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The Reaction To Michelle Obama's Reaction To A Heckler


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Political fundraisers are common occurrences here in Washington, D.C., but the one attended last night by Michelle Obama drew national attention, not for the first lady's speech, but for her reaction to a heckler.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports on some reaction to the incident.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It started out as a routine night, one of dozens of fundraisers the first lady has headlined as part of her campaign to support children's issues. Then 56-year-old activist Ellen Sturtz rose to shout at Michelle Obama and the first lady responded.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: I don't care what you believe in. We don't - wait, wait, wait.

ELLEN STURTZ: (Unintelligible) the executive order.

OBAMA: One of the things, I...

STURTZ: (Unintelligible) the executive order.

OBAMA: One of the things that I don't do well is this.


OBAMA: Do you understand? One of the things...

BATES: The whooping was because Mrs. Obama descended from the podium and walked right up to Sturtz and offered her a choice: One of them could speak, but if it was Sturtz, the first lady said she'd be out of there. Sturtz was urging the first lady to press her husband to sign an executive order that would make federal contractors' discrimination against LGBT employees illegal.

News of the confrontation blazed through social media, especially among black posters. Jason Johnson, a professor of political science at Ohio's Hiram College, says there's a reason for that.

JASON JOHNSON: Well, there's a belief and a very reasonable belief on the part of many supporters of Barack Obama, especially in the African-American community, that the president and Michelle have been subjected to an unprecedented level of rudeness and disrespect and incivility.

BATES: Just last week, the president was heckled during a speech on national security. This was his temperate response.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, this is part of free speech is you being able to speak, but also you listening and me being able to speak, all right?


CALLIE CROSSLEY: So here, you have Michelle Obama who clearly must have thought about after witnessing her husband or maybe being in some other situations what her response would be, and she just determined right at the beginning: no.

BATES: That's Callie Crossley, a radio host at WGBH in Boston. Crossley says the startled protester had just encountered what she calls black woman certaintude, and it was probably a cultural shock. Crossley says Michelle Obama's no-nonsense response may be coming out of her self-described role as mom-in-chief, and it sounded pretty familiar.

CROSSLEY: It felt coming out of her was, you know, what I might have heard from my mother about some bad activity. Here's what's going to happen, one or two, but not both.

BATES: Whatever it was, the prevailing response among black users of social media was mostly words like finally and yes, both followed by lots of exclamation points.

Columnist Laura Washington writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, and she says what she saw after Michelle Obama's face to face with her challenger was relief.

LAURA WASHINGTON: People were sort of excited that she was finally stepping up in a very unapologetic way and defending herself and her husband.

BATES: But Kelly Cogswell, a columnist and lesbian activist, says public figures, even ones friendly to the LGBT community, shouldn't be surprised when they're confronted by protestors, especially if they're perceived as moving slowly.

KELLY COGSWELL: Real activists cannot just go for our enemies, but we also have to push our friends to do what they say they were going to do.

BATES: The question now might be, given last night's response, what protester is going to be willing to heckle the first lady the next time she speaks?

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.