Trenton Oldfield court case

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 the Judge 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.”

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, 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 (the Jubilee and Olympics).

Oldfield has 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.

So who, in the end, is the public on behalf of whom Oldfield is being punished? 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.