Thursday, March 19, 2015

[Update] German police crowd control: the "Flexi-Kettle"

You have seen the pictures of burning police cars and heavily protected riot police clash with early morning protesters at the Frankfurt, Germany, protests on the day of the official opening of the European Central Bank.

We'll deal with the riots and the demonstrations in a later post after studying what the media are saying now.  It is important to know that the riots took place very early in the day, long before the approved demonstrations and assemblies started at around noon.

The blogster took a day off from being a productive member of society to do some research into large scale protest in Germany.

By way of background: At some point in life, the blogster stumbled into crowd control, the art and science of herding humans to prevent stampedes, if you want to use a snappy image. In less snappy, and thus more appropriate terms, you can use the Wikipedia intro "preventing disorder and prevention of possible riot".

Having previously worked side by side with police or in cooperation with them, the blogster decided to go incognito. The coat only said Press on the back, no lanyard either.

Having thoroughly enjoyed doing work in the U.S. at events from a few hundred to a hundred thousand participants, the ECB opening seemed like a good opportunity to get an insight into how Germans do it.
What you see in the press and on TV when protesters clash with police is but a tiny sliver of a large effort on the part of police and protest organizers that include planning meetings, imposed requirements, such as the routes and the number of porta-potties and more.

After just over three hours of travel, first by car, then the final leg by train, the blogster arrived at Frankfurt's main train station.

Unlike the Twitter photo "Frankfurt inner city deserted", this appeared to be a normal workday. No police in sight, no protesters at just over 1 km from the main protest site, just a couple of railroad rent-a-cops in their usual spot, bored as usual.

On the street leading away from the station, shops are open, cars and delivery vans do their thing, people carry freshly unfolded shopping bags with the accoutrements of consumers. There is only one thing that says the day is different from a normal work day, and that is a police helicopter frozen in the air about a mile away.

Past a small park where a young German is curious about what is going on and laughs at the explanation, saying, oh in my home town near the Dutch border we get this at least twice a month when the police do their large scale drug trafficking raids.

Finally, at the pedestrian shopping area, a row of shiny police vans, doors open in the warm sunny weather, bored occupants earning overtime and per diem (this group hails from out of state).

Cafes are open and have their springtime sidewalk seating out, they are busy. Lines of people are seen in front of every ice cream parlor. The clientele consists of few suit wearing people, the first real sign of demonstrators having an impact on who goes to work in downtown Frankfurt on this Wednesday and who dials in via VPN from home.

It doesn't get much more peaceful than that, so the music, the speeches, the happy atmosphere at the main assembly are no surprise, and we'll skip ahead some four hours to the "flexi-kettle".

Kettling has a bad reputation and was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012. Wikipedia explains kettling as follows: "Protesters are left only one choice of exit controlled by the police – or are completely prevented from leaving, with the effect of denying the protesters access to food, water and toilet facilities for an arbitrary period determined by the police forces."

From the assembly area, which was open, where people were free to come and go, the main demonstration march of the day set out along the route. The first noticable aspect was the absence of police on the sidewalk.

Where were they?

A large entrance way to an inner courtyard of a large building provided the first hint. There was police in full riot gear stacked about five deep shoulder to shoulder. Then no police until the next intersection. The same deployment, but stacked ten deep with vans in between.
The tactic was clear now. No police on the sidewalks with their backs to the buildings, deploy only in bigger numbers and in areas where they can move in all four directions.

The same layout followed further down the route at a large square. The side of the street open to the square had a solid line of police vans bumper to bumper with the exception of two stacked deployments of officers, one at each end of the van block.

This was worth testing. The blogster walked right up to the line of officers: Can I please get through to leave?


I would like to leave.



You cannot leave. You have to either march on until the end of the route or wait until everybody has passed. [Incognito blogger turns around without saying good bye, leaves]

Check the definition of kettling above. Now, as someone who worked events much bigger than the 20 000 or so march, the blogster is well aware of reasons to restrict movement into and out of a march or parade.
For political demonstrations, the generic tactical reason for preventing people to leave a march is of course the need to prevent potentially violent groups from breaking out to to damage.

Further testing of what the blogster decided to call the flexi-kettle gave these additional results:

1. State police, like the one in the above discussion, are badly trained for dealing with simple individual requests.
2. Young police officers generally do not have the training or experience to make reasonable decisions that balance individual rights and the mission of the officers.
3. Federal German police were the only ones who granted the request for passage through the line. The officer in charge was older, and ordered the young officers behind him to open the line, an order they followed, but leaving literally not an extra inch.

No request for clarification of policy was filed, or will be filed, with the Frankfurt police.

Yes, the blogster is available for crowd control work if it is interesting or adequately remunerated.

[Update 3/21/15] Some research on the webby web turned up a German term for the approach witnessed in Frankfurt. It is, don't laugh out loud, called Wanderkessel, a wandering kettle. The web tells us it has been in use since around the mid 1980s, and unsurprisingly, is considered somewhat controversial in that it may actually increase aggression on the part of the "controlled" crowd. Given that the 20 000 or so marchers remained unfazed, the authorities should in fact be thankful to the marchers.

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