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My journey to Logan Hall – at the Institute of Education in Russell Square – last Thursday had been unremarkable. The entrance was dotted with people nervously thumbing mobile phones, a solitary policeman, and little else. Inside, the deceptively large lecture theatre was growing steadily replete with its eager audience.
By 7.20 pm we had taken our seats, the hall was eighty percent full, and the chant began. Approximately thirty people were wedged into the doorway – presumably having rushed the ticket desk – chanting a tune in which the only audible words were “Dawkins” and (I think) “job losses”. The two security guards that had been holding them back capitulated, and they quickly took to the stage. The already large audience was perplexed and then furious. The majority of the audience was comprised of members of the British Humanist Association, and the heckles thrown at the protestors showed that at least some of those present thought the combination of chanting and an anti-Dawkins message to mean ‘religious nut-jobs’ (who are generally fond of a good chant).
Organising atheists is notoriously difficult; Dawkins himself has likened it to “herding cats”, and they did not take kindly to this interjection, especially when many believed it to be religiously motivated. Only a dozen protesters made it into Logan Hall and their chanting was completely drowned out by the 700 strong audience. Within a few minutes however, the general mood had shifted from anger to mockery. In the second row a young man began enacting scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian with considerable gusto and to ample applause.
The protesters, who had resorted to merely sitting on the edge of the stage, were visibly irked. Theatrically, they had been outdone. In response, the volume was stepped up, and they abandoned chanting in favour of shouting: “Dawkins is supporting A.C. Grayling’s elitist New College of the Humanities” and other similarly explanatory phrases. The protestors were in fact there to defend free education, and protest the New College’s plan to function as a private Higher Education institution, charging £18,000 a year. Unfortunately, this crowd was interested in just one thing: seeing Professors Myers and Dawkins. In response to a particularly loud protester’s cry that “these academics are not welcome here!”, came a perfectly synchronised – almost pantomime – “Yes, they are!”.
The pantomime continued. Intent on ending the affair, almost the entire audience turned their backs on the protesters, attempting to deprive the fire of oxygen. As interesting a gambit as this was, no-one had enough staying-power to stick with it, and it quickly collapsed. Several of the audience then attempted to take matters into their own hands individually. A young Romanian man took to the stage himself, and announced that he had spent the equivalent of a week’s worth of food on getting to the UK to see Myers, and that he was going to start ejecting “these idiots … starting with James Dean here [pointing at an accurately described protester]”. He was calmed by a police officer.
One of the protestors, a student from UCL named Aaron, explained his motives: “Dawkins says that he stands for enlightened values, but the NCH goes completely against that. We’re here to try to reverse this ethical paralysis, which will entrench a class divide.”
At 7.40pm a team of a dozen police officers entered the building, and the protesters promptly left. The pantomime appeared to be over, and the crowd applauded the curtain. Professors Myers and Dawkins took to the stage to a round of applause that shook the, now full, theatre at 7.55pm (a total delay of only 25 minutes). After the noise subsided, Richard started to speak. “I’m very interested”, he began, “in science and …”, before being cut off from a shout from the back: “AND PROFIT MAKING”. The new interlocutor was roundly booed, and ejected by a large man in a dark suit. Richard’s response, however, once again upstaged any possibility of subversion: “every penny of every lecture I give goes to charity” – thundering applause and cheering.
I have to hand it to the protest. At the cost of considerable loss of face, they certainly spread the message. I would just have made some signs and stood outside, but while they earned themselves some chagrin, they definitely got some real attention. This event was unfortunately the wrong target. A thousand people who had paid to see two charismatic scientists and public speakers were simply not interested in talking about the NCH that night.
Oh, and the lecture was excellent by the way.