The criminalisation of protest is part of the elite’s class war
What price the preservation of the spectacle? Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race in April this year to protest against inequality, was sentenced to six months in jail for the offence of “public nuisance”. Although the race was restarted 25 minutes later, Judge Molyneux made it clear that Trenton had disrupted the smooth running of things, and for that he must go to jail: “Thousands of people had lined the banks of the river to enjoy a sporting competition. Many more were watching at home on live television.” The message is blunt: if it’s on TV and aristocrats are involved, then the state can deprive you of your liberty for as long as it likes.
In a period where many people have died following benefit cuts, Oldfield’s protest against elitism and inequality is timely and symbolic. Astonishingly in the judge’s ruling today, Oldfield was accused of “prejudice” in relation to the rowers, but the judiciary don’t see fit to accuse themselves of the same thing – 78% of judges are Oxbridge-educated. As solicitor Matt Foot stated today:
“The judge has sentenced on her view that this protest against prejudice amounted to prejudice. By that rationale the protests at cricket matches in the 1970s against apartheid were equally prejudiced. This sentence can only help undermine dissent.”
Oldfield’s sentence is clearly designed to deter others from protesting, and there is evidence that the use of the charge of public nuisance (which carries a maximum sentence of life) was upgraded under government pressure and precisely because of the varied spectacles of 2012. In a home affairs select committee discussion in April this year, the head of the Met police, Bernard Hogan-Howe, was asked by Conservative MP Michael Ellis:
“Do you think that Olympic security arrangements or diamond jubilee security arrangements need to be reviewed in the light of [Oldfield’s Boat Race protest]? I particularly also want to ask you about the penalties available, because I notice from media coverage that the individual who disrupted the Boat Race appears to have been charged with a section 5 offence under the Public Order Act 1986, which is one of the most minor offences in the book, carries no custodial penalty option at all and usually only results in a small fine. Do we need to look at available offences?”
Hogan-Howe replies that the CPS are looking into a “more serious” charge, and indeed that’s what they did – but would Oldfield’s action have been punished so severely in a non-Olympic year, or if it had taken place at an event not attended and populated by members of the ruling class?
Oldfield has repeatedly made his motivations for protesting at the Boat Race very clear: “As inequalities increase in Britain and across much of the world, so does the criminalisation of protest; my solidarity is with everyone everywhere working towards more equitable societies.” This principled stance against the severe and increasing inequality of life in Britain, nowhere more on symbolic display than at the Boat Race, is widely shared, and there is widespread shock at the severity of Oldfield’s sentencing. The world was rightly outraged at the recent imprisonment of Russia’s Pussy Riot for playing a song in church, but Oldfield’s jailing comes as part of long series of heavy sentences for UK protesters, from the imprisonment of 60 mainly Muslim protesters following a 2009 protest against Israel’s attacks on Gaza, to student protesters who went to jail for months for throwing a flimsy banner stick during the fees protests, to the people who got years for setting up joke riot Facebook pages or imprisoned for stealing water worth a few pounds.
So who, in the end, is the public on behalf of whom Oldfield is being punished? Is it the public sector workers who will march in their thousands tomorrow against austerity, or is it the “public” represented by the judge, worried that protesters are “prejudiced” against those who have everything and yet want more? A key 1957 case of public nuisance stated that: “A nuisance is a public nuisance if, within its sphere, which is the neighbourhood, it materially affects the reasonable comfort and convenience of life of a class of Her Majesty’s subjects.” In Oldfield’s case, unfortunately for him and for everyone else, the class whose “comfort and convenience” must be protected at all costs is, here and elsewhere, all too obvious.