Now they’ll jail you for rocking the boat
Boat Race protester Trenton Oldfield’s imprisonment tells us about the changes to our public space
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.