Trenton Oldfield and the guidelines of protest.

No, this is not a slightly dodgy fan fiction of harry potter. Instead, the harsh sentencing today of Trenton Oldfield for six months represents a significant milestone of the loss of freedom in the United Kingdom, coming as it does at the end of a long line of recent blows to free speech. We seem to have forgotten as a society that a vibrant democracy must include the right to dissent, especially when those dissenters say or do things that seem strange or downright offensive to mainstream society.

I find it particularly odd that the Judge’s sentencing remarks not only seem to recognise this trend, but state the new paradigm of acceptability so blatantly. According to the BBC:

Oldfield had acted dangerously, disproportionately, had not shown what he was actually protesting against, and displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist.

She said: “You did nothing to address inequality by giving yourself the right to spoil the enjoyment of others.


Thereby delineating what is acceptable when it comes to personal political decisions and avoiding jail time. For a demonstration to be acceptable, it must be kept out of quietly out of sight and out of the public eye. Nevermind the frankly odd assertion that it’s prejudicial to demonstrate against elitism, the strangest comment in the justice’s remarks is that Trenton ‘had not shown what he was actually protesting against’. Perhaps the large public discussion about elitism following his arrest does not count. Perhaps the judge was being wilfully obscure. Or perhaps the judge was asserting that one is only allowed to protest against mainstream causes and issues that are already in the public domain.

This statement seems even stranger when we consider that part of the reasons she gave for sentencing him so harshly was that ‘you did nothing to address inequality’ and ‘displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist’. You can’t have this both ways, you can either complain that the stunt was not a true demonstration because it had no clear aim or you can claim that his stated reasons behind the stunt were not valid. You cannot have both.

What the presiding judge does seem to think by her remarks and the sentence handed down is that unless one’s stated cause is acceptable to the political mainstream and is carried out in places where it can be ignored then the person who holds those views should be prepared for harsher punishments than usual. This is the only explanation for custodial time in a situation which would probably usually have warranted a fine.

It goes without saying that this is a worrying development in the history of debate and demonstrations. Because Trenton Oldfield dared to disagree with a rather popular boat race and hold views contrary to those of the political establishment, it somehow follows that he should expect to be judged more harshly than someone who’s protesting for something fashionable. Consequentially, free speech is being modulated along terms of what is acceptable to the hegemony and is clearly free no longer. This is a sad day for democracy and a sadder day for our country. 

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