First Lady Michelle Obama made headlines after being interrupted as she was giving a talk at a D.C. fundraiser. Ellen Sturtz -- an outspoken activist for the gay rights group GetEQUAL -- demanded that the First Lady convey a message to the president.
Like most people, the First Lady didn't take kindly to being yelled down in the public sphere. But instead of responding with a canned remark, she went off script. Unsurprinsingly, her response landed her on Fox News but it also trended on Yahoo and in social media.
I watched the exchange on YouTube and read a lot of the commentary around it, all the while feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance. More on that in a bit.
Not long before Mrs. Obama's heckling experience, another vocal activist -- Medea Benjamin of Code Pink – interrupted the President during his press conference. President Obama was delivering a major counterterrorism address when Benjamin loudly and persistently voiced opposition to the Obama administration's use of drones and its continued imprisonment of 86 cleared detainees at Guantanomo Bay – again, the exchange made headlines.
The upside for Benjamin and Sturtz was that they were able to garner national attention for the issues they champion–issues mainstream media barely, if ever, covers. A couple of the downsides were that Benjamin was arrested and Sturtz apparently was subjected to disapproval by her fellow Democrats; both women were broadly characterized as crazy and self-serving. Based on the lack of regret expressed by these activists, the downside seemed to be a non-issue.
In an op-ed written for the Washington Post a couple of days after the encounter with the First Lady, Ellen Sturtz wrote, “When Barack Obama was running for President in 2008, I thought he was serious about protecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from workplace discrimination. He made two key promises — that he would sign an executive order providing workplace protections by federal contractors, and that he would help pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), ending workplace discrimination by all employers. I contributed to the campaign, expecting that if elected, he would keep his word to fight for our community. Five years later, I’m still waiting. Despite having this executive order sitting on his desk, the president has yet to pick up his pen”.
Many question whether Sturtz should have taken her case to the First Lady at all, raising the point that her issue was with the President. Alternatively, Benjamin's actions were immediately affirmed by the President himself, who remarked–as Benjamin was being physically removed from the press conference–that “we should listen to that woman”.
Benjamin, who is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and co-founder of Code Pink, is no stranger to civil disobedience and direct action. A frequent spokesperson at progressive rallies, with a penchant for staying on point, Medea Benjamin is a driving force in the movement opposing the use of drones. In several interviews where she was challenged for interrupting the President and accused of being rude, Medea made the case that it is more rude to kill innocent people.
When a CNN interviewer suggested that Benjamin's outburst did more harm than good for her cause and that the President didn't have the authority to act on his own, Benjamin immediately countered with “the President has the power of executive order." Speaking to CNN the day after her arrest, Benjamin explained that she was compelled to speak out because, right now, the president has the authority to stop authorizing “signature strikes” where people are targeted for death simply on the basis of suspicious behavior, adding that he can also begin the release of the 86 people held at Guantanamo Bay since they have been cleared by the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security, as well as the CIA.
Ellen Sturtz and Medea Benjamin were granted something the average American is rarely granted – access to the First Couple. Unlike 99% of the people who assemble before the President and First Lady, these two activists used the opportunity to do what the top 1% of this country does regularly – they made their demands clear. If a small fraction of the American electorate took their civic responsibilities as seriously as these women, our country would be different.
The political class exists to represent us, not to be worshiped by us. And to truly represent us, they need to hear our demands, which requires more from us than just showing up at the polls on major elections. We can't expect to have a healthy democracy without a populace that is both civically engaged and also willing to hold their representatives accountable when their demands are ignored.
So here is where my cognitive dissonance sets in. I'm extremely uncomfortable with direct actions even though I've participated in countless rallies, marches and demonstrations. I was raised to respect authority–to follow protocol and to be nice. Each time I've raised my voice at a rally, there's been a part of me that feels a little off kilter. But I will continue do it anyway.
I think I can explain it better this way. If we were to think of our country as our home, maybe we'd take more personal responsibility for the care of it. Whether you own or rent, most people take steps to care for the space they occupy. It's understood and expected that when you become an adult you take on a set of ongoing, never-ending tasks associated with caring for yourself and your home – even if sometimes these tasks are shared or hired out. But regardless of who does the work, I think we can all agree that if the upkeep of your home is neglected, there will be consequences.
I see our country, metaphorically, as I see my home. I assume that like me, most people want our country to run smoothly. But so many of us haven't been taking care of the regular ongoing tasks that are essential to making a healthy democracy. Yes, many of us participate in the hiring of politicians but we don't seem to be willing to stay engaged enough to know whether those politicians are doing what we've hired them to do. Not only are we unwilling to be civically engaged, but more than half of us fail to even turn up to vote. As a result, this country is in dire straits. Some say our country is in crises almost as potentially catastrophic as if the home we occupy is on fire.
You might see where I'm going here. In the day-to-day care of my own personal home, the task I'm handling dictates how I'll respond. The way I conduct myself when I'm washing dishes is vastly different from the way I'd behave if – in that same kitchen – a fire broke out.
Similarly, participating in direct action – protests, marches, rallies, demonstrations and interrupting politicians is like yelling “fire.” Frankly, it confounds me that I don't see more direct action in this country considering what we're facing. It's as if people think that activists should either shut up or at most keep their outbursts to a whisper. Can you imagine whispering, FIRE!? The only explanation is that corporate controlled mainstream media has effectively kept information away from the masses.
Progressives need to be out in the streets as if our way of life depended on it – because it does. So to those of us that can see that this country is in crisis – the time for yelling “fire” is now. But we also need to remind others that the reason we yell “fire” is to get all hands on deck to put the fire out. There's no shortage of tasks. Let's all pitch in and stop the whispering.