverb which allows the speaker or writer to express some doubt about the statement being made. It has roughly the same effect as beginning the sentence with “I believe that” or “it seems” (“Presumably” belongs to a class of adverbs called “content disjuncts” see: A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Quirk, et al, 8.127.)

metaphorical: “metaphorical” is the adjective form of “metaphor.” A metaphor is a word or phrase that works not by saying what something really is but what it is like or similar to. The use of the word kettle to refer to the area inside the police cordon is metaphorical because that space is not really a kettle but is like one.

dignified:“dignified” is the adjective form of the noun “dignity”A dignified person is one who acts, looks, thinks, feels in a way that makes him or her worthy of respect.

popular:Here, popular: in this context it means more or less the same thing as “common.” To say the idea is popular just means that a lot of people had it; in other contexts, e.g. “Jack is a popular teacher,” it means something like “well-liked.”

fanciful:a fanciful idea is one that is not true, or at least one that is not based on sold reasoning or evidence.

derive: To say that “kettling” derives from the Latin word catillus is to say that it comes from (or “originates”) in that word.

opponents: opponent is the noun form of the verb “to oppose”meaning “to fight against, to try to destroy or defeat.”

provoke: if you provoke someone you cause them, by your words or actions, to do or feel something (often a strong negative feeling like anger or aggressive action). The quite common adjective form is “provocative.”

will excuse a violent response by the police:i.e. will provide the police with a dishonest argument to show that their violence is necessary

have taken advantage of:if you take advantage of something you use it to your benefit. We often speak, for example, of taking advantage of an opportunity.

social networking sites:A website where people interact with one another, like Facebook, Twitter, or Linkedin

allusion:“allusion” is the noun form of the verb “allude.” If you allude to something, you refer to it or suggest a connection to it without actually mentioning it.

nursery rhyme:a nursery rhyme: is a traditional (and often very old) poem for young children. A nursery is a room where children play, sleep etc. The word “rhyme” in this context has the same meaning as “poem.” The word is more commonly used as a verb when speaking of two words which rhyme because they have a similar final sound (e.g. “food” and “rude.”)