In Defense of Heckling: Some History Past and Present

A politician was set to give a speech to a large gathering of liberal supporters. However, before he could get a word out, an activist began speaking loudly from the balcony and refused to be shut up. Other activists stationed around the audience shouted out their support, whereupon the politician lost his temper and began lecturing them on the damage they were doing to their cause which he claimed to support. Because of the continual heckling, it took two hours for the politician to give what ought to have been a twenty minute speech. The next day the press was full of outraged editorials. How could they show such disrespect to him? Lock them up. Send them in straight-jackets to an asylum.

If you thought this was a description of a recent confrontation between the intrepid BlackLivesMatter activists and the faux socialist running for U.S. President, Bernie Sanders, you would be wrong. This is a description of what British suffragists did in 1908 at a speech by the Liberal leader Lloyd George, then Minister of the Exchequer and later PM. British suffragists made a repeated practice of interrupting and heckling politicians. In the U.S., suffragists invaded the Congress, unfurled a banner and heckled President Wilson while he was making a speech.   Both David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson were considered to be reformers in their day, but it took applying heat to get them to actually do something real to help achieve the vote for women. Heckling was the least of it. Some suffragists did more radical things to politicians, like tossing bricks through windows at halls where they were speaking and trying to blow up Lloyd George’s country house located on a golf course.

Heckling is a proud old tradition that needs to be defended and kept alive by practicing it from time to time – just like Thomas Jefferson said about the Tree of Liberty needing to be watered periodically with revolution. In the election of 1884, the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland who had fathered an illegitimate child was frequently greeted at campaign rallies by Republican opponents with the baby-like cry, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” When picketing the White House by civil liberties advocates proved ineffective, feminist Lucy Branham followed President Harding on his cross-country summer tour in 1923 and heckled him about the release of American political prisoners. Herbert Hoover was heckled repeatedly at speeches on the campaign trail during the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, and his train and motorcade were pelted with tomatoes and rotten eggs.

The dull conformist 1950s were a slow decade for the fine art of heckling, but the rebellious Sixties saw a big-time heckling comeback as part of the overall repertoire of protest. Many times anti-war activists, including yours truly, confronted and heckled politicians and government officials about their responsibility for and complicity with the Vietnam War. As Lyndon Johnson escalated the war and protests grew, he found himself hardly able to speak in public without being drowned out by the chant, “Hey, hey LBJ! How many boys did you kill today?” This was apparently a factor, along with his poor performance in the New Hampshire Primary, in his decision not to run for a second term.

The election season of 1968 was intensely marked by equal opportunity heckling of the candidates. In September 1968, 200 anti-war protesters organized by the Peace and Freedom Party disrupted Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign rally inside a Seattle arena. They heckled him as a murderer and a fascist and chanted “Dump the Hump” as he pleaded for them to behave themselves like “ladies and gentlemen” and let him speak. After they were ejected, one of the protesters told a newspaper reporter: “Talk about free speech – we don’t think Hubert Humphrey is entitled to it except as an accused criminal on trial for murders of thousands of Vietnamese. He calls us ‘American-style Hitler youth.’ Well, let me tell you something — he’s Lyndon Johnson’s Goebbels.”

Richard Nixon was a favorite of hecklers. Tricky Dick deserved all he got and more, not least because his campaign had hired hecklers to disrupt speeches by his opponent for the U.S. Senate seat from California, Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 and did the same against his opponent for President, George McGovern, in 1972. Disabled Vietnam vet Ron Kovic sitting in his wheelchair interrupted Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1972 Republican Convention to denounce the VA’s abysmal treatment of Vietnam vets and what was happening in Vietnam as a “crime against humanity.” As the Watergate Scandal deepened, cries of “Jail to the Chief!” met Nixon at his public appearances and resounded in his ears from Lafayette Park on the day that he resigned the Presidency in disgrace.

Arguably the heckling most successful at drawing the ire of a politician and causing him to reveal his true inner character occurred in Binghamton NY on September 16, 1976 when a leering VP Nelson Rockefeller gave the finger to a group of protesters from the SUNY campus at a campaign stop for Robert Dole. They were calling out that vile rich man for what he indeed was – the “Attica Killer.” Rockefeller and uplifted middle finger were captured in what became an iconic photograph.

ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, in a desperate race against time to save lives in the face of cruel government inaction, heckled up a storm. During the 1992 presidential campaign, ACT UP activist Bob Rafsky confronted an angry Bill Clinton speaking in a Manhattan night club and demanded that Clinton do more than merely intone, “I feel your pain.” ACT-UPers heckled numerous do-nothing government officials. Following in that same tradition, earlier this summer a transgender Latina, Jennicet Gutierrez, heckled Obama at a White House LGBT Pride event over the mistreatment and sexual abuse of transgender people in U.S. immigrant detention centers. Sadly, she was booed by many of the LGBT luminaries who were in attendance, who have gone mainstream and left the ACT UP tradition behind in favor of sucking up to politicians instead of confronting them.

In terms of my own heckling “career,” I was one of a group of radical white college students from Michigan State who heckled the racist segregationist George Wallace when he came to Lansing, Michigan to campaign for president in 1972. With several classmates, I also confronted Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew and called him an “international outlaw” to his face when we caught him at the Lansing Airport. (In those days, you could get within a few yards, within easy pie-throwing distance.) Some of us next disrupted an appearance by Gerald Ford at Michigan State for pardoning Nixon. And I’m proud to have added onto my activist resume two hecklings so far of Bernie Sanders – once at a public meeting on the Yugoslav War at which I called him a “sell-out” for not opposing the war and again last year over Israel’s assault on Gaza as part of a loud cohort of Code Pinkers and Occupiers.

Code Pink has been doing a fantastic job inside the beltway and around the country of keeping the political heckling tradition alive speaking truth to power and demanding they halt their evildoing. They’ve developed and transformed this practice from an improvisational art into a virtual science.

Only several weeks prior to confronting Bernie at that now-famous, viral-videoed town hall meeting held in Cabot, Vermont, Code Pinkers had interrupted Condoleeza Rice where she was speaking to the new body of military cadets, GOP guests, and the general public at Norwich University. We yelled out “war criminal” at her for her part in promoting the Bush regime’s mendacious war against Iraq. Some local activists were disturbed that Bernie should be treated with similar disrespect given that “he’s on our side.” But is it likely, without the embarrassment caused by BlackLivesMatter women in Phoenix and Seattle, that his campaign would have started talking about structural racism? Getting Bernie to listen and pay heed to the peace community and address the vital topics of war, imperialism and U.S. support for Israel in his presidential campaign will take further interventions.

The fact is that heckling politicians and officials is about all that’s left of what passes for “democracy” in this day and age. Elections, at least at the national level, are totally bought and paid for. But because office-holders and office-seekers, along with collecting their paychecks and taking their directions from their corporate backers behind closed doors, do still have to go through the motions of appearing before the electorate every four years, it provides a moment of vulnerability for activists and citizens to take advantage of. (Wouldn’t it be a god-send if they could all just be booed right off the stage into oblivion?) So don’t miss your opportunity when one comes soon to a location near you between now and November 2016! Heckling politicians – and let’s not forget all those corporate criminals, too, although they rarely come out from their offices and boardrooms to be properly harassed – will not make the Revolution. But it sure can be fun! And the public controversy it often leads to can create a teachable moment about the real nature of the System.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.