Inside the anti-kettling HQ
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Sat Feb 5 20:57:34 GMT 2011
Inside the anti-kettling HQ
A group of young computer geeks is wielding a new
weapon in the fight against controversial police tactics at demonstrations
Patrick Kingsley - The Guardian, Thursday 3 February 2011
The Sukey team in action at their east London
headquarters, tracking the student demonstration
on 29 January. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
Cairo, it wasn't. But at about a quarter to four
last Saturday afternoon, on a crowded backstreet
in central London, something happened outside the
Egyptian embassy that deserves at least a
footnote in the annals of protest history. A crowd of students weren't kettled.
In the context of recent British protests, this
was a near-miracle. At each of the previous four
major student protests in London since the
Millbank riot on 10 November, police have kettled
or, in their terminology, "contained"
thousands of protesters, preventing them from
leaving an area for several hours, and often from
accessing basic amenities such as food, water and toilets.
Police kettle protesters supposedly to quell
violence, but protesters arguably only turn to
violence out of frustration at being kettled.
Most notoriously, police trapped hundreds of
teenage schoolchildren inside a tight grid on
Whitehall on 24 November and only subsequently
did a few of them smash up a police van abandoned in their midst.
Saturday's non-kettle, then, was a victory in
itself. But the real excitement wasn't that it
didn't happen but how it didn't happen. It is
difficult to pinpoint exactly why police and
protesters behave in a certain way at a certain
time, but one explanation for the kettle's
failure to form lies with a new communications
network, which launched that afternoon: Sukey.
The brainchild of a group of young, recently
politicised computer programmers, Sukey's main
goal is to stop people getting kettled. On the
day of a protest, founders collate information
from individual protesters tweets, texts and
GPS positions about what is happening on the
ground. The Sukey team then update an online
live-map of the protest, accessible from
smartphones. Simultaneously, they tweet and text
brief summaries of events to all their
subscribers, telling them where other protesters
are situated, and most significantly where
kettles are forming. As the nursery rhyme (from
which Sukey takes its name) aptly suggests:
"Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again."
And, in London last Saturday, that might well be
what happened. Around 500 students coming from a
5,000- strong anti-cuts march on Millbank joined
the ongoing, separate protest at the Egyptian
embassy. After around an hour and a half, a few
demonstrators said they had overheard kettling
tactics being discussed on police radios, and
thought they had seen police lines closing in.
They relayed this to the Sukey team at their
computers in an east London office block, and the
team quickly texted the news to their entire
mailing list on the ground. Recipients of the
text alerted those around them, many protesters
left the area, and, perhaps as a result, no kettling took place.
One of the protesters who alerted Sukey to the
potential kettle was Ben, 21, a member of last
year's University College London (UCL)
occupation, whose participants still form a
fulcrum for the London anti-cuts movement. Ben is
certain that Sukey played an important role in
people moving quickly away from the embassy.
"Everyone who was getting the Sukey updates was
telling everyone who wasn't what was happening,"
he says. "It took about five minutes for us to mobilise."
There are, of course, other potential
explanations for what happened: a genuine
softening of police tactics; an existing
awareness of kettling procedure among protesters;
a police double-bluff; coincidence. It is also
important to note that not everyone welcomed the
presence of the anti-cuts protesters outside the
Egyptian embassy. Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal
Conspiracy, argued that those protesters who had
left an education-themed march to join a rally
based around foreign policy were displaying a
lack of ideological direction. This, coupled with
the abusing of NUS president Aaron Porter, led
Hundal to conclude that Saturday's protest "was
when the student movement died".
Back at Sukey's secret nerve-centre in east
London, however, the team are celebrating a
measured success. "We'll take that as a win,"
says Sam Gaus, 19, a first-year computer science
student at UCL, and one of Sukey's co-founders.
There were kettles in Manchester and Edinburgh.
But in London, for the first time in five
marches, there was none. Coincidence? Gaus thinks not.
On 9 December, the day of the parliamentary vote
on tuition fees, thousands of protesters were
kettled in Parliament Square. Many of those
present myself included were not aware until
too late that they had either strayed from the
march's designated route, or were in the process
of being "contained". The result: students
trapped for up to 12 hours; the supreme court
trashed; dozens injured; 60 arrested. In London
last Saturday, with no kettles, there were only nine arrests.
Sam Carlisle, 23, an electronics engineer who
graduated from Durham, became politicised after
his girlfriend was trampled in a horse-charge at
the protest on 24 November. Outraged, he decided
to offer his exceptional technical skills to the
UCL occupation, where he met Gaus. To
differentiate between the two Sams, other
occupiers christened them "Sam the techie"
(Carlisle), and "Techie Sam" (Gaus). Physically,
the pair are chalk-and-cheese Carlisle is pale
and stocky; Gaus dark-haired and tall but
intellectually they seem united. The night before
the 9 December protest, both independently came
up with the same idea: a live, online map that
could show people at home where protest troublespots were located.
"I came to Sam on the eighth and I said: 'I've
got this great idea,'" says Gaus. "And then he
showed me this flow-chart with exactly the same plan."
The map was up and running for the protest the
next day, prompting excited praise from Guardian
science writer Ben Goldacre and backhanded
compliments from American security analysts. But
though the map was an innovative development,
because there was no way of quickly communicating
what it showed to people on the ground, it didn't
fulfil the Sams' ultimate goal: to help protesters avoid kettles.
So, over the next month, they set about coding
what became Sukey: a text-based warning service
(used to great effect on Saturday); a similarly
successful Twitter feed; and an auto-updating map
of the protest, accessible from smartphones,
which users complained didn't update fast enough.
A compass-based application for smartphones,
which would have told users in which direction
kettles were to be found, was not ready in time.
It was not through lack of effort. By the time I
arrived at Sukey headquarters on Saturday
afternoon, Carlisle hadn't slept in a bed for a week.
Four other team members are also integral to the
process. On the march itself was Amit, who spread
the gospel of Sukey to every protester he could.
Then there is Tom Bance, 22, a physicist at UCL,
who sends out Sukey's texts. Matt Gaffen, 23, a
freelance graphic designer, devises Sukey's
visuals, and Bernie, a man with greying hair who
looks too old to be a student is an IT developer and Sam Gaus's dad.
As the afternoon unfolded, it was primarily
Bance's job to work out what was happening on the
ground. With Marie, another UCL student, he
sifted through all tweets tagged with "#sukey".
Once he was clear what was going on, he relayed
the synthesised information back through Sukey's
official Twitter and texts. When trouble started
brewing at the Egyptian embassy, for example,
Bance's text read: "LOTS of reports say a Kettle
is about to be formed outside the Egyptian
embassy. Stay sensible, stay safe. #sukey." If,
as was the case, an area looks likely to be
kettled, it is the Gauses who are tasked with
delineating it on the online map. Carlisle,
meanwhile, was desperately trying to finish the
code for the compass application, and Gaffen was
on hand to update any graphics that needed changing.
"We're like a busy newsroom," says Bernie. "We
have to get information in, check it makes sense,
and then get it back out again."
When Sukey's arrival was announced last Friday,
some critics warned it would merely facilitate
rioting, rather than help keep protesters safe.
Tory blogger Harry Cole said in a tweet that he
has since deleted: "Is there something
discustingly ironic about riot organising iphone
ap http://sukey.org/ Just about says it all about this country's kids."
Some announcements made by Sukey probably did
indirectly assist those protesters who were less
interested in the original "A-to-B" march, and
more interested in a new kind of protest tactic
that has emerged in the last few months: the
"civic swarm", which sees large groups of
demonstrators peel off from official marching
routes and instigate flashmobs at shops such as
Vodafone and Topshop, but which is arguably a
perfectly justifiable form of protest.
But the Sukey team take umbrage at the idea that
their goal is to cause disruption rather than to
aid safety. They see themselves as distributors
of information rather than battle tactics. Early
in the day, they had sent out a text reminding
everyone about the exact route of the march;
later, they ended every announcement with the
suffix: "Stay sensible, stay safe." When the
march ended, and split into three groups of
protesters, the team had a brief debate about
whether they should carry on texting and
tweeting. "We aren't there to lead people to the
palace gates for the revolution," says Gaus Sr.
By reporting the activities of the three
meandering groups, he feared that "effectively,
we're not just supporting it, we are instructing
it". Eventually, however, they agreed that it is
exactly at those moments that protesters are in
need of information. "We're never going to be
able to stop people leaving," Gaus Jr points out.
"But when they do leave, and there is trouble
that's when we can be most useful. We can protect
people from those troublespots."
Sukey is by no means the finished article. Though
the events outside the Egyptian embassy seemed
like a genuine success, plenty of people were
frustrated that the compass-based application
wasn't ready, and that the live map was either
difficult to decipher, or slow to load and
update. Additionally, since mobile phone
reception is often scarce at protests, some
complained that texts took too long to filter
through. Carlisle accepts these criticisms: "I'm
expecting people to come back and say it's shit,
it doesn't work." But for him, it seems Saturday
was almost a dry-run for future, larger protests,
such as the Trades Union Congress protest on 26
March, which might attract hundreds of thousands of protesters to London.
But even if Sukey isn't yet working like
clockwork, it appeared to have two effects on
Saturday. Several activists said just the
knowledge that such a communications tool was in
operation made people more aware of the need to
share information, and to keep in touch.
Similarly, there was a sense inside Sukey HQ that
their presence was, at least in part, making the
police more careful about their behaviour.
It would certainly make sense for the
Metropolitan police to pay close attention to
Sukey: communication is not the police's
strongpoint. On a day when students were keeping
in touch by Twitter and mobile phone, the police
were handing out little slips of paper. As Bance
says: "The police don't understand Twitter. They
might as well be shouting at the screen with a megaphone."
There is an argument going on about the part
technology has played in recent protests across
Europe and north Africa. But while it is lazy to
brand these revolts "twitter revolutions", as
Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have broadly
argued, it seems equally silly to deny that
social media does not have a role to play in facilitating protest and debate.
Sukey seems a prime example, and endorsement
comes from an unlikely source: Tim Hardy, the
founder of a blog called Beyond Clicktivism, and
a self-proclaimed cyber-sceptic. Six months ago,
sick of the excesses of social media, Hardy
removed himself from Facebook and Twitter. "It
was difficult to know what to listen to," Hardy
says. "As Clay Shirky says, the internet needs
more filters." But in Sukey, Hardy thinks he has
found one such filter. He was so impressed by
what he had seen, that by the end of Saturday he
had agreed to be the team's spokesman. "It's
really being used to enable something to happen," he says.
Quite what Sukey will go on to enable is not yet
clear. The team plan to make their coding
available to protest-minded programmers across
the UK, but it remains to be seen what kind of
impact it could have in, say, Egypt, where the
government recently cut off the two keys to
Sukey's London success: mobile and internet
access. To stay ahead of the curve, Sukey will
have to find ways round these problems.
Protesters in Egypt have already improvised by
using dial-up connections and new "speak to
tweet" technology, which converts voicemail recordings into Twitter messages.
Further afield, international programmers from
the Open Mesh Project are developing a system
that turns laptops into temporary internet
routers, and so allows protesters to communicate
even without a conventional internet connection.
But Sukey is unlikely to be behind the times for
long. The team are tight-lipped about the
details, but two of them say they might have
found a way of doing without mobile reception.
"We've got some ideas," says Gaus Sr, with a grin.
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