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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