Is Trenton Oldfield Our Pussy Riot?

Attack the elite and they won't take it lying down, writes Caroline Criado-Perez.

On 17th August 2012, Pussy Riot, a feminist punk collective based in Moscow were jailed for two years for “hooliganism”. And around the world governments were rightly swift to condemn the ruling as bearing no resemblance to justice. The UK media gave us rolling coverage of the events. It was big news and Britain basked in the safety of an outrage that didn’t affect us.

In the run-up to the trial, Britain’s very own, self-proclaimed freedom-fighter and iconoclast Brendan O’Neill, wondered what a UK Pussy Riot could “bravely mock”? He theorised that the only orthodoxies that are truly “dangerous” to mock in modern Britain are institutions such as the NHS, or concepts such as “multiculturalism”, or perhaps most bravely of all, “victim culture” – I guess Brendan has never seen Sarah Silverman’s set on why rape jokes are about as safe as you can get.

Irrespective of the fact that O’Neill makes a living out of “bravely” standing as a one-man army against these over-bearing ideologies and yet still, inexplicably, remains free, our courts have now provided an antidote to his theorising. Because yesterday, without the blanket media coverage and fanfare that accompanied the Pussy Riot sentencing, a man called Trenton Oldfield was jailed for six months.

His crime? Disrupting the Oxford-Cambridge boat-race as a part of a protest against elitism. Or, to use Judge Anne Molyneux’s terminology, his crime was “prejudice”. And as Molyneux says,

No good ever comes of prejudice. Every individual and group in society is entitled to respect. It is a necessary part of a liberal and tolerant society that no one should be targeted because of a characteristic to which another takes issue. Prejudice in any form is wrong.

And indeed it is. But don’t these fine words in defence of a put-upon elite sound a little familiar to you? They should. But if they don’t, here’s a little re-cap:

In a modern society relations between various nationalities and between religious denominations must be based on mutual respect and equality and idea that one political movement can be superior to another gives root to perspective hatred between various opinions.

These are the words with which Judge Syrova sentenced Pussy Riot to two years in a penal colony. They are the words which were so complacently mocked and derided by the world’s media. They are the words upon which the twitterati offloaded an abundance of WTF. And they are words which now make our judiciary sound like an authoritarian echo-chamber – and make our complacency look very shaky indeed.

Trenton Oldfield without a doubt comes across as pompous, self-satisfied and lacking in any tangible aims. His protest was childish, ineffective and bizarrely targeted. It deserved little more than the smirk he supposedly awarded Judge Molyneux yesterday.

But in the wake of Molyneux’s judgment, Oldfield’s pronouncements about elitism start to look far more credible. The boat race starts to look like far from a soft target. And O’Neill’s choice of orthodoxies start to look wildly off base. Indeed, when it comes to “victim-culture” it seems that if you must commit a crime, you’re still far better off actually physically attacking someone who lacks institutional power, say like a girlfriend, than of committing the heinous offence of interrupting a jolly day out at the races.

Not so much of a “modern British orthodoxy” after all then Brendan.

This post was originally published at Week Woman

Trenton Oldfield leaves Feltham Magistrates Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.