Can a Wheelchair Stop Violence?

“You are visibly, tangibly vulnerable, so I think it adds weight to the nonviolence…The chair speaks, so I try to make it an icon, a prophetic witness of vulnerability and power.”

LONDON–I encounter Zoe, a Vicar in the Church of England, after stumbling upon the outer edges of a Eucharist service in the center of Trafalgar Square. Three priests light candles and lead prayers in front of a makeshift altar, while behind them a Samba band beats a mix of excitement and nervous tension into your stomach. Police officers’ yellow jackets, lining up across the lanes of Whitehall, threaten to take over the eye–a rising sea about to wash over the forty-or-so seated Christians singing from their XR hymnal book, flipping page to page.

It is then that I see Zoe perching at the far edge of the service, wheels caught slightly under a soaking tarp. Her wheelchair is half steampunk invention, all brass gears; her clerical collar has a slight feminine fringe of black pleating pouring out the top. She has, hands down, won my Religious-Figure Style Award for the week. I ask her: What is it like to act in the name of Extinction Rebellion from a wheelchair?

Zoe’s Perspective:

I think there’s something really powerful about how nonviolent a wheelchair looks. And so, for me, I’ve just been on the de-escalation training, and the power of sitting…it connects to something in me, because, (she laughs, motioning to the wheels under her feet)–I am sitting.

What I’ve discovered is, actually, from this place of sitting, I’m finding I’m able to speak into situations differently because I come as something so non-threatening. You somehow embody something different in a wheelchair. You are visibly, tangibly vulnerable, so I think it adds weight to the nonviolence.

Adding to it, I could have also come in civvies, today’s my day off. I’ve chosen to come as a representative of my church, and to embody a very different way of being the body of Christ today–so I actually have come across this (pointing to the Eucharist service) by accident. I’ve just wandered up, or rolled up, and somebody had to help me down the curbs and over the tent pegs and all to get to this spot, in order to share the Eucharist with a load of strangers, with whom I have solidarity that is just so much bigger than any denomination—it’s just human solidarity–and I genuinely think that from this vantage point of sitting, of real weakness, I definitely embody something about the nonviolence. I arrive and I’m already sitting. And that’s different.

This movement is about the fact that we are dependent on the acts of others anyway, and that we’re making everyone more vulnerable…so this act of self-giving, (coming in a wheelchair), I’m finding incredibly powerful as a human, earthling, as a priest, and as a woman, in chronic pain, who is, literally (she pauses to find the words)…I will need help from multiple strangers to get my Uber back to another part of London. That’s just how it’s gonna have to be.

I can’t be independent here today, but it’s a myth anyway, isn’t it? We’re not independent. We’re all interconnected.

The chair speaks, so I try to make it an icon, a prophetic witness of vulnerability and power.

Right after I took this photo, a white-jacketed Nonviolent Deescalation Supporter asked me to sit down.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.