The “kettling” of protesters, explained

Just before the 8 pm curfew in New York on Thursday, protesters in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx approached a line of police officers who blocked the street. From the other side, police charged the crowd, hemming them in. “This wasn’t even a confrontation, it was a trap,” Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz wrote.

The chaos looked to be an example of “kettling,” a crowd-control tactic used by police that corrals demonstrators into a confined space, so they can’t leave. Once blocked from getting out, police can make arrests or slowly disperse the demonstrators. The situations can become volatile if cops use force, leaving people without a way to escape.

After the Bronx incident, dozens of people were detained, with reporters, protesters, and eyewitnesses saying the march did not become chaotic until cops charged in. New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea disputed this and said the NYPD had received information that the group had intended “to burn things down” and “cause mayhem,” according to amNY.

The disconnect has increased tensions between the police and protesters, who see “kettling” as another example of cops using disproportionate force, effectively turning peaceful demonstrations into tense affairs or confrontations. The New York Times reported that police used the tactic in downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday, and Gothamist reported that demonstrators had been kettled in the Upper West Side on Friday. On Tuesday, the NYPD trapped hundreds of protesters on the Manhattan Bridge, refusing to let them off into Manhattan. The standoff ended when police allowed everyone to exit on the Brooklyn side.

Kettling is not just being used at protests in New York. In Dallas, more than 600 protesters were detained Monday after demonstrators say police trapped them on Margaret Hunt Hill, forcing a confrontation. In Washington, DC, protesters were also pinned into a street on Monday and surrounded by police.

Kettling is not a new tactic; it was used notably during climate protests at the G20 summit in London in 2009, and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators sued after hundreds were trapped on the Brooklyn Bridge in October 2011. But as nationwide protests stretch into their second weekend, police use of kettling is coming under scrutiny. And, for many protesters, it’s adding to the perception that the police are provoking conflict.

What is kettling?

Police use kettling 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 blocking the means of escape. As Colin Groundwater wrote in GQ, it’s the opposite of other crowd control or riot control tactics, like setting off tear gas, which are intended to disperse big crowds, and get people to flee. Kettling hems them in, and it’s often up to law enforcement when, and how, people can escape.

That can mean keeping people trapped until cops feel ready to release them, or sometimes, it can involve detaining people or making mass arrests. And, in cases where a crowd is rioting or engaging in violence, kettling helps cops control a space and detain those causing mayhem.

This is what the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio have said to justify use of the tactic in some circumstances. “I don’t want to see protesters hemmed in if they don’t need to be,” de Blasio said during the Ask a Mayor portion of WNYC’s the Brian Lehrer Show on Friday, but added, “sometimes there’s a legitimate problem and it’s not visible to protesters.”

Kettling, though, tends to pack crowds together, which can make a standoff with police more tense and volatile, as people who would otherwise walk or move away simply can’t. And when the tactic is used, especially on city blocks or in public spaces, it can also risk sweeping up bystanders, people who are just trying to get to work or run errands or go for a walk.

Scott Michelman — legal director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia and lead counsel in the lawsuit brought against Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Police Department for “kettling” of protesters in DC on Inauguration Day in 2017 — told me that this inability to just get away increases unnecessary contact with law enforcement.

Even if police have legitimate law enforcement or safety reasons to want to disperse a demonstration — beyond shutting down a message they don’t like — kettling also brings up two other concerns: constitutional issues and, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic, public health concerns.

“The Constitution restricts whom the cops may detain — not just arrest, but stop — and the stops raise constitutional concerns.” Michelman added that the kettle is often “sweeping people [up] who haven’t done anything wrong, and may have been either simply exercising their right to protest, which is not just legal, but constitutionally protected, or people have no relationships whatsoever to the reason that the cops are detaining anyone.”

Crowding people in a tight space, for a prolonged period of time, can also be dangerous. It can be legitimately frightening to pack people that closely together, putting people on edge and adding to the volatility. And during the coronavirus pandemic, a tactic like kettling does not at all allow for social distancing. While the six-feet rule has been largely broken through the act of protesting (many protesters are wearing masks, though), tightly crowding demonstrators or people together only enhances that risk.

“The police tactics — the kettling, the mass arrests, the use of chemical irritants — those are completely opposed to public health recommendations,” Malika Fair, director of public health initiatives at the Association of American Medical Colleges, told Politico. “They’re causing protesters to violate the six-feet recommendation. The chemicals may make them have to remove their masks. This is all very dangerous.”

At the same time, cities like New York have instituted curfews, which makes the question of kettling — and other police attempts to control or break up crowds — a little knottier. Peaceful protesters have defied curfews in many places. “The way that it usually goes is [the police] line up and then they usually do not actually execute it until there’s some lawful reason to,” Carol Archbold, a professor of criminal justice at North Dakota State University, told me. “And oftentimes they do use the reason of the curfew.”

And there’s a legitimate question as to whether kettling increases the chance that a peaceful protest will lead to more violent confrontation. If police choose to use a kettling tactic, “there’s the problem of potential overuse or misuse of police force, whether it be through the use of batons or some other items like tear gas,” Archbold said.

Ali Watkins, writing in the New York Times, described a protest in Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn on Wednesday where hundreds of demonstrators were chanting, hands up, as protest leaders tried to steer the group out of the area. But, by that point, they had been hemmed in by police. “For the next 20 minutes in Downtown Brooklyn, officers swinging batons turned a demonstration that had been largely peaceful into a scene of chaos,” she wrote.

Sarah Einowski, a cooperating counsel on the ACLU of Oregon’s lawsuit against the city of Portland for “kettling” protesters at a June 4, 2017 protest, said overall, tactics like kettling can have a chilling effect on protest. Like tear gas or rubber bullets, being trapped without water or bathrooms for an extended period of time may make people less likely to want to exercise their right of assembly.

Jacqui Karn, a criminal justice researcher, described her experience being kettled at a 2010 student fees protest in London in a column 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 deal with a disorderly minority without using excessive force, or inflaming the situation?,” she wrote. “I am not sure I have the answer. All I know is that I was effectively put in danger and held without cause. That did not feel like the actions of a country that respected my rights.”


Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.