Why we should be worried about Water Cannon: Tactics, Symbols and Nonsense

It was in 2011 that David Cameron first mentioned the possibility of getting water cannon. The response to the riots, which had started because the police shot and killed someone, was going to be a further militarisation of the police force. However, not long after this, Wandsworth Council served an eviction notice to the mother of Daniel Sartain-Clarke, arguing that her son’s participation in the riots meant neither she nor him deserved council housing, and we had something else to get angry about. We forgot about water cannon, assuming it was just part of the post-riot cacophony. Last week when I read that Boris Johnson had gone ahead with the plans, without consulting Londoners (or even the Home Office), the anger returned.

Boris Johnson is buying water cannon in case there are more riots. The rationale plays into concerns that the police were woefully ill- prepared in 2011. As Met Commissioner Sir. Bernard Hogan-Howe put it: “whilst we have no specific information that suggests major disorder this year, we had none in 2011 either”. This troubling argument is so in line with the post-9/11 security discourse it could have been said by Bush himself. It’s about being ‘prepared’ for the unexpected. It’s about pre-emptive legitimisation. Moreover, the justification is dressed up as a tactical one. The Mayor said, ‘I have to think about the needs of the police, about how to best manage very, very difficult public order situations’. The problem here is that police opinion on the issues varies greatly. The forces in Manchester, the Thames Valley, Merseyside and the West Midlands (the largest after London) have all come out against the purchase, on financial and tactical grounds. At the same time, after a detailed hearing on the matter, the London Assembly voted against the purchases, with those against including the Mayor’s own deputy and previous policy advisor.

Would water cannon have been of tactical use in 2011? Until now, its use has been confined to Northern Ireland. Sir Hugh Orde, now President of the Chief of Police and who served as Chief Constable of Police in Northern Island, immediately came out against the idea of deploying them on the mainland. In response to the Prime Minister’s rumblings, he noted that “without extremely violent and static crowds, they are useless”; crowds need to be static for water cannon to be useful. In Northern Island this serves a purpose: much of the unrest is explicitly territorial with groups attempting to occupy or block particular spaces. In August 2013, Loyalists physically blocked a Republican Parade from taking place on Royal Avenue in Belfast, and a water cannon was used to disperse them.

Anyone who witnessed the London riots could not describe them as ‘static’. In fact, it was the hit-and-run aspect, the roaming groups of people and the speed at which groups mobilised over social networks that characterised the form of the disturbances. People didn’t occupy JD Sports, they were in-and-out in minutes. Water cannon could have defended a couple shops or even a high street at best, but not a neighbourhood. Water cannon may seem like an appropriate symbolic response, but as a real tactical response, it’s a nonsense.

So if water cannon is best used against those trying to occupy a space, then who is most at threat? It’s far more likely to be deployed at political protests. Looking back, it’s not the riots where it would have served its purpose but the student demonstrations of 2010. Londoners who read Sir. Bernard Hogan-Howe’s piece in the Evening Standard will have noticed the Met’s attempt to address these fears:

“Some have argued the water cannon may be used to silence or discourage peaceful protest. I can categorically state that this will not happen. We will not see the water cannon posted on Whitehall for any protest. Protest is a part of our democracy. We police hundreds every year and almost all are peaceful.”

These comforting words contrast with those of Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, who made it clear that when protestors are “attacking a fixed location, such as Parliament, such as an embassy, such as the Millbank buildings… In those situations it’s potentially a credible tactic”. Rowley is making specific references here, and very political ones at that. The incidents he’s alluding to are: the demonstration against the attacks on Gaza outside the Israeli embassy in 2009, Millbank Tower and the 9 December occupation of Parliament Square. I was at all three of these demonstrations and totally reject the idea that the deployment of water cannon would have been legitimate in these circumstances. What the comments show is that we are actually relying on the discretion of the police to characterise a protest as violent or not.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Occupation and direct action in the new privatised spaces of the city – where protests are by definition illegal – would give the police the prerogative. London is seeing rapid increases in the privatisation of space, much of which most people are not aware. Although many thought Occupy’s location outside St. Paul’s symbolic, it was chosen out of legal necessity. Paternoster Square outside the London Stock Exchange, the intended location, is owned by Mitsubishi who launched an injunction against protestors. Canary Wharf? No chance. The heart of finance capital has its own private security force; the only public land is the little plot outside the tube station. The lesson to be read is that it increasingly easy to criminalise demonstrators under the guise of trespassing or property damage, particularly in central London and its surrounding financial districts.

In terms of water canon as tactical, Millbank – the spark that began the student movement – is a good case to analyse. It was the culmination of a huge, peaceful march that filled Whitehall from top to bottom, attended by students from across the country. Though some well-organised groups had planned to occupy the building, the ‘violence’ was fairly spontaneous for most who participated, many of whom were overexcited sixth-formers. The vast majority were simply chanting and occupying a private space, one that was politicised by the Tory HQ’s presence. What the police lacked was information and intelligence, not fire power. Had they known people were going to try and get into Millbank they would have simply deployed more bodies. It is unlikely that after the occupation had started a cannon-mounted vehicle could have got through the crowds and toward the hub at the front without spraying peaceful, ‘static’ demonstrators. Of course the most egregious instance of violence was when Edward Woollard weaponised a fire extinguisher – thankfully not killing anyone. This is the central, historical point for the Met. But water cannon can’t fly. And, again, the issue was intelligence; once demonstrators got to the roof only officers could have made a difference. In fact, if the demonstrators on the roof saw water cannon ploughing through the crowd, more objects would have certainly been thrown.

Much can be learned from the symbolic role played by water cannon in Turkey, where it escalates violence and necessitates its own being. The general pattern is that a large march or demonstration will try to get to a specific location, often one the police don’t want them to go to. This is often the case in London too – the student movement died in a puddle in Kennington Park when police refused access to Parliament Square. The body of the march will then face off with police lines and chant slogans, bang drums, and vocalise their protest. Water cannon (known by Turks as the Toma) is ever present. Sooner or later the crowd will begin to move toward police lines, often because they have been kettled, but also because that’s what peaceful protests do: they move. In some instances something might get thrown at the Toma, a bottle or coin. The police then interpret the protest as violent and the static crowd becomes a unified threat. The Toma will then begin spraying indiscriminately at the crowd.

The stream of water hits like a brick, with a pressure of 90kg per square inch. It can do serious, physical damage, but also causes panic leading to crushes and stampedes. More significantly, it frames the protest as a battle; the police have just attacked a large group of people who in the vast majority have not acted aggressively. People already angry about something. The Toma and the police around it are now a real and aggressive enemy.

The fact that water cannon can so easily become a focus for aggression is especially worrying given that the police’s favourite tactic in handling the student demonstrations was to create ‘static’ crowds and provoke violence. I’m talking about kettling. There is countless footage of TSG riot police provoking protestors to act aggressively: punching students or pushing people to the ground (fatally in the case of Ian Tomlinson). What the Toma does is offer a target for this kind of anger and frustration. It’s big and armoured, and there’s no twinge of guilt when you throw bottles and rocks at it.

This is when it gets serious. There is a real chance that the Conservatives will win the next election. Not because I think the majority of people want the NHS to be dismantled, or corporations to be taxed less, or more austerity. But because people don’t vote, they are disillusioned and pissed off at mainstream politics. This means the future of the British welfare state and its character is under threat. If this happens there will no doubt be resistance and eruptions of discontent. From the miners’ strike and Poll Tax riots to Anti-Apartheid sport boycotts, issues of civil disobedience are a historical reality and it would be naïve to think a future of severe austerity won’t result in some form of protest. This is what makes the water cannon such a serious issue, because if you really care about our social democracy then you might in the future find yourself on the streets demonstrating. And because an anarchist throws a bottle, or a teenager throws a piece of placard, you may find yourself face to face with a Wasserwefer 9000.

Boris Johnson has managed to shift the issue onto his favoured modes of operation: pageantry and irony. Media coverage has shifted overnight since LBC asked the Mayor if he was willing to have the cannon tested on him, to which he gave an ambiguously positive response. Now this is all the headlines care about: ‘Boris agrees to be sprayed to show it’s harmless, what a top lad…’. If such an experiment were ever carried out, it would simply become a viral hit, a source of comedy, a distraction. There was another revealing admission that slipped out during his response: ‘I don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve it!’. The move from being the subject of repression to its object, is a charged and flimsy one. It seems we must now trust the Metropolitan Police to make this move for us.

—Aydın Emre Osborne Dikerdem

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