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.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.