“THIS IS A PROTEST, AN ACT OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, A METHODOLOGY OF REFUSING AND RESISTANCE. THIS ACT HAS EMPLOYED GUERRILLA TACTICS.”
Any reader would be forgiven for thinking the above quote is straight from the mouth of Che Guevara or Subcommandante Marcos, instead of former London School of Economics student, Trenton Oldfield.
On Saturday Oldfield, 35, shot to fame after diving into the Thames and swimming into the path of the 158th Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, before being hauled onto the umpire’s vessel and arrested by police – charged with a public order offence.
Prior to this spectacular act, Oldfield – who, thanks to the skill of the crews, narrowly missed being struck by the oars he swam under – posted a 2,000-word communiqué on his ‘Elitism Leads to Tyranny’ blog. The act, he declared, was to protest against ‘elitism’ – specifically targeting the boat race as “a site where elitists and those with elitist sympathies have come together every year…to perform, in the most public way, their ambition for the structures and subsequent benefits from elitism…”
Granted hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had Oldfield not been ensconced in writing his essay, which, among other things, recommends the setting off of stink bombs at networking events “designed for the elites and their sympathisers”, he might have given forethought to two things: how the public would perceive both protest and protestor, and whether this would help or hinder his cause.
A long-established rowing contest between two of the most prestigious and expensive universities in the country, both with disproportionately low intakes of state school students, may have seemed a natural target for a protest against elitism. But, despite Oldfield’s claims that the event “isn’t really advertised or promoted as something for the general public to attend” the Boat Race is actually a highly public event. It is witnessed by over a quarter of a million people lined up on the banks of the river and watched by around 7 million viewers.
It is also a sporting event and sport – bar a few exceptions (clay pigeon shooting, anyone?) is seen as something that brings people – of all backgrounds – together. Instead of choosing to target Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch, for example, Oldfield instead successfully sabotaged months of hard work and rigorous training by two young sporting teams at the top of their game. It was foul play, and will have cost his cause dearly – as emphasized by Oxford Rower, William Zeng, who later tweeted: “If you [Oldfield] say you are a protester then no matter what you say your cause may be, your action speaks too loudly for me to hear you.”
Just as damaging – if not his fault – is own backstory, which was quickly unearthed by the press. Educated at a £15,000 a year private school in Australia (where the former Prime Minister John Howard chose to send his two children), Oldfield graduated LSE – another leading university – in fact, ranked fourth behind (wait for it) Oxford and Cambridge (and St Andrews) – with an MSc in Contemporary Urbanism. He is also listed as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts – “an enlightenment organisation” – fellowship of which can cost between £230 and £3,000.
If Oldfield is concerned about inequality in this country he is right to be: analysis shows the UK to be, in terms of income, one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. If he is concerned at a lack of social mobility, he is right to be: one in five schoolchildren receive free school meals, but of these fewer than one in a hundred will study at Oxbridge.
Nevertheless, while his decision to employ “guerrilla tactics” against a nebulous term and to sabotage of a sporting event watched and enjoyed by swathes of the general public could well get his name in the history books, this foolish stunt will have done nothing to win over the 99%.