Acts

Published on February 16th, 2013 | by Engin Isin

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Prejudice or citizenship?

At the best of times, swimming in the Thames is not a good idea. Although its industrial grime has (almost) disappeared, its murky colour is never an invitation to jump – unless one is troubled. What on earth was Trenton Oldfield thinking on 7 April 2012 when he jumped in the Thames? A reasonable question. Except that as he swum toward the first boat he was halting the annual race on the Thames between Oxford and Cambridge Universities and disrupting the enjoyment of millions of TV viewers. He was found guilty of public nuisance and sentenced to 6 months in prison and was made to pay £750 in costs. He told the court that the intention of swimming into the path of the crews as they raced was to protest against government cuts. Actually, he must have said a lot more than this but there is often a complicit media censure to avoid encouraging others to disseminate their views the same way. It’s a bit like how television cameras look away when a football game is interrupted by delirious fans, often naked or drunk or both, and we watch surreal scenes of thousands of impassively sitting fans. It is is surreal because the camera images try so hard to create an aura of nothing happening – at least nothing of consequence – as commentators yatter about this or that. As you watch, you think there must be something happening, but you don’t now what it is, because you are told nothing of consequence is happening. The decision on the inconsequentiality of the act has been already made for you. The court hearings and the consequent judgement were a bit like that. We never got the views Trenton publicly expressed or at least fully.  Anyway, we know enough about what he said that it was a political act, an act of citizenship, if you like. It is an act of citizenship at least because Trenton claim to have acted against an injustice. If citizens don’t have access to the means of persuasion available, it is fair that they try other non-violent means to have their voices heard. But the Judge, Anne Molyneux, disagreed, and characterised Trenton’s act as an act of prejudice.

 ‘There were many other ways you could have promoted your views more effectively. It was not clear to anyone who saw what you did what your view actually were. There was no immediate or instant need to acts as you did.’ – Judge Anne Molyneux

All three thoughts expressed by the judge are intriguing. If there are not other ways to promote one’s views then causing public nuisance can be just. If it was clear to everyone what those view are, again, public nuisance can be just. Finally, if there is demonstrable immediate or instant necessity for acting, we can also say that it can be just. It is possible to take issue with all three premises of the judge’s verdict on Trenton. But what the judge does not recognise is that it has become increasingly difficult to promote views by citizens because many acts considered as acts of citizenship are being criminalised. The playing field is not level. It was not clear to anyone who saw what Trenton did partly because the media looked away, just like in a football game, and who is to judge the immediacy of the situation?

Yet, what is most perplexing about the judgement is that it ended up hinging on the act being an act of prejudice. Judge Molyneux said:

 ‘You made the decision to sabotage the race based on the membership of its participants of a group to which you took exception. That is prejudice. No good ever comes from prejudice.’ – Judge Anne Molyneux

The prejudice argument is in reference to Trenton’s claim that he acted against elitism of the boat race to protest against elitism in general. But, as Nina Power observed [1], the criminalisation of protest can itself be considered a class prejudice and that the sentence may well make it clear which class is protected. Trenton’s wife Deepa Naik was reported in the Australian Daily Telegraph saying: ‘Most nation states work very hard at maintaining untrue myths about themselves. Great Britain has convinced many that it is the home of democracy and a gauge of civilisation. Anyone living here today knows Britain is a brutal, deeply divided class-driven place’ [2].

Can you imagine what the sentence would be if the swimmer had not been an Australian, as Trenton Oldfield is, but another nationality, say, well you make a suggestion? In any event, what we were never told that Deepa and Trenton are ’emerging critical urbanists’ [1]. They say ‘… many of the world’s cities despite breathtaking technological advancements, universal suffrage, local democracy, scores of think tanks, countless “urban labs” and urban festivals, are as unequal today as they were in the 1850s in heat of the industrial revolution and the malignancy of European imperialism’ [3: 4]. That seems to me a clear statement of outrage over inequality that places the act in a different light than that has been so far shed on it.

Notes

[1] N. Power. (2012, 19 October). The Criminalisation of Protest Is Part of the Elite’s Class War. Trenton Oldfield’s Sentence for Disrupting the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Makes It Clear Which Class Is Being Protected  Retrieved 20 October, 2012, from http://gu.com/p/3b959.

[2] T. Wald. (2012, 19 October). Boat Race Protester Trenton Oldfield Cops Six-Month Jail Sentence  Retrieved 20 October, 2012, from http://goo.gl/SvTU1.

[3] D. Naik, T. Oldfield. (2012). City as Inequality. In D. Naik, T. Oldfield (Eds.), Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation from Emerging Urbanists (Vol. 3, pp. 3-8). London: Myrdle Court Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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