Occupying Royal Holloway

This evening I have had the privilege of speaking with students at Royal Holloway College in the University of London. They today began an occupation of their college, camping outside the Principal’s office and calling on him to oppose the government’s agenda for higher education.

I gave two talks at the college. The first, which was planned weeks ago, was a talk about my walk of repentance for homophobia. I’d been invited by the Students’ Union, Chaplaincy and Catholic Society. It was great to have an engaged and diverse audience, with interesting and challenging questions from (among others) a Muslim and at least two Catholics and members of the college’s LGBT Society.

The second talk was much more spontaneous. Some of the students involved in the occupation, which began this afternoon, asked me to go and speak to them. I was honoured. I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say, but as they gathered round in the corridor, I spoke about my delight at the outbreak of active nonviolence over the last year. I encouraged them to resist the lies and misconceptions that would be spread about them and shared some thoughts and experience. As with the people at the first talk, I also had much to learn from the questions and comments with which they responded.

I was inspired by the enthusiasm, sense and detailed commitment of these people.

Students listened to each other, including on occasions when they did not agree. They seemed to be working well together to organise things effectively. They have allocated one room (the Principal’s Meeting Room) as a quiet study area, where students who have essays to write or research to do can go and work in silence. There was a steady stream of people with books and laptops going in and out. There seems to be a careful allocation of space. There was a quieter area dedicated for sleeping. Bins are divided for paper recycling, plastic recycling and general rubbish.

The diversity of students present was a challenge to the assumption that student activists are a small minority of eccentrics who get no real interest from the main student body. There appeared to be a gender and racial balance and the diversity of clothing did not live up to stereotypes of activist hippies.

The two talks I gave this evening were about different subjects, but the links between them are becoming ever clearer to me. Sexual ethics and economic ethics are closely linked. Tackling homophobia and resisting economic injustice are both part of a wider struggle to challenge a world in which people are encouraged to relate to each other on the basis of power, prejudice, money or convention. As a Christian, I believe we are called to relationships – whether personal or political – based on love, justice and mutuality. This is a challenge to both legalism and selfishness.

I am often accused of being too optimistic, particularly about politics. But I find it hard to imagine my reaction if someone had told me after last year’s general election that there would be an outbreak of active nonviolence in the coming year and a half. If they had told me that people would peacefully occupy the shops of tax-dodging corporations, that student activists would occupy universities across the UK in protest at tuition fees and that there would be a global movement of nonviolent occupations targeting financial centres, I would probably have laughed in their face.

In some ways, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future. Economies are in crisis across Europe. The UK government is responding with a vicious assault on public services and the welfare state.

But as I sat in that corridor at Royal Holloway tonight, I was reminded that there is another way. That the government’s assault on the working class and lower middle class is being met with resistance. That people from Cairo to Wall Street have inspired the world to stand up to injustice. That the power of money and markets will never understand or suppress the power of love manifested in active nonviolence.

No longer can radical campaigns be dismissed as the preserve of eccentric minorities. The breadth of support for Occupy Royal Holloway was very clear. While I was there, the Roman Catholic Chaplain spoke and offered his solidarity. For me, one of the most encouraging comments came from a security guard, as he wandered over to listen to the discussions. He told us he was glad to be working the evening shift because “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world”.

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