It has been said before: the definition of a crime, at least in its English context, is determined by what the upper class feel the underclass should not be doing. Elite disapproval finds its way into the criminal statutes with astonishing regularity. The number of crimes dramatically increases less because of the crime than the definitions that attach to it. Or so claimed Laurie Lee in his lyrical portrait of life in Cider with Rosie.
Trenton Oldfield was one to make an example of, given that, in April, he waded out on the Thames to disrupt one of the world’s more renown boat races – the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. His frame of reference against the 158th race between the universities was that of inequality. “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.”
Naturally, inequality is a game that is played by everybody – and those who have the greatest grievance against it will often be those from within the privileged class. Oldfield might be deemed a narcissist celebre of the latte set, though it need not invalidate his claims. It’s the gripe of one toff against another, even if expressed insincerely and, some Brits note, someone from Australia.
The truth lies in the offence and its grave punishment – in Oldfield’s case, six months in prison. The state can be savage over the minor issues, should it choose to be. Public nuisance itself is defined by Lord Justice Romer as an act “which materially affects the reasonable comfort and convenience of life of a class of Her Majesty’s subjects” (A-G v PYA Quarries  1 All ER 894). This is the language of stability, uninterrupted social order, ossification. It says everything that the Attorney General tends to take the lead in prosecuting such offences.
The act might have been deemed foolish – an attempt to disrupt one of history’s most pompous spectacles, made only more pompous by its spectators and the act of a man seeking to place his head in the pathways of oars. But for a severely tight Judge Anne Molyneux, the offence of public nuisance demanded a jail sentence. One simply doesn’t disrupt useless spectacles without penalty. “Thousands of people had lined the banks of the river to enjoy a sporting competition. Many were watching at home on live television.”
Liberty is such a contingent matter, revocable at the sovereign’s pleasure. One can be jailed for boasting an offensive T-shirt, sentenced to 56 days detention for a racist tweet, and banged up for organising a Facebook riot page.
And public nuisance, an ever elastic term of application, is dangerous to the health of any society that professes liberty. Questions have been asked whether Oldfield might have been treated differently in a non-Olympic year – and everyone knows that Olympic gatherings are a feast for the paranoid oppressive state, ever keen to keep the lid down on protesters when the “good show” is being put on.
Naturally, it was also beholden to the judge to tick Oldfield off for his prejudice against the upper classes – even in this age of chronic, manic belt tightening. This odd slant suggests that Oldfield’s sin lies elsewhere – or even more to the point, that prejudice can itself be a public nuisance. “You made your decision to sabotage the race based on the membership or perceived membership of its participants of a group to which you took exception. That is prejudice.”
There are those who have, and those who have not. Accept it as natural and abandon all hope of changing it. “You did nothing to address inequality by giving yourself the right to spoil the enjoyment of others.” Tut tut.
The upper crust consists of sensitive beings deeply hurt by what the marauding peasant might think of them. “Prejudice in any form,” claimed the judge, “is wrong.” Solicitor Matt Foot retorted accordingly. “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 undermine dissent.”
What might have begun as a stunt of indulgent silliness against something as equally silly and indulgent has converted Oldfield into a martyr by virtue of a bizarre conviction. Oldfield’s wife, Deepa Naik, said outside the court that, “Anyone living here today knows Britain is a brutal, deeply divided class driven place.” Nothing new then. Conformity is security.
It has even been suggested that Oldfield might be Britain’s equivalent of Pussy Riot, manhandled by the instruments of authoritarian suspicion. Judge Syrova’s words in convicting the Russian punk outfit for hooliganism was cited by Caroline Criado-Perez (New Statesman, Oct 21) as a mirror example. “In a modern society relations between various nationalities and between religious denominations must be based on mutual respect and equality and idea that one political movement can be superior to another gives root to perspective hatred between various opinions.”
Should London ever host another Olympics, a disrupted boat race should feature in the choreography – free invitations to Oldfield and family included. Just don’t bother to dissent on that score.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org