June 4th, 2013
09:42 PM ET
10 years ago

First lady clashes with protester; threatens to leave event

(CNN) – First lady Michelle Obama had a rare run-in with an audience heckler Tuesday during a fund-raising event in Washington for the Democratic National Committee.

The outburst from the crowd distracted Obama at a point in her speech when she was speaking emotionally about children and their futures, prompting her to threaten to leave if the woman wanted to keep speaking.

"One of the things I don't do well is this," she said, according to a pool reporter who attended the event. Television cameras were not allowed inside.

Obama walked toward the protester, saying she could "listen to me or you can take the mic, but I'm leaving. You all decide. You have one choice," according to the pool report.

The protester was identified as Ellen Sturtz of the gay rights group GetEQUAL. She was calling on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors.

Sturtz was escorted out of the event, held at a private residence in northwest Washington. Tickets for the fund-raiser ranged from $500 to $10,000.

The White House, as it does with many events, released a transcript of her remarks Tuesday night. While the transcript includes the beginning of the first lady's response to the protester–"One of the things that I don't do well is this. Do you understand?"–the transcript does not quote the exchange between the two, which happened away from the microphone.

Early Wednesday morning, Sturtz said in a statement released by GetEQUAL that she had "lived and worked in the closet, hiding who I was in order to earn a living."

"I had planned to speak tonight with DNC officials but, as the First Lady was talking about our childrens' future and ensuring that they have everything they need to live happy and productive lives, I simply couldn't stay silent any longer," Sturtz added. "I'm looking ahead at a generation of young people who could live full, honest, and open lives with the stroke of the President's pen, and I was hoping that the First Lady would share my concern for all of our young people."

The interruption came less than two weeks after President Obama faced a Code Pink protester who loudly advocated for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison during the president's national security speech.

The president, who was making his remarks before cameras and a large audience, handled the situation differently than his wife's confrontation Tuesday night.

"This is part of free speech, is you being able to speak but also you listening and me being able to speak, alright?" Obama said upon the interruption. The president has used the tactic before when interrupted.

The woman, peace activist Medea Benjamin, kept up her protest, which also included a rebuke against American drone strikes that have killed civilians. Obama eventually diverted from his prepared remarks to address the situation head-on.

"The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to," he said. "Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said and obviously she wasn't listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong."

READ MORE: Obama heckler: 'Don't call it heckling'

As with most controversial moments, the first lady's exchange with the protester was met with mixed reviews on Twitter, but many embraced her approach.



Filed under: Gay rights • Michelle Obama
soundoff (1,039 Responses)
  1. trollol

    I can't imagine a white first lady confronting a heckler.

    June 5, 2013 02:31 am at 2:31 am |
  2. silvertop

    I thought it was for the extended summer vacation she is about to take. Oh, well.

    June 5, 2013 02:35 am at 2:35 am |
  3. Jim

    good for her

    June 5, 2013 02:38 am at 2:38 am |
  4. Chris

    Good for her!

    June 5, 2013 02:40 am at 2:40 am |
  5. NanookoftheNorth

    You go girl ! 'Bout time someone shut these rude protesters up !

    June 5, 2013 02:44 am at 2:44 am |
  6. billmosby

    Sturtz, eh? One of the meanings of the word (Sturz, non-anglicized German) is "overthrow". Coincidence? You decide, lol.

    June 5, 2013 02:56 am at 2:56 am |
  7. Anonymous

    good on you michelle why should you take that

    June 5, 2013 03:04 am at 3:04 am |
  8. Padric2

    Well, the woman got what she wanted. CNN just introduced the world to her group and it's purpose.

    June 5, 2013 03:16 am at 3:16 am |
  9. Nicole

    There is a difference between heckler and protestor. This would be heckling.

    June 5, 2013 03:17 am at 3:17 am |
  10. tom

    Oh so sad that Mrs. Obama cannot stand to be heckled. wahhhhhhhhhh

    June 5, 2013 03:26 am at 3:26 am |
  11. V. Blak

    Wow! Well @least the lady didn't throw a heel @ her head like G.W. LOL! Way to sttay classy Michelle:)

    June 5, 2013 03:34 am at 3:34 am |
  12. IpseCogita

    Odd. I really would have expected her to be better at dealing with folks like that.

    June 5, 2013 03:35 am at 3:35 am |
  13. NameZimmersjead

    Cheers for our First Lady, who is indeed a lady, and should be treated as such. Free speach is not a license for bad manners!

    June 5, 2013 04:08 am at 4:08 am |
  14. Mel Stricker

    What has happened to civility? Does a heckler really think that doing this will get them what they want or are they just nuts?

    June 5, 2013 04:14 am at 4:14 am |
  15. Jen

    Good for Mrs O, The Prez has always been on the side of Gay rights. Where is the respect of our president and his wife, By time they put disrespectful people on their place.

    June 5, 2013 04:21 am at 4:21 am |
  16. Darrell

    You go Girl!....I love you Michelle Obama.

    June 5, 2013 04:26 am at 4:26 am |
  17. Iamnotfooled

    Good job First Lady. They should respect you. You deserve it like all First Ladies before you. Put them in their place.

    June 5, 2013 04:30 am at 4:30 am |
  18. Deceit4200

    People never learn that they are hurting their causes by rambling on like lunatics.

    June 5, 2013 04:32 am at 4:32 am |
  19. Oliver A. Dyer

    Well done Michelle, ... you are not POTUS. The heckler should go to an event in which the POTUS is appearing.

    June 5, 2013 04:41 am at 4:41 am |
  20. Mike

    Glad to see the first lady handling business. I don't care if you are a "D" and "R" or independent. In my book, heckling politicians is pointless and never has any effect, but heckling the family members is just classless. Please don't make this a "D" or an "R" thing. I am a democrat, and I am offended at all of the disrespect shown to the president and his family. But its not because Obama's a Democrat, its because HE'S THE PRESIDENT. I felt the same way when G. W. Bush was in office. Where were those who clearly disliked him, and spoke ill of his abilities and policies, but that is par for the course of both sides of the isle. What offends me is when people Lied about bush and sought to venomously attack him with exaggerations and lies.

    Over the last 6 years or so the level of lies, manipulation, and exaggerations has increased to epic proportions. The level of disrespect by the media, and other politicians is ridiculous. I have a reasonable number of friends who breakdown about 40% liberal, 35% conservative, and 25% independent. None of my conservative friends believe half of what the conservative right wing pundits say, and none of the liberals belief what they hear on liberal outlets. Both of the groups know its all hype, smoke and mirrors.

    and while we expect a degree of that in politics, the level of its acceleration is evident when the media, politicians, and in this case advocates are targeting the first lady. To my conservative friends out there, I know you don't condone this. But we need your help to end it. United let it be known in our respective parties that this is unacceptable. And to those who feel so strongly against the president for what ever reasons, we need your help too... and you need ours. Why?? because if it becomes common practice in 2013, 14, and 15. What do you think will happen in 2016. We will have two candidates, and two families. If it becomes acceptable to bash the First Lady while she is in office, imagine what they will do to smear them before they are elected.

    June 5, 2013 04:41 am at 4:41 am |
  21. Anonymous


    June 5, 2013 04:42 am at 4:42 am |
  22. Debra

    I agree with her, she did not handle it well, not at all. But it's a tough situation if you are not use to it. I find it odd because she does do many speaking engagements, she has not been briefed on what to do with a heckler. Not the end of the world, life goes on...

    June 5, 2013 04:47 am at 4:47 am |
  23. Dikran

    These people will never stop. She should have been thrown in jail

    June 5, 2013 05:01 am at 5:01 am |
  24. ArgleBargle

    How rood!

    Glad they escorted the heckler out.
    Some people just don't know when to keep their mouth shut.

    June 5, 2013 05:04 am at 5:04 am |
  25. Kevin Moen

    At a private event where media are not permitted, what was the protester's point except to irritate. I am sure that at such events the First Lady would mingle and the protester could have expressed her request then. I am gay and have been an activist for 30 years, but I know that rude never works!

    June 5, 2013 05:14 am at 5:14 am |
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