Heckling Is Not the Way to Advance a Cause

Posted on June 6, 2013


It’s rude, it’s shrill, it’s a turnoff, it makes you look sort of crazy, and it doesn’t make anyone want to help you.

As the Washington Post reports, lesbian activist Ellen Sturtz interrupted Michelle Obama’s speech at a Democratic fundraiser in a private home Tuesday night, shouting her demands that the President sign a pending executive order, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  Mrs. Obama gave what I thought was a firm yet classy response:  she stopped her speech and announced that the crowd could “listen to me or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”  The crowd made their choice clear.  Obama was applauded.  Sturtz was ejected from the event, which she had paid $500 to attend.  Ironically, after Ms. Sturtz was ejected, one of the Obama Administration initiatives that Mrs. Obama mentioned, among others, was:   gay rights.

Ms. Sturtz has a valid cause.  That wasn’t the problem.  The problem was one of time, place, and inappropriate behavior.  This was a high-octane, privately-hosted, expensive event, not some public protest on the National Mall.  The minimum $500 attendance fee that everyone paid (and some paid up to $10,000) entitled them to be there, mingle, network, and listen – all of which can be invaluable, if properly applied.  It did not entitle anyone to interrupt, shout, disrupt the agenda, and try to obliterate the scheduled topics and replace them with their own.  Even the maximum $10,000 fee does not entitle anyone to strongarm the First Lady and demand that the President sign their personal pet executive order, pronto.  Frankly, that sort of presumption and rudeness begets a reflexive sort of screw-you resistance (it is only human nature to refuse to reward such crassness).   Ms. Sturtz may be a passionate activist for a worthy cause, but she has just proven herself counterproductive.

We have multiple avenues to make our voices heard by our elected representatives.  We have the right to assemble.  We have the right to protest.  We have the right to write to our elected representatives.  Most effectively, we have the right to organize and lobby Congress.  I am really put off by, say, AIPAC or the Armenian lobby (I am much troubled by foreign lobbies), but one cannot deny that they are effective.  There are military groups, business groups, automotive groups, retiree groups who lobby… and vote… and this is key:  they get their many individual members to write to their Congressmen.

As it happens, Ms. Sturtz belongs to GetEqual.  The organization addressed Tuesday night’s kerfluffle by posting a statement on their website.  There is no apology.  There is no acknowledgement that one of their own was kicked out of the venue.  There is a remark that “we will continue engaging leaders in the Administration and the Democratic Party.”  News flash, folks:  what happened Tuesday night was not “engaging” in any sense of the word, and probably set your cause back.  This is politics, not acting; bad publicity is actually bad.

So what else does GetEqual do?  Poking around their site, I found a page trumpeting “pressure on senators.”  But what does that mean, exactly?  I see a lot of calls for rallies; the delivery of symbolic pies to senators’ offices; a meeting with a senator’s staff (that’s better); and the delivery of petitions to senators’ offices (better still).  What I don’t see, and what would be most effective of all, is the inundation of those senators with about a kajillion individual letters and emails.

GetEqual claims that the executive order would protect a quarter of the labor force.  That’s huge!  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the total labor force comprises some 243 million people age 16 and over.  If the LGBT community really amounts to a quarter of that, that would be some 60 million people… quite a large voice!  In contrast, the Social Security Administration reports some 41 million retirees over 65; the Veterans Administration reports some 22 million living military veterans as of 2013.  And yet, these smaller groups – represented by organizations like AARP or MOAA – very successfully lobby Congress without showy protests, obnoxious interruptions of planned events, or gimmicks.  They just harness a lot of those people by having them write to their Congressmen.  They make it simple:  pre-printed postcards in their magazines that someone can just pull out, sign, and mail; or emails that someone can simply modify, add their name to, and forward to their representatives (addresses provided for convenience!).    You can bet that when 30,000 or 50,000 individual letters cram into a representative’s staff office, that gets noticed, even more than a petition with a lot of signatures, and a lot more than a shrill group delivering a mangled pie.  Which would you take more seriously?