How dangerous is a man in a wheelchair? British police officers attempting to restore order on the streets of London during recent student protests, decided they couldn’t take any chances when facing the threat posed by 20-year-old Jody McIntyre who suffers from cerebral palsy and is a self-described revolutionary.
In an interview, the BBC’s Ben Brown challenged McIntyre, saying: “There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair. Is that true?”
McIntyre turns the table on his interviewer by asking: “Do you think that I could have in any way posed a physical threat from the the seat of my wheelchair to an army of police officers armed with weapons?”
On the BBC’s Breakfast News, McIntyre faced similar treatment by interviewers who seemed inclined to believe the police must have been reacting to some form of provocation.
At Open Democracy, Ryan Gallagher notes that the tone of these interviews is:
… typical of how the mainstream media have responded to protests and the policing of them both past and present. Their automatic assumption is that the police are protectors of our best interests, defenders of public order, righteous upholders of the law. Protesters, on the other hand, are automatically perceived as a threat and a potential destructive force – they are folk devils: outsiders, troublemakers and vandals of decency.
The police are therefore at an immediate advantage in the media realm, for they are always given the benefit of the doubt. Officers may have had to crack a few skulls during the fees protests, however only because they were provoked by what [Prime Minister] David Cameron described as “feral thugs”. And it is for this same reason that McIntyre was repeatedly placed on the back foot throughout his BBC interview. Was he a “cyber-radical?” Did he want to build a “revolutionary movement?” The police would never just attack a defenceless disabled man in a wheelchair, would they?
Kira Cochrane spoke to McIntyre about his treatment by the BBC.
Was he surprised by the tone of Brown’s interview? “Not at all,” he says, “because it’s state television. Why do we so heavily criticise state television in other countries and then suggest that our state television would be impartial? I was at a demonstration against the government, and I’m then interviewed on television that works for the government. Why would they question me fairly?”
I ask whether he was scared at any point during the demonstration, and he suggests he has seen much worse recently. At 18, straight after his A-levels, and inspired by Che Guevara, McIntyre decided to travel through South America for three months; after that, he went to Palestine to live in areas including Gaza and Bil’in. “I had Israeli soldiers invading one village every night, shooting at us with live bullets, so a Metropolitan police officer is really not going to pose much of a worry to me. But it was quite humiliating, obviously, to be dragged from my wheelchair.” Was he surprised by the incident? “No, and I don’t know why other people are. To me, it’s as if people must have been asleep all their lives if they don’t realise this is the police’s role at demonstrations – to protect the interests of the government and the state.”
He has been on a lot of protests, on a wide range of issues, and says he has always had a political outlook, which he chronicles on his blog, Life on Wheels (“One man’s journey on the path to revolution”). He isn’t a student himself, but says he cares deeply about the issue both because “acceptance into university should be based on the merit of your grades, not the size of your wallet” and because “education is simply the first target. These cuts, this axe that the government is wielding, is going to affect everyone.”
At the New Statesman, Laurie Penny writes:
The truly fascinating aspect of McIntyre’s story is what it reveals about how the British understand disability: namely, that ‘real’ disabled people are not whole human beings. The attitude is that there are two types of disabled person: there are ‘real’ disabled people, who are quiet and grateful and utterly incapable of any sort of personal agency whatsoever, and ‘fake’ disabled people, people like Jody McIntyre, who are disqualified from being truly disabled by virtue of having personality, ambition, outside interests and, in this case, the cojones to stand up to a corrupt and duplicitous government.
This remarkable Catch-22 clause, whereby the authorities can claim that any disabled person who criticises them on disability issues or any other issues must de facto not actually be disabled, does not only affect how individuals like McIntyre are treated. It directly influences policymaking in the most clinical and ruthless of ways. Bear in mind that, alongside its highly publicised cuts to secondary and higher education funding, this government is also taking away benefits from disabled people: housing benefit, income support, the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance and other vital sources of funding are being decimated or removed entirely.