When did non-violent protest become a crime?

Trenton Oldfield staged a daring protest during the Oxbridge Boat Race. Now he faces deportation

Trenton Oldfield Christopher Bethell
Trenton Oldfield Christopher Bethell

In March of 2012, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was interrupted by a protester swimming into the path of the rowers and under one of the boats. After a 31-minute hiatus, the game restarted only to be followed by rower Hanno Wienhausen breaking an oar and fellow Oxford rower Alex Woods collapsing from exhaustion. An eventful game perhaps – but for one person, it’s led to a stint in Wormworth Scrubs and a deportation notice.

So how did Trenton Oldfield, a non-violent political protester become persona non grata with the prospect of being deported to the other side of the world, living apart from his wife and daughter?

It’s been over a year and a half since his protest. In their flat in Whitechapel, Trenton and his wife Deepa Naik have been preparing for his up and coming tribunal this Monday, whilst looking after their four-month-old daughter. “The letter came in June,” explained Trenton, “a year and a half after we had put in our application [for a spousal visa]. It had taken that long to get through the paper work. So it came as a surprise. At the time we thought maybe they didn’t know we were married or that we have a child.”

“I don’t know how Russell Brand gets away with it, if I’d have said that I would be decapitated” - Trenton Oldfield

He was given three reasons for the rejection; a threat to national security, not conducive to public good and undesirable associates. I ask about the third reason, wondering if either Trenton or Deepa know what it was in relation to “They put together these reasons and it could be all or just one of them.” Trenton explained, “They’re such elastic terms, what’s the definition of desirable or undesirable?” They exist within the legal framework but there are no clear reference points to determine exactly what they mean.” 

Trenton and Deepa are obviously feeling the effects of their ordeal. Both seemed run-down beyond the reasons of a newborn and the stress of potentially living apart is like a prevalent mass breathing over them.When you’ve been over criminalised, you’ve been to prison, you’ve had to pay the prosecution’s costs, your partner has suffered as a result of you not being here and your work has slowed down because of it, it gets to the point when you think, that’s enough. It’s just enough.”

Some media outlets have attempted to tarnish Trenton as a rogue activist, with little or no thought behind his actions - like a glorified football streaker. But the ideals and politics behind the protest come from a long interest in urbanisation and the impact of class and income divisions.

trenton oldfield
Trenton Oldfield swam into the path of oncoming rowers in the Boat Race Reuters

Born in Australia, at the age of 16 Trenton left the prestigious Sydney Church of England Grammar School, in what he describes as “the best thing that ever happened”. He went on to pursue a social sciences degree at Newcastle University, a 2-hour drive away from Sydney. 

During his time at university Trenton took long brakes in his studies to participate in local activism projects. At the time Newcastle, Australia, was experiencing a major economic struggle, with the closure of the local steelworks after 84 years of operation, causing devastating job losses. An attempt was then made to rebrand Newcastle as a “creative city” which gave Trenton the opportunity to work with local projects.

“I’m not living in East Germany, this is a country that has a tradition of welcoming dissent" - Trenton Oldfield

Around that time, local governments across the globe had begun to brand cities as creative hubs, a movement later lead by work of urbanist Richard Florida. Florida began peddling his theories on the “rise of the creative city” and urban generation after the dot-com boom in 2002. His books are essential for most social sciences undergraduates and emphasise the link between gentrification and a rise in economic output. The idea being that cities should foster creative economies in order to rank themselves amongst an elite “mega-cluster” of cities, which in turn yield a higher level of economic development.

Florida’s theories are contentious. They focus on the role of the creative in gentrification as a wholly positive process, neglecting the impact of rising rents and living standards on local residents and the effects of imposing middle-class values. The parody Twitter account @Dick_Florida sums it up nicely: “The homeless are not going to Instgram themselves.”

After moving to London in 2001, and working for several organisations and institutions in the area of urban development, Trenton decided to undertake a Masters degree at the London School of Economics. Through a scholarship and working full-time, he enrolled in Contemporary Urbanism. He began to notice a disconnect between policies and impact and in 2007 Trenton and his now wife Deepa, decided to set-up This is Not a Gateway, an organisation examining the post-critical condition of urbanist discourse.

Trenton Oldfield
If deported, Trenton faces living apart from his wife and four-month-old daughter Christopher Bethell

“It’s terrifying we have this global elite," Trenton explains. "The main academics, which are six white men who publish these papers and on the back of them start to roll out models based on ridiculous academic theories, which become the main body of knowledge in the field. These superficial references are then regurgitated around the world.“

They began looking at where the prevalent voices in urban theory derived from. Deepa detailed how the organisation began looking at the costs of engaging with academic processes. “The cost for applying to participate in a symposium was worse than we thought. We had an intuition that there was a very privileged and self-isolated group, which had access and dominated any debate about cities. We looked at the Intercultural Cities Conference, a global conference in Liverpool, and of all the speakers only 16% were women and overall 1% were an ethnic minority.”

“It’s like if you’re here, you should only exist as half a person, you should be happy to be here and should accept whatever the circumstances are" - Trenton Oldfield

In the days previous to the boat race, Trenton describes a culmination of events as the driving force to action. “I had done all the right things, I had marched from A to B and I just felt the campaign against the poor was being ramped up significantly. In the three days leading up to the protest, it was one thing after another. The Queen had signed the Health Care Bill which is basically the privatisation of the NHS, the next day the Data and Communications Act was introduced to Parliament, which is NSA, GCHQ and was legitimising our whole digital life being made open and the final thing was when the Olympic Minister said that if you think your neighbour is going to protest at the Olympics, then you should dob them in. And I thought that’s enough. I’m not living in East Germany, this is a country that has a tradition of welcoming dissent and things are going out of control.”

Trenton began thinking of guerilla methodologies of protest and how to utilise his knowledge and access. “Like Snowden and the NSA, Snowden knew his terrain and managed to collect all of this information. Like Chelsea Manning - one person can do a lot. And with the scale of oppression we’re facing, we need to think of different methodologies of how we interact.”

Between 2004 and 2009 Trenton was employed to look after the stretch of the River Thames between the Houses of Parliament and Kew Gardens, meaning he knew the area well. He knew the exact spot to jump in undetected, the course of the river and the terrain around it. The act wouldn’t effect any workers, nobody was going to loose a salary or wage and there would be no damage caused to either Trenton or the participants.

Trenton Oldfield
Trenton's tribunal is set for 9 December, where he will find out his fate Photography by Christopher Bethell

In court, the first charge of public order was related to the rowers where Trenton was prepared to plead guilty, but then on the first day of his trial, the charge was changed to public nuisance; a 12th century common law. The law itself covers a variety of offences, from polluting a river with chemicals to interfering with television reception and the statutory limitations and maximum penalty range from life imprisonment or a fine, or both. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months imprisonment, of which he served two.

It is obviously the case’s political overtones which has moved the Home Office to seek a custodial sentence. Would it have been different if it weren’t the Oxford-Cambridge boat race Trenton had chosen to interrupt? The week before the Oxbridge boat race, there’s a race of over 400 boats that takes place along the same stretch of river but in the opposite direction. However, they operate without a wealth of Cabinet ministers, BBC coverage and sponsorship by the likes of Bollinger to upset.

Why would he stage such a protest, knowing that he was on a Tier 1 – Highly Skilled Migrant? “There’s an endless history of migrants changing the law for the benefit of all British people. It’s like if you’re here, you should only exist as half a person, you should be happy to be here and should accept whatever the circumstances are and should not participate in [a] democracy.”

I asked why there is this perception of Trenton as an assailant with extreme political views, when someone like Russell Brand can call for revolution. “I don’t know how Russell Brand gets away with it. If I’d have said that I would be decapitated.”

Trenton’s protest has been rendered in the media as a hapless act of civil disobedience, yet has been treated in the eyes of the law as a serious threat to national security. Attempts to downplay his ideologies and opinions on inequality, democracy and elitism ignore years of direct involvement with the issues. The act itself wasn’t particularly premeditated; Trenton only bought the wet suit 3 days prior to the race, but it derives from a tradition of using interventions as a means of articulating a message. He’s certainly not the first to bring attention to social issues through protest and but given the severity of his punishment, it may sadly become a declining option.

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