Wednesday23 July 2014

Now they’ll jail you for rocking the boat

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Boat Race protester Trenton Oldfield’s imprisonment tells us about the changes to our public space

Wouter Vanstiphout

Wouter Vanstiphout

So Britain joins the ranks of powerful countries that lock up intellectuals and activists for defiling things that are held to be sacrosanct. Russia locks up Pussy Riot for blasphemous acts inside a church, China locks up Ai Weiwei for criticising the state over human rights violations, while Turkey is the world leader in jailing journalists for writing critically about the suppression of the Kurdish minority.

Oh yes, and there’s the Netherlands, where in 2010 a disturbed protester threw a tealight-holder against the golden carriage that carried Queen Beatrix and her offspring to her annual speech from the throne. He was institutionalised for a year… and recently locked up again just in time for this September’s speech.

If you are going to violate human rights, take away freedom of opinion, mobilise the bloodlust of the tabloids, politicise the judiciary, even politicise psychiatric care, at least do so because of church, state or Queen.

But a boat race?

Urbanist and critic Trenton Oldfield jumped in the water to protest against inequality. He chose the race because of its association with the two universities that produce “70% of government”, and the surroundings that are one of the most privileged and powerful urban landscapes in Britain. But what Oldfield has really revealed is that sporting events have become so sacred as to merit a level of repression formerly reserved for blasphemy or treason.

The judge who gave him six months, along with the tabloid press, criticised him most strongly because he had spoiled an event for two teams of sportsmen “with no regards to the sacrifices they had made or for their rigorous training when you swam in their paths”, and because he had taken away the rights of a million-strong public to enjoy the race. (The Boat Race, by the way, was restarted 25 minutes after Oldfield was fished
out of the water. Then the rowers, without any activist intervention, managed to run their boats into each other, tangling up their oars, which just confirmed the race’s long tradition of farce: over the years there have been six sinkings, one crash with the umpire’s barge and one mutiny of American oarsmen.)

There is an idea that public space is a zone where everyone and everything should be able to express their differences, and that the state should use its monopoly of violence to protect it. This is the logic behind American policemen protecting the rights of religious fanatics to protest at soldiers’ funerals, holding signs saying “God Hates Faggots”. This idea is now being replaced by one where the public space is rented out as a platform for carefully staged and centrally co-ordinated events. The state’s monopoly of violence is used to ensure that things run smoothly. The sentimentalisation by the judge of the “sacrifices” of the sportsmen, and of the interests of the public who missed out on their event (for 25 minutes), are part of this.

What used to be the public has become merely an audience, and the exchange of ideas in public space has been replaced by a spectacle of sentiment and sacrifice. This is serious and this is about us.


Readers' comments (14)

  • Calling Trenton Oldfield an intellectual is stretching the point a bit. It is also a struggle to see the comparison of the idiot's look-at-me stunt with the protests you've listed in Russia and China.

    I understand that he was jailed for causing a public nuisance and sabotaged it solely because he considered it elitist.

    I really fail to see why you would want to use BD as a portal for championing his cause.

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  • Young Trenton probably did not deserve to be banged up. On the other hand, his protest hardly 'stuck it to the man'. Just another badly organised,self-appointed, bien pensant quasi-leftist art stunt if you ask me.

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  • Having a moronic 'reason' for doing what he did doesn't make his actions any less than that of a public nuisance.

    The author of this article may think that spouting left-wing gobbledy-gook as post rationalisation for being a moron counts for something, frankly I don't, and hope that any imitators will be similarly dealt with, otherwise we are opening the floodgates to anyone with a 'cause' they feel needs to be put forward in the media, however bonkers they and it may be.

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  • Great article and good points made. How many of the above comments are from the 55% who do not get any further education? No idea about Trenton Oldfield as a person but the boat race seems a perfectly legitimate target for protest. Also, how can he be accused of being badly organised? He stopped the race, right?

    6 months hard labour for all those who comment using the terms 'quasi-leftist' and 'left-wing gobbledy-gook' I say...

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  • Urbanist and critic?
    I take it you havent watched this!


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  • So according to this any public event can be the target of any interuption by any individual with any complaint about anything they fancy? Interesting philosophy!

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  • Tony Cooper - any event on public land, yes. An event people have paid to go to, held in private space: no.

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  • Quasi-left, because he has no actual politics, and badly organised because he thinks it only takes two people to change the world.

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  • Perhaps there should be a design competition for a 'protest booth', it can be a structure that is transported around public events, with each event on public land having (by law) to allow space for protest. Then people can get the exposure, whilst at the same time the event can continue without the need for authoriatarian nonsense.

    Job done and everyones happy as Gideon!

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  • @soupdragon How jolly sensbile and British. Hurrah!

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