In Defense of Heckling, But Not All Hecklers

michelleobamaHeckling-as-protest, like all forms of protest to an extent, is a very confrontational and bold call to change. Of all methods of non-violent protest*, it is one of the most confrontational. That is it’s power, it’s energy and for whatever it’s worth, it’s draw. When one uses heckling for such social reasons, one demands attention from the powerful by humiliating the powerful. Let’s make this clear: heckling is not a means of seeking the goodness of the heckled to change his or her own ways, it does not seek to nor want to persuade the wrong-doer of his or her wrongs. It seeks to draw a big, fat, flaming circle of shamed attention around the protested at the moment of protest, highlighting the particular grievance and holding the heckled to account in a very public manner. It is a form of protest ignited out of desperation.

However, when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong. That is, unless the target being heckled just happens to be a black woman – whereupon a public given to believing archetypes about the “Angry Black Woman” and thus shifts blame to the target for the way that she handles the critique rather than the message and means of the critique itself. In that case, it is not just the target who receives the blame for being human in such a moment, but also anybody else that supposedly “fits the description” in the racist narrative of the ABW.

Having said that, heckling-as-protest in itself isn’t wrong. Protest is important because critique is important. Protest is fundamental not just for free democracies but also for societal growth – to move society forward. We cannot shut off protest because it’s too ugly, it’s inappropriate-seeming, or it’s unseemly. The fact that one would participate in such an action that draws so much shame and potential abuse on the actor (for though the United States is a “free country” with free speech as a fundamental right of the people, protest is not carte blanche protected either socially nor legally) suggests that the protester is deeply invested and believes that there has been a major injustice. In the case of heckling, it also implies that the protester sees the act of injustice as personal, and so wages a public act of shaming the targeted character.

An example or two. When Chicago’s mayor and his appointed Board of Education decided that they were going to unilaterally close (in mostly Black neighborhoods) several dozen elementary schools, people got angry. During so-called hearings where it became obvious that the city was not listening to parents despite emotional appeals, despite pleas based on safety and stability both needed to raise healthy children, despite logic, despite historical evidence of tampering with its own budgets, despite data that contradicted their claims, despite the fact that they were shutting down on already-shut down upon and disinvested communities of color (because, let’s face it, Chicago is an apartheid city), some activists started Mic Checks. Mic Checks are a form of public protest akin to heckling and popularized through the Occupy movement, where a group of demonstrators would interrupt a speech or presentation given by the ruling class to deliver a message from the people – using solidarity of a mass of voices as the tool of magnification.

The point of such a protest, again, isn’t to gently persuade the Boss Culture that it’s wrong or grievous. It rather highlights an injustice of power – the idea that only the Bosses have a right to speak and be heard; it throws off the balance of the Public Announcement system and gives the microphone back to the people – in theory at least. Using protest against injustice is a means of disruption, and it should be. We should be throwing monkey wrenches into any system that oppresses and marginalizes human beings for profit – as the selling out of the Chicago Public Schools and communities in Chicago did. And if it makes people uncomfortable, then fine. The injustice is more than uncomfortable, and the protesters feel the need to address that.

Now, within this hearing, there was an impromptu and prolonged moment of heckling as a fairly famous alderman (city councilperson) approached to speak. Although this alderman spoke out against closing schools – or at least particular schools – he was also famous for having gone into the Eye of Sauron (aka Fox News) to decry unions for taking action against Lord Voldemort (aka Rahm Emanuel) by deciding to strike. Since many in the crowd were members of the teachers union, they took great personal offense to his attacks and started heckling him.

And it got loud. And really, really uncomfortable. As he was trying to speak, he was turning red and trying to yell above the fracas. Although I did not take part in that action, I cannot fault the hecklers for their action. Even though I wasn’t a member of that union, I also felt deeply betrayed by his actions leading up to and during the strike. And these protesters wanted to make sure that aldermen knew that such betrayal would not go without pushback.

So, it’s a delicate line for such a brutish display. But it is obvious that the heckling party needs to address the right target for the right offense, and will need to recognize that there may be consequences for such civil actions. They are, after all, bringing a baseball bat to a three course meal. In light of this, the CodePink heckling against President Obama during his speech on drones and Guantanamo Bay seems to have had its intended outcome – it drew extra attention to his remarks on intentions to close Gitmo, which in turn draws extra scrutiny.

The heckling of Mrs. Obama, however, does not fit any such criteria. Not because it was crude or because the cause wasn’t “the right cause,” but because it targeted for shame Mrs. Obama for policy that she has nothing to do with and in a way that is not effective to the ends or means of the heckling. Additionally, the heckler – a white woman – did not seem to be aware that she was involved in the level of personal and confrontational action that she was with a black woman. After being escorted out, the heckler said about Mrs. Obama, “She came right down in my face. I was taken aback.”


Heckling is an act of defiance, but also an act of silencing. When a white woman – even a white homosexual woman, herself doubly marginalized – decides to silence a black woman, does she not recognize that it is sending a clear message to the recipient and those allying themselves with her about racial preferences? Why would she set the room ablaze if she were not expecting to get burnt?

I’ll leave that for you to decide.

*We’ll leave the discussion for whether or not (or how and how not) destroying property is non-violent.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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  • Jean Louis

    This is one of the worst articles I ever read. If you’re still in college, please switch majors. Otherwise, better drop partisanship if you want to be taken as a somewhat unbiased writer. Granted you’re on a liberal site, but this hypocrisy fits perfectly at CNN or as a mirror image of Republicans.

    • Partisanship? How? I showed three examples of heckling protests, all three against the Democratic party (all three done by Left). I also pointed out how two were justified, but the last one (not done to a politician) wasn’t.

      Where does your argument come from?

      • Jean Louis

        First off, the media isn’t pinning what the First Lady did as the “angry black women” that got out of hand. if that’s how the Right-Wing Faux media paints her, well you should have learned long ago that their opinion are fatuous drivels that should never be entertained. But the left isn’t painting her that way, the few that don’t blindly follow and support see her reaction as an elitist Marie Antoinette.

        You’re framing most of this issue on her race and sex, which have nothing do with the incident and people’s feelings towards it. This wasn’t an ABW defending herself, this was the First Lady of the United States threatening to leave an event people paid to get into because that seemed the best solution. Not trying to control the situation or remain stolid to be the better person. Instead she said “Fuck this shit. I don’t have to listen to you people bitch.” This is honestly how I took the situation.

        I get it, you find it hard to critique the First Lady because she’s just so elegant and cool. But to accept her actions and to actively paint the protestor as a “rude heckler” is to deprecate the person and the daunting action she’s done. Hecklers are the douches at comedy shows, or how Republicans described Cindy Sheehan or the Cody Pink lady, do you want to go along with this rhetoric?

        The examples you selected to compare have very little similarities besides them involving protestors, or as you like to call them, hecklers. A better comparison is how New Jersey (my state) Governor Chris Christie handles these “outbursts”. I’m not gonna quote them, there’s plenty of YouTube videos capturing these questionable moments. Republicans like him because of his brashness, it’s the same reason many Jersey Democrats disdain him. And then your Queen Michelle reacts in the same manner, maybe a little more pretentious, and everybody’s being too hard on her. That’s hypocrisy #2.

        Finally, Michelle Obama is a political figure. You might view her as some meager wife that has no influence on her husband’s administration, but Michelle is a lawyer, she knows the power she has and steers the rhetoric when she wants to. Abigail Adams, Nancy Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, First Wives that each had a hand in their husband’s legacy (we won’t even get into Hilary). She might not be running for a seat, but her long involvement makes her part of politics. The event she was attending was a political event, as a political figure.

        Bottom line, you can’t choose which protestors are rude and which have a worthy enough cause to interrupt the dinner party. You either stand for their right to protest or you don’t.

      • I’m not defending the FL because of her elegance or any such effect. But because this particular act of protest is a shaming one, and as such it has a limited efficacy. Additionally, when engaged in this type of protest, protesters in general recognize the power and responsibility (and, hopefully, the social dynamics) of the act. Ellen Sturtz (and if I have a big regret about this article it is that I didn’t name her in it, which was not an effort to make her invisible, but just a sign of computer problems) and GetEqual obviously did not seem to have such concerns. CodePink acknowledged as much on Twitter.

        What you seem to be arguing is that the msm wasn’t criticizing Ms Obama, so therefore the article is out of place? Yet, you basically called her a cry-baby. Seems I’m writing this piece for you, so I can see why you’re being so defensive about it.

        It feels like you didn’t read the piece. Or even the title.

      • Jean Louis

        Really cause it feels like you didn’t even read my response, because I called her an Elitist Marie Antoinette. What that has to do with being a cry-baby, only you know! But basically ignore or eschew everything I said including the two points of hypocrisy and your argument that Michelle isn’t a politician. What I’m really calling out is your hypocrisy, and your lack of rebuttal shows your lack of knowledge in politics and media.
        You can keep acting pedantic in trying to explain how protests work, but you are merely an observer. This isn’t an Academic Paper, people don’t need the history of protests or the recognition of power and responsibility by protesters cause this isn’t a political course where we learn pathos and ethos. If you’re a Liberal, you should know all about protests. And this is where hypocrisy stands tall. If you believe this form of protest is a rude act but stand for the Civil Rights Act or Workers Movement, then you are a hypocrite. Because everybody outside of those groups called a rude, heckling mob that shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Granted, you’re not saying they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, but your passively agreeing that protestors are rude. Cause again, you can’t decide when freedom to protest is worthwhile or rude. You either for protest, or your not.
        If you don’t think it’s hypocritical, then why keep up the same rhetoric as Rush Limbaugh and GOP crew? What about Chris Christie reaction to hecklers, comparing Fox News and MSNBC critique of those? Here’s some advice to try and disprove my point, use my argument against me. Cause if you can’t, then to me that’s a clear sign that you got nothing.

      • Jean, I very much welcome critique. It makes me a better person and a better writer to at least consider what others have to say.

        But I can’t find the article that you’re critiquing, because it isn’t mine. If nothing else, you criticize me for belittling heckling. Did you not read the title?? “In Defense of Heckling.”

      • lessthantolerant

        Jasdye, does mooshelle use those lips on her secret service guys? can I rent her for a weekend? man I bet she could suck a bowling ball through a garden hose.

  • Shadow Spring

    Great explanation, sir. It makes clear why heckling a President about a policy issue, or a city council for that matter, is a reasonable form of protest. It also makes clear why heckling a person in no position of power, like a politicians’s spouse, is just rude. And of course, this being the USA, where only sixty years ago black people were not honored with the human rights that befit all citizens of this great nation, it is beyond rude and crosses over into disgusting to for a white woman to heckle a black woman. *I* have way more class than that, and I expect no less from my fellow citizens. WFB is rolling over in his grave at the uncivil behavior of the conservative masses his magazine begat.

    • Thank you, Shadow Spring.

    • Concerned

      Oh, you are so wrong…. I don’t know where to begin! Okay, let me try. Just so you understand, a white woman has every right to heckle a black woman. She has the right to protest. She has the right to debate, oppose, challenge, argue, and heckle. Michelle Obama doesn’t get a free pass because she’s black. She doesn’t get a free pass for anything! My husband is Jewish and I am part Native American. Do you want to talk about persecution? I’m sick to death of hearing about slavery!! You know what’s classy, owning up to what you do and suffering the consequences of your actions. If she didn’t want to be heckled, she shouldn’t have married Barack Obama.

  • lessthantolerant

    I bet her ubanga lips feel great on a member, I got ,to find out if she rents out Malia and Sasha on weekends. Anyone know? Poor old Obama does not know what he is missing not letting her give him a BJ. I wonder if he fantasizes when Reggie is pounding his bum?

  • concerned

    The fact that Michelle Obama is black doesn’t dismiss her from decorum. Confronting and threatening to leave is not the behavior of a first lady. The point is, even if everyone else in the room wasn’t acting appropriately, she should have been. Furthermore, protesting is our right and if she doesn’t like it, too bad for her!