Justice and the Boat Race: The strange case of Trenton Oldfield

Swimmer+interrupts+Oxford+v+Cambridge+boat+race
Trenton Oldfield in the Thames in 2012 (Image: Daily Mirror)

Trenton Oldfield, of boat race protest fame, has this week been handed a Home Office ruling ordering him to leave the United Kingdom.

At the time of the 2012 Boat Race I was fairly vocal, and argued somewhat with compatriots on the Left, about thinking his protest was quite frankly a little bit silly. My position was that it did not especially hurt the ‘elites’ (just sixteen rowers, two coxes and a bunch of spectators that take university boat races a little too seriously), reinforced ‘posh Oxbridge’ stereotypes that put working-class people off applying, plus he put the safety of the rowers and his own life at risk, and I can rattle off a hundred better targets to protest against in the age of austerity. Yet the overriding line of my argument then was that it was, after all, just a boat race. The Cantabrigians had their victory and the Oxonians got to go home with the knowledge that if it hadn’t been for Trenton, we’d have had the race (fitting that an anti-elitist demonstrator advantaged the less skilled team.) In a way he did the race a favour; his action will go down in race mythology and the ‘Jesus Christ, Trenton!’ video was hilarious. Alex Woods (the injured bow) was alright, and so was Trenton himself as his head surfaced with that somehow out-of-place schoolboy grin that was splashed across the media.

Whether or not you agree with Trenton’s action, it is difficult to argue that what happened next has not been a seminal miscarriage of justice. The worst thing that could be pinned on him in legal terms is some public order or breach of the peace offence, one of those ones where you pay an £80 fine/ get a caution/ get slapped on the wrist and scowled at by one of Her Majesty’s finest. Yet his tribulations over the incident are still ongoing now, well over a year after the race. Firstly, he was banned from the Jubilee – now, if he had pulled off the same stunt in front of that thousand-vessel flotilla, I would have personally hunted him down and bought him a drink of his choice. Then he was jailed for six months, which even his probation officer opposed. Six months’ incarceration is in itself utterly disproportionate for an ultimately nonviolent act of protest that, Alex Woods aside and that was an unintended consequence, harmed no-one. It is a dangerous step toward creeping authoritarianism, especially when taken in light of other examples of systematic undermining of the right to protest. Police in 2006 were given powers to enter people’s homes to tear down anti-Olympics posters. More officers were sent to arrest an anti-monarchist dance troupe the night before the Royal Wedding than were sent to apprehend the Kray twins. 145 peaceful protesters were lied to and then arrested and locked up during a peaceful occupation of Fortnum and Masons over tax evasion during an anti-cuts demonstration. I could write an entire article listing examples from recent years, but suffice it to say the scope in which one can oppose both state policies and ‘national institutions’ seems to get more limited by the year.

One would think after his six months inside, including two in the notorious Wormwood Scrubs, that Law and Order would see our erstwhile Trenton as having done his crime and served his time. Yet in a clearly politically-charged move, his application for a spousal visa has been rejected on the grounds that his presence is ‘not conducive to the public good.’ He has lived and worked in the UK for ten years, and holds a degree from the London School of Economics. Most seriously, his partner Deepa Naik is shortly expecting their child and faces either uprooting away from her family, life and friends to follow Trenton, or separating and raising her child alone. This case ceased a long time ago to be anything to do with restitutive justice, and looks even more than ever like simply punishing Trenton and tearing apart his family because of his political views. It may well have been since a Conservative MP ‘suggested’ to the Metropolitan Police that Trenton’s charge should be upgraded to one with a custodial sentence, which it shortly was. The whole affair effectively criminalises nonviolent protest to the same level as extreme hate speech or terrorism. Moreover, whatever one thinks about Trenton’s methods, he did put on the table a much-needed debate about elitism in a society that retains a preponderance of wealthy, well-connected white men at its commanding heights in an era of continually rising poverty and social exclusion.

His effective deportation serves no purpose whatsoever and is a step with dangerous repercussions, both for Trenton and his family and for protest and civil society in general. I would hope that fellow Oxford students- disgruntled rowers especially- will stand beside him and sign the petition to Home Secretary Theresa May opposing the Home Office’s ruling.