On 7th April 2012 Trenton Oldfield, a 37 year old Australian who has lived in the UK for over a decade, temporarily disrupted the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race. He did so not out of hatred for the individuals in the boats but in protest against elitism and “the astounding and entirely unnecessary levels of inequality that have been exacerbated by a generation of politically motivated ‘cuts’ and deliberate dissolving of civil liberties”. In particular, during the three days preceding the protest “the coalition government 1) Introduced the Communications Data Bill to legalise surveillance of all digital communications of all UK citizens 2) The Queen signed off the bill to privatise the NHS 3) A cabinet member called on the public to go to the police if they had suspicions their neighbour or family member might protest at the Summer games”. His actions became front-page news and sparked widespread comment (and often derision) across the UK; while some seemed outraged by his direct action others were left confused, and Trenton’s motivations became somewhat lost in the resultant storm.
Mainstream media outlets did a sterling job of diverting attentions away from the issues Trenton wished to raise by making the action about Trenton himself (this is of course not a new tactic, we can recall how conveniently the 50,000-strong student protests of 2010 became entirely centered on the actions of the 100 who occupied Millbank). The media scrutinised Trenton’s education and relatively comfortable lifestyle (something that has been quite over-exaggerated), and questioned how someone not on the bottom rung of society dare protest against inequality. It is painfully obvious to see why a man who has spent his adult life, both in professional and voluntary capacities, working for social justice, yet seeing the situation deteriorate, would feel compelled to act. And for those who feel Trenton’s actions were self-involved or lacking in sincerity, I’d urge them to read, The Queen vs Trenton Oldfield: A Prison Diary, within which he elegantly and passionately lays out his frustrations and motivations.
Initially Trenton was charged with a violation of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, i.e. causing ‘Harassment, Alarm or Distress‘, which carries a maximum fine of £1000 (and notably no custodial element). Section 5(1) states:
A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
Hansard reports revealed government ministers had asked the police commissioner to increase Trenton’s charge so a custodial sentence could be imposed. The Guardian reported that “Tory MP Michael Ellis had used a meeting of the home affairs select committee to suggest to the Met commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, that Oldfield would better be charged with an offence that might offer a custodial sentence”.
On the morning of Trenton’s first court appearance 23rd April 2012 his charge was significantly increased to the ancient common law charge of Public Nuisance – a conviction which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. On 26th September 2012 Trenton was found guilty of causing a public nuisance, and on 19th October he was sentenced to 6 months in prison, of which he served just under two months. The probation officer had recommended a non-custodial sentence, the jury had asked for leniency. Trenton’s harsh sentence was met with shock by many, not least by prison guards and fellow inmates, as he details in his prison diary. He’d been prepared to plead guilty to the public order offence, but was stunned at this new tack; that the rowers he’d caused distress to were no longer the issue, that he’d somehow caused the public offence, as he states,
“I felt sympathetic towards the rowers, but the judge made it clear it wasn’t about them; they became a non-entity in the charge. It was about ‘the public’ – but none of the public came to the trial, no one wrote a letter.”
Public nuisance has been criticised, for it’s vague terms and its ability to be widely interpreted, and developed, by the courts (as with other common law offences it is punishable by unlimited fines and prison sentences). In 2010 the Law Commission recommended its abolition for these reasons, as well as finding that the offence often conflicts with the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1989 J.R. Spencer stated:
“With such a broad concept in existence, backed with such broad remedies, what need have we of any other criminal offence?—or torts?—or remedies in administrative law? . . . Everything in public nuisance runs contrary to modern notions of certainty and precision in criminal law—and indeed, in civil law as well. How ever did we get an offence of such incredible breadth?”
But Trenton was not just sentenced to six months in prison under some ancient law, in June 2012 he discovered that his application for a spousal visa with his British wife, Deepa Naik, was declined – the Home Secretary sought deportation on the grounds that Trenton’s ‘continued presence in Britain would not be “conducive to the public good“‘ – this in reference to a man who has worked tirelessly for good causes most of his adult life. It appears then that Trenton is being unduly punished for his attempt to raise awareness of the inequalities he sees in the UK today, as he says in a Guardian interview earlier this year:
“No one was expecting this. I have a tier one visa, as a highly skilled migrant, and I was sentenced to less than a year. The lawyer said I had nothing to worry about because it was less than a year. It feels to me that this is a very vindictive decision, very political and very much an overreaction.”
He is not the only one shocked by the determination of the government to punish and silence him, he has received over 100 letters testifying to his good character in support of his immigration case, and civil liberties groups have been actively supporting him (notably Defend the Right to Protest). At time of writing, just over 5150 people have signed a petition objecting to his deportation.
Importantly, these are not all people who necessarily agree with Trenton’s actions in April last year, but they are those who strongly believe that non-violent protest is something that should be permitted and protected as a fundamental right in the UK. In fact, even the boat race umpire has stated,
“Look, I want to live in a country where protest is possible. However unwelcome it was, I still value the freedom to do that.”
Trenton is naturally appealing this decision, an appeal which largely rests on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the Right to respect for private and family life. This is a qualified right, meaning that the state’s interference is lawful if considered necessary and proportionate in a democratic society. I’d argue that it’s hardly contentious to suggest that deportation for peacefully disrupting a boat race is disproportionate when considered against Trenton’s right to a private life here in the UK. And this is before we consider that Trenton and his wife now have a young daughter – there are now two British citizens who would be detrimentally affected, and have their own right to private and family life violated, should he be removed. Furthermore, in a 2011 judgment on an immigration case from the Supreme Court, ZH (Tanzania) v. SSHD, Lord Kerr stated,
“in reaching decisions that will affect a child, a primacy of importance must be accorded to his or her best interests.”
Clearly it is in the best interests of Trenton and Deepa’s daughter that they remain in the UK together, as a family. It is unclear whether Trenton would be able to sponsor his wife and child in moving to Australia due to his criminal record, and regardless of this, they have made their life and business here in the UK. Trenton and Deepa run two not-for-profit organisations, This Is Not A Gateway and Myrdle Court Press.
Dr Matthew Gibney, from the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, argues that deporting someone who has lived in a country for ten years in these circumstances is unjust, and goes against human rights standards that should apply to everyone, not just citizens. Additionally, Trenton is being punished twice, once through a custodial sentence, and secondly removal from the country he has made his home. In some cases this may be deemed appropriate but as Dr Gibney says,
“because his protest was political, even if unlawful, and basically non-violent, if somewhat reckless … deportation seems morally inappropriate and potentially damaging of the right to protest, especially when it comes after a prison sentence that addresses the illegal dimension of the protest.”
State of protest in the UK
In Trenton’s case we have seen the use of a questionable, ancient common law. We have also seen both the media and government ministers influencing a police commissioner. Further, we have seen political agendas at play, masking and distorting the reasons behind Trenton’s protest, and keenly seeking to silence and remove those who speak out against their unfair and oppressive systems. His case ignites new concerns over the extent the government is willing to go to in criminalising and deterring protest: will future protesters also be charged with causing a public nuisance and sent to prison for standing up for their beliefs? The government is now making moves to criminalise ‘nuisance and annoyance’ through IPNAs, a worrying development which will give still further discretion to police, and which has the potential to criminalise a even wider variety of protest actions.
The UK claims to be a forerunner in promoting liberal values, a beacon of democracy which should be emulated by others. It exports its apparent principles to others and pressurises countries it feels do not hold the same commitment to human rights and democracy (for example, Cameron has recently been raising human rights issues in Sri Lanka (but not about Tibet)). However, within its borders we are seeing a retrenchment and reversal of those liberal principles, the clawing back of the progress. Trenton is not a British citizen, but he is a man who has lived and worked here for twelve years, he has no prior convictions and he has a British family – deportation would tear apart not just his life but the lives of two other, innocent individuals.
Trenton committed an act that was disruptive – for a small number of people for about 20 minutes. He knew what he was doing when he went into the river that day and knew there would be consequences. But protest must be disruptive for it to be effective. Trenton did not cause any physical harm to anyone, nor did he threaten anyone with physical harm. He did not disrupt the boat race with malicious intent or for some personal enjoyment, he did so with sincere intentions, with the hope of sparking a debate around issues dear to his heart. As John Pilger states:
“He is not a criminal or a terrorist. He was a protester acting on principle, whether or not you agreed with his action. What the Home Office is really saying is that all forms of protest are now potentially criminalised”
What you can do to help Trenton and his family
Trenton and his family need your help. Whether you support his particular action or not, it should be clear that deportation is a grossly disproportionate response:
Additionally, Trenton’s immigration tribunal hearing will take place on 9th December, they are asking for people to come and support outside the court from 9.15am, and to stay for the hearing, at 10am.
Other ways to help can be found here.
Quotes from The Queen vs Trenton Oldfield: A Prison Diary if not otherwise cited.