Fuck. The first thing that comes to mind after I’ve been kettled by the police. Then quickly I begin wishing my climbing abilities were better as I see others scaling up walls to escape.
Police kettles suck, and getting caught in one feels like being put in an invisible jail. You have these aggro cops, in riot gear, with their military-grade weapons ready to shoot or beat you up at any given moment. You’re probably on a street that you’ve traveled a hundred times before, except instead of the taco truck that sits on the corner, there’s an armed police car with about 200 police officers ready to pounce on you if you dare try to flee. It’s as much a psych op as it is about restricting your physical movement. Police often keep protesters detained for hours, refusing to let them use the restroom or drink water as they wait, uncertain as to whether or not they’ll be arrested.
The uprisings moved to the streets by the police killing of George Floyd have been an important reminder that the police state is not untouchable, giving us hope that revolution can be reality.
That feeling of possibility was killed in me after seeing the repression and co-optation that took place during Occupy and the Ferguson uprising. After seeing the federal government go so hard on the J20 black bloc, with an intense prosecution amounting to decades in prison for hundreds of people, I thought many others would be too intimidated to continue openly fighting the state.
But sitting at home seeing on Twitter that protesters had burned down Minneapolis’s third precinct building was the most amazing and shocking feeling. The despair I’ve felt for the last few years began to dissolve. Inspiration is one of the most powerful tools for revolution. It’s so rare, and can’t be inorganically reproduced. It’s so rare that, when it happens, we try to hold on to it as long as we can and fight against anyone who tries to destroy it.
I’d found myself restricted by my own ideas of what was possible. What I’ve realized is that the physical kettle lingers with you, creating another layer of trauma from the police. That mental kettle, the one that surrounds you with fear and despair, is also a barrier we must break through. Recognizing the parallels between physical and psychological kettles allows us to see similarities in the tactics we use to evade them.
One of the first steps to avoiding and evading kettles is awareness. Knowing your environment both mentally and physically is important. Often in marches, people just unquestioningly follow whoever is leading. But the person heading the march can be leading you into a trap, either knowingly or unknowingly. If there is someone deciding where to go, and if the route wasn’t previously decided before the march started, you can literally ask them where they are trying to go. It is also equally important to know that you and others have the power to direct yourselves. One time I was on a march, and there were people wanting to shut down a freeway that was nearby, but some organizers were against it. Someone who was in favor of the march signaled that people who wanted to could head towards the freeway. At that moment, the march split, and the people who wanted to escalate their tactics successfully shut down a freeway. I mention this to say: Just because someone has a megaphone doesn’t mean they should be able to control the energy of the collective mass. It’s important for people to also push against the figurative kettle, the one that organizers who want to control the march sometimes try to put up.
I once covered a march where the person leading it directed us all into a tunnel. Tunnels, like bridges, are the lion’s den of police traps. If you’re kettled in these spaces, you have no place to escape.
Similarly, having awareness of the social context in which your movement is unfolding can help you avoid mistakes of the past. If there is an organization calling for a protest, do some research about the org before attending. See if anyone has written any report backs about past actions. Ask people whose politics are in affinity with yours what they think about the people calling the protest. If it’s a new organization, or is an individual you’re unfamiliar with, take a look at that person. Are their politics in line with yours? By attending this action, are you amplifying an organization or a person that people whom you are in affinity with have been working to deplatform?
Knowing the political landscape of your community and neighborhood or wherever you’re protesting can let you know if you’re being led to any tunnels that lead toward co-optation by the Democratic Party, nonprofits, or other mechanisms that sap revolutionary energy. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I realized that this process — which unfolded from the end of 2014 until this past May 28, the day Minneapolis burned — had led me to create my own invisible kettle, constraining my horizons of political possibility.
Despite all precautions and awareness, sometimes getting caught in a kettle is unavoidable. When this happens, you only have a few moments before it’s too late and you’re completely trapped. Are the cops still forming a line? If you ran quickly, could you slip past? If that’s not possible, do you have the numbers to charge the police and smash through their scrimmage line? Is there a wall you can jump? In times of unrest, you just have to go for it, and do it quickly before the cops’ reinforcements arrive.
When an uprising is first starting, there are just a few days to decide if this will be more than just an isolated event. Minneapolis was the spark, just like Ferguson; that spark needs wind for it to turn into a wildfire like the ones we’ve seen spread across the country. If others do not quickly take the streets, then we lose the spark.
The fear we feel when deciding, “Should we push through the line?” or “Should I leave my house?” is a fear we must move past if we want this moment to bring revolutionary change. We cannot rest with the passage of chokehold bans and other token reforms.
Not everyone will be able to scale the walls or quickly run away to escape a police kettle, just like not everyone can be in the streets. If people are going over a wall to escape the police kettle, then make sure to help each other. Similarly, if you see someone struggling with post-traumatic stress or debilitating cynicism when shit starts going down, check in on them. Don’t leave your homies behind, ever.
I’m tired of living in despair. In this moment where I am feeling inspired, despite all of the oppressive forces that are working against me, I choose hope. Our benefit is that we know what they will do to try and destroy this movement. We’ve seen the cycle of events play out whenever there is an uprising: Organic uprising takes place, maybe shit gets burnt and stolen, media condemns it, nonprofits and blue-check activists co-opt the momentum, movement becomes pacified, and the momentum fades away, while repression happens throughout.
But for a revolution to happen, we will all have to break out of our own mental kettles, because it’s not going to get any better. It’s about to get a lot worse. And it’s up to us to make sure that our enemies suffer just as much as we will.