We Are Not Your Props

Last week, the Internet exploded over the case of Jody McIntyre, a wheelchair user who was pulled out of his chair during a demonstration in Britain in front of a shocked crowd. I saw the Tweets rolling out live as the incident happened, with people demanding to know why the event wasn’t being covered on television; as usual, the coverage slanted towards focusing on ‘dangerous’ and ‘unruly’ protesters, as well as framing the people involved as ‘middle class’ with the goal of writing off the seriousness of the events and erasing the participation of people from the lower class who were up in arms as well.

From the corner of my eye, I spotted one of the policemen from the earlier incident. He recognised me immediately. Officer KF936 came charging towards me. Tipping the wheelchair to the side, he pushed me onto the concrete, before grabbing my arms and dragging me across the road. (McIntyre writes about his experiences)

The case caught attention as a result of being caught on video and went viral; within days, McIntyre had been interviewed by the BBC and mocked in The Daily Mail. This particular incident of police brutality started getting significant traction in discussions about the protests.

Much of the narrative surrounding this incident was righteous outrage. Seeing footage of a 20 year old man with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair for mobility being hauled out of it and being left to sprawl in the street sparked rage, and my Twitter feed exploded. It’s wrong, most people seemed to agree, for police to abuse ‘the disabled‘ when they are exercising their rights to peaceful protest. People also emphasised McIntyre’s ‘weakness‘ and ‘helplessness’ although I think he pretty amply demonstrated in his BBC interview that he is far from helpless:

Interviewer: And why then, do you think– Are you saying the police picked on your twice. Why do you think they did?

JM: I have no idea. I mean, to make one suggestion, I think in the second incident at least, I think there’s a clear element of trying to provoke protesters into violence. Personally, I see myself as equal to anyone else, but I do understand that I could be perceived as more vulnerable, so I think there was an element of trying to provoke violence from others.

Numerous incidents of police brutality were documented during the London protests, but this particular case got a lion’s share of the attention because it involved a disabled man. Another protester experienced a head injury so severe that it required surgery.

Which is a curious contrast from the way the left seems to regard other wheelchair users exercising their free speech and assembly rights. Every time there’s a significant conservative demonstration here in the United States, I see people using mobility devices being singled out for special mockery by the left. The liberal ableism starts flying when it comes to people with disabilities doing things the left doesn’t like and we are reminded that we are considered pawns when we express views the left does not like, and heroes when we’re expressing views the left does like.

It’s Tiny Tim season, so of course this case hit a number of sweet spots, as it were. McIntyre was an excellent choice ofcause celebre for nondisabled people angry about the police response to the protests because he was a symbol. An object. Dare I say it? A prop. McIntyre was ‘the disabled.’ It’s generally agreed that being mean to ‘the disabled’ is one of the worst things a person can do and unlike those pesky nondisabled protestors who were abused by police, there is, of course, no rational way he could have posed a threat to police, making his abuse at their hands ‘unjustifiable.’

I don’t know how else to say this because I feel like I have been saying it for years, and no one is listening:

We are not props. We are not symbols. We are not rhetorical devices. We are human beings. We have free will and bodily autonomy.

Every protester in London had a right to not be abused by police. Not just the disabled protester. And every person has a right to express views, no matter what they are, no matter who agrees with them, regardless of disability status. Patting us on the head when we fit with your agenda and then telling us we’re ‘clueless’ when we don’t is patronising, it is dehumanising, and it is wrong.

Jody McIntyre attended that protest in full awareness that police violence had been ongoing at the student protests and he took a calculated risk, knowing it was a possibility, just like every other protester. He’s not a hero or a rallying point because he was dragged out of his chair and hit by police while disabled: He’s a person who experienced police brutality. He pointed this out in his interview:

I would say that it’s very important not to see this as an isolated incident. This is the police’s role at demonstrations. To incite and provoke violence. They’ve done it in the past and they’re continuing to do it now. I am not the real victim here. The real victims are the students, like Alfie Meadows, who is in hospital within an inch of his life after a policeman struck him on the head with a truncheon and he needed emergency brain surgery. Now imagine if it was Prince Charles, or Camilla, or a police officer who had been within an inch of their life.

He attended that protest because he had something to say:

“[The police] are out of control,” he said. “I have just as much right as everyone else to protest. My 16-year-old brother now believes he will be unable to go to university because of the higher fees involved.” (‘Footage shows protester dragged from wheelchair‘)

Every time our disabilities are used to leverage pity and other emotions, it’s a reminder that people think of us as consumed and defined by our disabilities. If McIntyre hadn’t been in a chair, he would have gone down with scores of other nameless protesters who were abused by police. If his abuse hadn’t been caught on video, a handful of enraged Tweets would have been the sum total of the matter. Instead, people are trying to leverage him to make political points.

This case is rare; usually when we are used as pawns to advance agendas, we are not allowed to speak for ourselves. McIntyre has been interviewed and given a voice and an opportunity to push back on some of the narratives surrounding him, breaking out of the prop mold people want to shove him in. Most of us don’t have that chance.

I’ll leave you with this:

As a result of events on the 9th December I will be pursuing legal action against the police. But I do not because I see myself as a victim. The real victims are the likes of Alfie Meadows who was hospitalised as a result of his injuries. We need justice not only in my case but also in Alfie’s case and anyone else who’s suffered in this struggle.

While this condemned government continues to promote values of inequality and attempts to widen the gap between rich and poor, I will speak up for those who do not have a voice. (‘Who’s apathetic now?‘)

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

One thought on “We Are Not Your Props

  1. When Jody wrote a piece for the Independent I saw this attitude at work in the comment threads. A commenter from America wrote, “Leave it the liberals in England to wheel out a CP guy…” as though the article weren’t first-person, as though Jody were merely a puppet who had been taken out of a box of circus tricks specially for this occasion. It happens across the length and breadth of the political spectrum, and it can affect any person from a distinct minority group, not just disabled people. A few years ago a hijab-wearing Pakistani Muslim friend of mine expressed her reservations about feminism. (She’s fine with it in theory, but she feels that in practice it has marginalised women from certain communities, including her own.) The mutual friend whom she was talking to, who prides herself on her progressive views, told her, “You think that because you’ve grown up in a patriarchal society and you don’t know any different.” Her exact words. Wheelchair, hijab, a particular ethnic heritage – anything visible in that way can quickly be turned into a symbol, used either to market or disparage a particular set of views.
    Vicky´s last blog post ..Women at war- misogyny in the Israeli occupation

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