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King’s College Student Experiments With Civil Disobedience

by / 0 Comments / 13/03/2017

As I sit occupying the Old Committee Room of King’s College London, just a stone’s throw from the college chapel, I cannot help but reflect on how I got here. I suppose I should start with why I’m here. Currently King’s College London has around eight million pounds invested in fossil fuel companies. There has been a Fossil Free KCL campaign for over two years, and the results have been a loose agreement to divest from tar sands but not much else. Certainly nothing close to a fossil-free agreement. So last term I joined the King’s College Climate Emergency campaign. A small group of like-minded students who were prepared to take some risks to push the management in the right direction.

 

After my first meeting with the man principally organising the campaign, Roger Hallam, the feelings of optimism were hard to hold back. The plan was convincing; start with small actions in the first term to garner attention — spraying chalk paint onto the walls around The Strand campus, mysteriously close to posters titled ‘connect the dots’ linked to our campaign. And, head-on full throttle civil disobedience in the second term. Great, I thought.

Then around a week later I was handed a spray-chalk can and it was now down to me to spray one hundred dots around King’s. Suddenly, I felt isolated and psychologically criminalised before I had even decorated the first wall. I knew the chalk wiped off with some water and a cloth, but something ingrained in me told me, whispered, that what I was about to do might be wrong. Nevertheless, I abolished, as best I could, any reservations and PSSSSSSSHT. A small red dot on the geography department’s wall. After a double take to make sure no weary academic felt obliged to investigate the noise — as a matter of fact they did not — PSSSHT, PSSSHT, PSSSHT came three dots in a row. By the time I was done I felt emboldened, I had made my first stand.

The next week a meeting with King’s newspaper, Roar, had been arranged. A polite and aloof first year journalist wished to know our plan and the chalk painting. Awesome. Media coverage which would get more people interested. After the interview the photographer wanted to take pictures of us spraying dots and putting up posters. I confess I was a bit uneasy, effectively evidencing my guilt should we be caught. But I wasn’t part of this for myself, it’s a much bigger issue and I swallowed any reservations, again, and after a brief interlude to escape a cleaner’s view we took the photos.

Later, the four of us (two Roar journalists, Roger and I) strolled though the maze formally known as The Strand campus buildings. Suddenly a cleaner just in audible range exclaimed ‘it’s them!’. Not wanting to risk capture before this whole thing took off we fled. Zipping through the Chesham Building, Macadam Building, and past the Griffindor common room, with a certain amount of giddiness. Finally, we reached the exit. With considerable relief and smugness, I swiped my ID card to freedom. Except what really materialised was the soul-crushing sound of the King’s door system denial tone. We dared not go back, that would lead to certain capture; could we MacGyver an escape? No. We were confronted, names taken, and sent with our tails between our legs.

Since this time, the campaign has been on public record (see here: http://roarnews.co.uk/?p=23772, and here: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/kings-college-london-fossil-fuels-divestment-campaign-roger-hallam-uk-student-coal-gas-oil-a7612881.html) and grown considerably. My reason tells me our actions have been proportionate, but that hasn’t stopped me feeling stigmatised, and like an extremist. Of course, to a great degree this is in my head. But it’s there in my head because I’m a member of a society which frowns upon any direct action for change which doesn’t conform to our neoliberal sensitivities.

So, as six of us sit here hunkered down for the night awaiting a meeting with the Vice-Principle, while the jolly conversation of the overnight security echoes down the hall, I am reminded of the words of Henry Thoroux in Civil Disobedience:

They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing with earnest and with effect’.

My foray into civil disobedience has at the very least taught me this: it’s time we all did something with earnest and effect if we are to avoid a bleak future.